Looking ahead: Design Practitioners-Researchers

“The Dancing Traffic Light” project (2014) is an example of applied research. The company Smart created an interactive crossing light to increase the number of pedestrians waiting for the light to change at intersections. The project reflects an understanding of the problem, the context and the audience’s needs. The solution is creative and engaging, and the results reflect a positive response. Making the thinking process and conceptual design (including mistakes!) of this project accessible to the design community would help improve design practice.

While ago, I came across an article tackling the gap between design research and practice. The article adds an interesting point of view to the ongoing discussion about bridging (or how to bridge) design theory and practice. Obrenović (2013) suggests that we should not see designers as practitioners or researchers, but as practitioners and researchers: practitioners-researchers or researchers-practitioners. This view reflects the need for a more holistic approach than the one taught in traditional design education, the one understood by the professional design community, or the one learnt in the academic community.

Practitioners-researchers “lay between practice and research (…) making (…) research accessible to practitioners and making practitioners voices heard by researchers.” The problem is that “small practitioners-researchers are not always recognised and valued,” although there is a mutual need between design practice and design research (here, here, here). This post will tackle how research can contribute to practice, and how practice can contribute to research will be discussed in a forthcoming post.

Research can contribute to practice in two ways:

  1. To improve design practitioners’ problem-solving, creative and technical skills. Specific approach, focused on the designer.
  2. To make more supported decisions, and work with an evidence-based design process. Broad approach, focused on design practice.

The above approaches are frequently confused or misunderstood; the first one getting more attention than the second one. So, here, we discuss the second approach: contributions of research to design practice.

The value of design research to design practice

If you asked a group of people whether there would be value on adding a layer of research into practice, everyone would probably nod and agree on its usefulness. However, in practice, the word research is still scary, and research practice is not a common part of the design process. This situation could be the consequence of:

  • Lack of appropriate environment. “Doing research as a [design] practitioner is still not easy” (Obrenović, 2013): the infrastructure is not always the appropriate, teams are relatively very small (designers are well-known for mult-tasking), budgets do not often contemplate conducting research or attending conferences (to learn and share), and research is not usually an explicit job responsibility.
  • Lack of appropriate knowledge and skills. Although some (big) design companies, agencies and studios do have a marketing team and conduct research, they lack of robust research skills as marketing research skills are not the same as academic research skills. This indicates that the problem is the way in which research is being conducted in design practice.

Using Zimmerman’s (2014) terminologies, research can be described as “cheap” or “expensive” based on the commitment, rigour, and level of usability of the findings in the rest of the problem-solving process. Due to lack of time or not being considered from the very beginning of the process, practitioners tend to conduct “cheap” research. Unless you have pursued an academic path, “cheap” research is also often taught in design education.

“Expensive” research skills help gain a bullet-proof baseline knowledge that supports decisions by providing evidence and data. If this baseline knowledge does not exist or is weak, decisions are made on assumptions, but not certainties. Obrenović (2013) adds that research kills obtained from a PhD or from working as a postdoctoral researcher “can bring to [design] practice the benefits of research approach, rigour, and discipline.”

Looking ahead

Design Practioners-Researchers / Researchers-Practioners better reflects the sets of skills that designers need

Design Practioners-Researchers / Researchers-Practioners would be better equipped to address the complexity of current problems.

Five ways in which we can start shaping the designer of tomorrow by adopting expensive research into our practices (Obrenović, 2013):

  1. Promoting transparency. Making case studies and “reasoning behind generalised claims explicit, public, and open to critical reflection and discussion, which enables receiving feedback of experts and colleagues from different communities.” This way the process becomes “applicable beyond original context and useful to others.” Mistakes and lessons can also be made usable and understandable to others as a way of improvement and reflection.
  2. Applying findings to process. Research findings and insights are gathered to inform the design process, but in order to be useful they should have a determinant role when making decisions at each step of the process.
  3. Making needs clear. Theories, methods and models for supporting practice and practitioners “fail because they were not conceived with a sufficient understanding of the nature of practice” and current problem complexities. Publishing findings from practice helps the research community to obtain deeper insights about relevant practical issues, and get a more realistic overview of the state of practice.
  4. Broadening implementations. “To be regarded as a research contribution, design activity should go beyond simply refining practice and also address theoretical questions and issues.” “In the process of generalising, however, a designer-researcher expands his focus beyond the current design situation, viewing the design problem, solutions, and procedures as instances of more general classes.”
  5. Accounting for and supporting research. Research strategies should be considered key tools for effective problem-solving. Designers should not be shy to add extra budget and hours to conceptual design and research. Clients should expect designers to deliver evidence-based solutions, and therefore allocate sufficient time for that to happen in their timeframes.

Design practice “is rich and still hugely unexplored area.” The way we work as design professionals reflects the way we have learnt and were taught. If the usefulness of “expensive” research would be taught from an early age in education, it would then see more support among the design community and other disciplines. “Practice needs to become more aware about the value of applying research, rigour and discipline, and the research community must be more open for attempts of ‘small’ researchers-practitioners to join them as equals. Educational institutions also need to think about how to educate [design] researchers-practitioners, rather than researchers or practitioners. It also requires more continued efforts of small researchers-practitioners to do high-quality research, contribute to the research community, and call attention to their problems.”

– Obrenović, Ž. (2013) Research and practice: the curious case of ‘small’ researchers-practitioners. Communications of the ACM, Vol. 56, No. 9 (September 2013), pp. 38-40.
– Stolterman, E. (2008). The nature of design practice and implications for interaction design research. International Journal of Design, 2(1), 55-65.
– Zimmerman, J. (2014) Reforming Undergraduate Teaching: Past, Present, Future (Lecture) NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching.


  1. Pingback: Changing times for information design | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

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