Types and approaches of (Design) research

Now the term practice-led has become a common term for me, but not before I started my PhD research I realised that there were different types of art and design research. Up to that time, I thought that all investigations had to be ‘practice’ as their aim was to develop ‘something’. I had in mind the scientific model of research, of course (I grew up surrounded by science!). But then I learnt that an investigation could be led by practice and/or by theory. That’s why the first time I heard the terms practice-led and practice-based I thought there were synonyms to refer to a type of research opposed to a theory-based research. However, they refer to different types of research.

This terminology can be applied to any practical or theoretical discipline according to the type of approach, objective and purposes that are being analysed. In terms of Art and Design research, both traditional empirical scientific research in which artefacts provide evidence for the conclusions in a written dissertation, but they do not lead the research process; and entirely theoretical research (i.e. conducted in the library) such as research into History of Art and Design are considered research without practice actions involved (Frayling, 1994). However, other types of Art and Design research have the creative production, the practice, as the key component. According to the role of practice within the research process, these types of research can be practice-based or practice-led (or practice-centred, Rust et al, 2000).
– Practice-based research involves the analysis of productive processes of Art and Design projects or the analysis of artefacts, but not necessarily the production of original artefacts (Scrivener, 2009).

– While, in practice-led research, the production, application and evaluation of creative work (practice) leads the whole process of research; action research strategies are employed to extract specific data and test theories (Frayling, 1994). In other words, investigations with this approach use practice to understanding and informing the research process. Rust et al (2000) explain that the outcomes of these investigations may contribute to the practice of the discipline they are immersed. For both practice-led and practice-based action research is often the central methodology used.

Frayling (1994) explains action research as a systematic approach to generate and validate new information, ideas, procedures or understanding through practice. Often, when a professional designer (practitioner-researcher) is conducting an investigation, action research can be a useful approach for its practice-led and problem-solving emphasis (Bell, 1999). In action research, theories are not validated independently and then applied to practice but are validated through practice and then reviewed (Elliot cited in Bell, 1999). This process can be understood as a ‘test-error cycle’.

Similarities between types of research and Frayling's research approaches.

These three types of research—practice-based, practice-led and theory-based—have similarities to Frayling’s (1994) research approaches, based on the methodologies, processes, initial aims and final objectives of a design investigation: research into design, research for design and research through design. Research into design involves pure theoretical investigations where the main objective is to understand a context or history from different perspectives such as design criticism and historical research; while research for design involves the development of new artefacts of which the goal is to visually communicate new knowledge, but the practice does not lead the whole research process. Finally, research through design involves both understanding the process of design itself and developing new design actions, artefacts or methods.

Put together the three types of research and Frayling’s approaches, theory-led research can be seen as research into design, practice-based research as research for design, while practice-led research has points in common with research through design. According to this, my PhD research is defined as a practice-led investigation where its final outcome is the production of an original artefact in addition to the written dissertation. The methodology of my PhD research was centred in action research strategies that permitted to evaluate theories through practice-led strategies and refined them at each research stage of the process.

(I am sure that within theoretical investigations there might also be a classification according to their characteristics, but this is a subject for a different post!)

– Bell, J. (1999). Doing your research project: a guide for first-time researchers in education and social science. Buckingham [England] ; Philadelphia : Open University Press
– Frayling, C. (1993/4) Research in art and design. Volume 1, number 1. Royal college of art
– Rust, C. Chamberlain, and P. Roddis, J.  (2000) A Practice-Centred Approach To Research In Industrial. Design Proceedings of Design Plus Research Conference, Politecnico Di Milano
– Scrivener, S.A. (2009) The Roles of Art and Design Process and Object in Research. Reflections and Connections. On the relationship between creative production and academic research. University of Art and Design Helsinki and authors. Pp. 69-80


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  3. Zemenu

    The points you raised are very important. Please add about the difference between theory-led and non-theory led researchs.
    Thank you in advance!!!

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