Article Comments: “The Complex Field of Research: for Design, through Design, and about Design”

Frankel, L., and M. Racine. 2010. “The Complex Field of Research: for Design, through Design, and about Design”, Proceedings of the DRS 2010 in Montreal, Canada

Racine and Frankel’s article, “The Complex Field of Research: for Design, through Design, and about Design” looks to provide a framework for categorizing and ordering the ways that design research is conducted along with the types of knowledge each order of research generates. The categorization of ways of doing design research is based on a literature review which builds on the work of a number of key authors (Bruce Archer, Richard Buchanan, Nigel Cross, Christopher Frayling, and Ken Friedman, among others). The article is primarily an outline of perspectives, and as such its major contribution to the field of design is by organizing and mapping the kinds of conversations which are happening in the field.

Moving from the systematic, scientific approach to design research, towards wicked problem theory, the authors begin by presenting a short history of design research (p. 2). Their history, which serves as the foundation of their literature review, culminates in the interpretative paradigm derived from the expansion and proliferation of the ethnographic method and constructivist post-modern theory (p. 2-3). Still in practice today, according to Racine and Frankel, the constructivist, interpretative approach to design research is primarily concerned with the ways that objects are situated “in the lives of individuals and in society and culture” (p. 3). It is from this interpretational approach to design research that several discussions have emerged and which the authors seek to map out. Interesting enough, while the author’s remark upon the fact that “design” itself is a disputed term, they derive their own definition of the term to a simple etymological dissection (p. 3).

The authors identify three unique forms of knowledge generation in design in their literature review: clinical research, applied research, and basic research (p. 3-4). Clinical research focuses on specific cases of designing (and of design problems); applied research focuses on “classes of design problems”; and basic research addresses fundamental principles and theories about design from an empirical perspective (p. 3-4). The authors further segue into additional classification of these kinds of knowledge generation as products of specific types of design research.

Clinical research is classified as knowledge generated by research for design, essentially knowledge generated through a specific design application. Likewise, applied research is knowledge generated through design rather than for it. This applied research is part action and part reflection, which generates knowledge about design research practices through a reflective engagement with the practices themselves (e.g. whether design researchers see themselves as experts or collaborators) (p. 4-5). The final category of knowledge generation for design research, basic research, is categorized as research about design. Such research is often generated exogenously from the discipline of design itself, generated from other disciplinary perspectives like psychology, economics or anthropology. These perspectives often provide a commentary or critique about design research practices, the nature of design behaviour and activity, and the dynamics of problem solving through design research (i.e. how designers solve some problems by creating other problems) (p. 7-8).

According to the authors, these three modes of knowledge generation join to create a kind of flow of knowledge between research for design (i.e. specific knowledge), research through design (i.e. generalized knowledge), and research about design (i.e. theoretical knowledge) in a kind of cyclical process whereby theoretical knowledge about design serves to inform both directed design research, and reflective activity on that research process. As they model here (p. 9):

Map of design research categories

The authors work is generally straightforward, but the contribution to knowledge in the field is somewhat lacklustre. The authors only organize existing conversations about the kinds of knowledge generated by ways of doing design research, and in fact provide very little explanation as to the rationale for choosing certain authors’ work over others, as the basis for organizing the literature review. It is clear that this article is meant for an audience which already has solid exposure to the different kinds of knowledge generated through design, but doesn’t necessarily understand how it fits together (a bit of a niche, I would expect). Similarly, though I may be nitpicking this point, that while the authors remark upon the lack of consensus surrounding the definition of design, they themselves fall into a simple etymological definition – it is unclear as to how this English-language-derived definition converges or diverges from design defined in practice (or from other scholars’ definitions).

The second issue I take with the article is the relationship between the types of knowledge discussed. The authors indicate that basic knowledge (or theoretical knowledge) informs both applied and clinical knowledge, while clinical knowledge and applied knowledge inform each other circling a nexus of “praxeology” which is briefly identified as something referred to the “nature of design activity” (p. 4) (something nearly completely unexplored in the article for something ostensibly so significant to the way that each type of knowledge relates to each other).

The issue with the diagram presented on p. 9 (and its nearly-absent explanation) is that it has no convincing rationale – one might have just a well organized the elements into a kind of pyramid instead, where each of the elements feeds into each other element and backwards; a model in which basic knowledge (or knowledge about design research) forms at the base, categorical knowledge at the middle tier, and clinical knowledge at the point (or maybe it forming a series of pyramids with multiple small points). The rational for this thinking is that each element necessarily informs another (one cannot have applied knowledge without basic knowledge, or clinical knowledge without applied knowledge).

Applied knowledge (knowledge through design) might be more effectively positioned as a kind of praxis itself rather than as one equal part of a trinity of knowledge types. It is my understanding that we can never have clinical design research without mediating basic knowledge through praxis, and therefore through design itself.

Racine and Frankel’s article is a more or less comprehensive map of discussions about in design research and the kinds of knowledge that certain activities generate. It nonetheless brings nothing new to that discussion besides organization, and is faced with a shortfall of information about their rationalization for that specific organization.

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