The traditional understanding of design as merely a practice-led artistic discipline has evolved into a more holistic view including social, ethical and cultural aspects. Arguably, design is a discipline: It has principles, methodologies and theoretical frameworks which designers use to solve problems and generate solutions. Traditionally, designers’ learning process has been linked to studios, open spaces, and hands-on and practice-led learning techniques with little theoretical basis. Therefore, there is an implicit organic approach to the design problem-solving process.
However, the emerging design fields, the use of the ‘Design’ term beyond or not so closely related to the Arts and Crafts domain (e.g. organisational design, financial design) and the increasingly adoption of Design thinking as the mindset and way to approach complex problems in various areas (e.g. business, health care, government) have been demanding a more robust or rigorous approach to solving design problems. One way of addressing this need has been by adding research to both design education and design practice.
While working on a different project, I came across Wood’s (2000) paper: The Culture of Academic Rigour: Does Design Research Really Need It?, which describes the meaning of rigour from highly theoretical and philosophical perspectives, but also sheds light on how rigour can influence design practice. Wood (2000) redefines the concept of the design studio, understood as a purely practice learning environment, and instead proposes the idea of a ‘Studio Theoria’ as “a shift away from academic rigour towards studio rigour” (Russell, 2002).
To start bridging practice and theory, Wood goes back to the basics. He highlights the need of writing and reading (sometimes actions barely considered in design practice) as a way for designers to develop critical and strategic thinking, analysis and reflection on their own actions and ideas:
“If [designers] cannot reflect deeply they will be unable to see the consequences of their actions and if they do not understand what they are doing we cannot expect them to take responsibility for it.”
Building on Wood’s work, Russell (2002) argues that there is an implicit component of rigour in design practice which is connected to the ‘long tradition of master and student’ education, and that has been widely exemplified within the Bauhaus philosophy and practice.
In short, both texts stress the need to add rigour to design practice, but indicate that it doesn’t have to be necessarily in the same way that is often understood in more theoretical fields.
So, how can rigour be added to design practice?
It can be added in many ways and in different parts of the design process.
The design process involves various stages (define, research, analysis, understanding, creation), and includes creative and more rational or systematic tasks. To define a problem, designers need to gain understanding of the problem situation by seeking and collecting information. Rigour plays a key role in these initial stages of the process in which designers gather, analyse and make sense of information: information seeking and analysis.
Information seeking: Data can be gathered through various methods. To obtain a broader and more accurate picture of the problem situation, desk research (i.e. literature research, case studies) is often complemented with field research (e.g. user-centred methods). When conducting user-centred field research, rigour can be added to any method by:
- Documenting & recording each step. This helps support analysis and conclusions as having something concrete to go back instead of relying solely on our memory increases credibility. In addition, it makes it easier for a peer or colleague to help with the analysis.
- Previously defining general aspects. Aspects and categories that need broader understanding are the skeleton of the method and hence need to be defined before the study is conducted. They will later be the pointers to help make sense of the data.
- Defining a data collection tool. This tool helps collect the necessary data. Most common tools are questionnaires, but more creative tools (e.g. cameras, drawings, postcards, kits) can be designed depending on the object & aim of the study.
- Taking notes of everything. Our own input and point of view is key. This will supplement and expand what users have said/done.
- Defining specific tasks and setting (short & long term) objectives (if relevant for your study)
- Triangulation. Collecting various types of data sets about the same problem but from different perspectives help reinforce findings and emerging themes. Written data sets from interviews & questionnaires can be combined with visual data sets from drawings & photos, or audio and screen capture.
Information analysis: Once we have a pile of information on our desks, the fun starts: we need to make sense of it. The sensemaking process involves findings patterns, and identifying habits and trends. Trends help understand the hidden or unsaid story in the data. When we are making sense of quantitative data, the process can be more straightforward as we can rely on percentages and statistics to construct understanding. But when we need to make sense of qualitative data, the process can be more uncertain. As with quantitative data, qualitative analysis also implies the search of trends, often referred to as the ’emerging themes’ of the data, and the discovery of a story. In this case, to obtain valuable results, we must ensure credibility and replicability. This is achieved when we add rigour to the analysis process of the collected data sets by:
- Reading, reading and reading
- Externalising, visualising, and evidencing the thinking process
- Comparing findings with previous studies (e.g. desk research)
- Making the analysis as transparent as possible
- Adding users’ quotes/testimonies to tell the story
- Using users’ actual words to tell the story
- Acknowledging things that didn’t work, things to improve, etc.
- Indicating from where conclusions are drawn
When a rigorous process is followed during conceptual design, designers experience less uncertainty and a higher degree of confidence in their ideas and proposals, as they are supported by either soft or hard evidence.
Rigour can also be added during the prototype part of the design process. This stage can be improved through adding precision in the execution of ideas and attention to detail. The International Style which was originated in Switzerland back in the 40s and 50s emphasised the relevance of visual rigour to design by adopting principles of alignment and grid systems (e.g. Müller-Brockmann’s and Gerstner’s work).
Being rigorous is a mindset or attitude towards the way we do things, which is not only related to academia. It is also related to a more systematic way of solving problems, which may lead to broader understanding and, therefore, conceiving and creating solutions that before we would have not even considered.
– Wood, J. (2000) The Culture of Academic Rigour: Does Design Research Really Need It? The Design Journal, Volume 3, Number 1, March 2000 , pp. 44-57(14)
– Keith, R. (2002) Why the culture of academic rigour matters to design research: or putting your foot into the same mouth twice. University of Hertfordshire, Social Science Arts and Humanities Research
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