Research through (Media) Art, Design, Architecture

The use of design artefacts in research is a contested topic which raises important questions about legitimate ways of knowledge production. We are witnessing an inflation of proposals and practices that try to cross-bread the fields or art, design and architecture with the practice of doing research. Rather than dismissing these proposals as pretence-research or uncritically pursuing project based research, we should be able to refine the definition and the expectations of such undertakings.

With two decades of discussion behind us, definitions of research in architecture, design and art begin to crystallise. Circulating between the subjectivity of art practice and legitimacy of different agents of knowledge production, this discussion has touched upon epistemology, philosophy, art theory and history, cultural theory but also institutional bureaucracy. Both research and art have sometimes felt “disrespected” in this debate. On one hand, academic institutions were (and still are) hesitant to fully admit artistic practice amongst legitimate research fields. Research is not a side effect of an artist’s activity but a sovereign practice. On the other hand, artistic practice has been rather unsympathetic of the efforts to intellectualise and institutionalise its product. Artists were often resistant towards rationalisation of their objectives and activity, seeing it more as an obstacle to expression than a way to discuss and share experience.

The second is probably one of the reasons there is so little input in the current discussion coming from actual art practice. Most of the contribution in form of essays, articles and dissertations came from scholars in established scientific fields who published diligently on the necessity to challenge the legitimacy of knowledge production in academic research. Nevertheless, they leave us with no clear idea about how one makes art in the research framework. Neither do they offer an articulated evaluation framework.

How does design generate (design) knowledge?

Design research has come to stand for several distinct research practices, whose common thread is the interest in and the use of design thinking to achieve (scientific) results. From an interest in design history and theory, through the research in advancement of practice, to the use of design artefacts as source of data, these different approaches outline a growing field under the general name of design research.

We can trace the beginnings or design research to the post World War II reconstruction period and particularly the development of mass production and mass markets. From standardisation to diversification, design practice was increasingly coupled with research. This research practice was, at first, aimed at optimisation of design processes and results but it gradually unfolded in different directions. The results of these research directions filled different intellectual niches, producing knowledge in the area of design problems, methods and processes relevant to the practice; and more recently, relevant to the perception of our environment and the general acting-in-the world. Thus design research does not necessarily generate design knowledge. While the focus of historical and theoretical research is indeed on the practice of (commercial) design; and some practice-involving research contributes back to the practice, there is a growing body of research done in the field of ‘wicked problems’ which addresses more general problems of experience, social interaction and phenomenology. The further away its scope is from the practice of design, the more contribution such research makes to general knowledge.

Origins and approaches

When speaking of ‘design research’ it is generally unclear whether it implies research into design, research through design or research for design. These three categories, borrowed from Christopher Frayling’s discussion on research in design and art are not mutually exclusive, but they do look for legitimacy in different fields.

While we are familiar with historical and theoretical research about design, the practice has had a more complicated relationship with research. In the 1960’s Herber Simon argued for a scientific legitimacy of design research by introducing a distinction on two types of sciences – the natural sciences (science as we knew it) and the sciences of the artificial (research activity centered around man-made artifacts) . While natural sciences kept an objective view of natural phenomena which they treated analitically, sciences of the artificial are characterised by synthesis and the ambition to intervene in the way things are, changing existing situations into preferred ones . By separating artificial from natural sciences Simon creates space for a hierarchical interpretation of ‘scientificity’ in these approaches while setting the outcomes of design research close to the practice.

Frayling’s view is a little different. He argues for a recognition of design research as a professional practice, or as he puts it ‘research with big R’. Nevertheless, something in his typology leaves us with a taste of hierarchy of importance or contemporaneity which favours cognitive tradition in fine art as an under-explored strategy that deserves attention. Frayling identifies research through design with the degree by studio project (awarded for example at RCA), characterised by research (results) communicated through the activities of art, craft or design. On the other hand, he tries to distinguish research for arts and design from research written with a small ‘r’, leading simply to the production of an artwork or design peice. Frayling’s writing is more of a call for a debate than a set of guidelines for research for design. Nevertheless, researches have picked up on Frayling’s discussion and a certain meaning of his initial call established over time. Note a shift in meanings – what for Frayling was research for design is considered research through design , and vice versa.

The purpose(s) of design research

The lack of concrete framework and evaluation criteria remains. There is a general agreement on the importance of this type of research amongst design research professionals . A study conducted by Zimmerman and colleagues showed research into design as the most commonly mentioned type of design research, but it was this other approach that is considered the most true to the nature of design practice. This compatibility with design practice is an important incentive to dedicate more work to explicating the role of artifacts in design research.
In the beginnings of design research studies, we find in Simon’s writings a well established idea that the purpose of design research is to improve design practice, with the focus on design process. Simon describes contemporary design knowledge as intellectually soft, intuitive, informal, and cook-booky . He distinguishes scientific from what he calls ‘professional knowledge’ (knowledge of doing something, as opposed to knowledge about something) and states that engineering disciplines (design is to be found amongst them) have only focused on sharing practical skills, thus they needed to make design theory explicit and precise in order to teach a science of design Nigel Cross saw the opportunity to employ scientific methods in design research in the area of practice too. According to him, it was about focusing on the study of principles, practices and procedures of design in order to contribute to the improvement of design practice .

In their recent publications, Kroes and Dorst also agree on the utilitarian function of design research for design practice. Kroes describes design research as normative and process oriented . He makes a clear cut between scientific and design research, the former driven by logical positivism and product oriented (with empirical claims, laws, theories and explanations as their outcome, tipically). Converesely, the centering on the process conforms to the improvement of design practice as the outcome of research. The focus of design research is on the design process itself, thus the outcome is knowledge in the area of this process.
Zimmerman offers a more open interpretation of the way design research can lead to design theory . He recognises two types of theory that can come out of design research: theory on design and theory for design. Different research categories dispose of different methods and have different outcomes. He constructs a more precise definition of research through design, with the aim to further formalize this type of research.

A multitude of literature in design studies repeatedly slips over the idea that designers research is a doctrine about the design process and design process only. Rarely does it talk about a design practice that can be employed together with critical thinking in order to generate new knowledge outside of the discipline, and not just put us in the prefered situation. Largely because of a lack of strong theory to guide practice but also the confusion around the purposes of research through and research for design, a new term was defined by Koskinen et al, in a book titled “Design Research Through Practice” . Constructive design research is a type of contemporary design research, aimed particularly at framing the experience of integrating the fields of design and research. Practically, constrcutive desgin approach means something was built within the research process and put to use for research purposes. Constructive design research approach is impure, experimental and based on contemporary theoretical frameworks that involve phenomenology, pragmatic psychology, research of emotions and experience.

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