Workshops as a Design Research Method

During the last three years I have run three series of workshops to collect information, create and evaluate the outcome of my thesis. Workshops as a research method are being used mostly in Social Sciences, as a qualitative approach. However, this thesis has used workshops as an action research approach for testing theory through practice. The workshops were designed following a cycle process between theory and practice, in which each cycle was progressively less general and more detailed than the one before it.

2008: Decision-making process
While previous stages of my research were focussed on the analysis of complex diagrams, exploring and understanding their internal structure, and defining their constitutional informational layers (how these diagrams organise information), 2008-workshops were orientated to collect information about people’s behaviour, and conceptual and visual commonalities of their decision-making processes. The findings were used as complementary data to define the final outcome of my thesis.

In order to obtain this information, opened questionnaires without fixed solutions were designed, following a Social Design method called Analytic Relational Surveys (Oppenheim, 1992). These questionnaires are mostly used to know how many (what proportion of) people (designers) have a certain characteristic, or follow a pattern or how often certain ways of thinking occur together.

In 2008, the first series of workshops took place in Basel, Switzerland and in Barcelona, Spain.

Drawings from the first workshop. September, 2008. Basel

Participants. 25 participants, ranging from 25 to 50 years old, responded these questionnaires. People coming from ‘opposite’ backgrounds were engaged to obtain different approaches to the  problem. The first group was students and professionals coming from the graphic design, visual communication and image theory fields. The second group was professionals and postgraduate students coming from scientific and biological sciences.

Workshop structure. The workshop was organised in two stages: analysis (25 minutes) and visualisation (15 minutes). The first stage was to read, understand and organise a given text responding to questions related to the following three criteria:

1. Informative criteria (Tufte, 1998): To identify the main idea and elements of a text in order to better understand the information to be communicated. Tufte describes three kinds of information that are key for depicting: numbers, nouns and verbs. What is the text about? What are the most important concepts that the text explains?
2. Communicative criteria (Bertin, 1983): To suggest the best way, order or strategy to visually communicate the information. Can the main concepts of the text be reordered for information processing purposes? how?
3. Universal criteria (Bertin, 1983): To suggest concepts comprehension following universal comprehension (known in every country, besides the spoken language) to specific comprehension (only understood in a specific city/place) parameters. The concepts of this level can be categorised in a universally acknowledged manner. Each person will agree in the same way that this is more than that and less that the other.

Participants had to respond to these criteria by listing words & concepts with information extracted from the given contents.
In the second stage participants had to draw mental representations and visualise the information, having only markers and A4 papers as tools. They did not have digital tools.

2009: diagram(a)s backstage
The information collected from literature & practice review, visual analyses and findings  from the workshops was used to create a set of guidelines for organising information, that proposes more than 30 essential variables to orientate designers when mapping complex information to obtain higher effective communication results.

Set of Guidelines being used by a participant during one of the workshops. October, 2009. London

The objective of 2009-workshops was to test the set of guidelines in situ with professionals related with graphic design, visual communication and information design fields.

October, 2009. Barcelona

Participants. 16 participants from different visual communication fields were engaged in the workshops, which took place in Barcelona and London.

Booklets A and B with brief and content. October, 2009. Barcelona

Workshop structure. Each participant was given a booklet with a design brief to respond (theme A or B). At the same time, participants were divided into two groups: one group used the set of guidelines and the other one did not use them. This second group is called control group (Oppenheim, 1992) and it is the reference to measure the results.

The workshops followed a three-stage structure:
1) Analysing: to assimilate content, separating the information into its constituent elements ideas, or principles.
2) Organising: to give structure or character to the constituent elements ideas, or principles. Stage considered the most important.
3) Diagramming: to visualise the constituent elements ideas, or principles and final outcomes production.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the guidelines with different contents, there were two kinds of content: A related with scientific/technical themes, and B related to socio/historical themes.

Spanish participants had 2 hours and 30 minutes to complete the three stages, while English participants had a fixed structure of 45 minutes per stage with 15, 10 and 5-minute breaks in between.

In general participants’ comments from both workshops about the application and usefulness of guidelines to map information and create diagrams were positives and encouraging. Moreover, the results obtained were highly positive as well, showing that groups who have used the guidelines created more effective outcomes.

2010: visual unravelling
In addition to the positive results, 2009-workshops also helped to identify some aspects of the guidelines that needed to be reviewed, such as concepts comprehension, kind of content and typology of users.
After reviewing these aspects, it was designed the last series of workshops, specifically focussed on testing again those points.

Participants. Two different focus groups:
1) One-day Workshop. 37 advanced students (20-27 years old) of information design.

2) Online Workshop. Professional information/graphic designers working in design studios or freelancing.

Workshop structure. To obtain the specific feedback required, points to be re-evaluated were divided into two tasks:
Task A. To analyse visual material such as diagrams, maps and other information graphics. A booklet with three diagrammatic images and an envelop with 8 (eight) information cards with one question each was given to each participant to facilitate the analysis. All concepts included in the information cards belong to sections D and E of the design tool (guidelines).
Each card had a question on the front related to the key concept. To help participants fully understand that concept, the back of each card contained a definition of the concept asked.

Task B: To visualise key technical concepts related to diagram creation included in the design tool (guidelines). There were given 4 (four) information cards containing concepts to be visualised to each participant. All concepts belong to section B of the design tool (guidelines).

Each card had a concept to be visualised on the front, and a theme, in order to help them focussed on understanding the concept itself and not wasting time thinking about a theme. To help participants fully understand each concept, the back of each card contained a definition of the concept asked in the front.

Task A: Each card has a question on the front related to a key concept. To help participants fully understand that concept, its definition is on the back of the same card. Task B: Each card has a concept to be visualised on the front, and theme to help them focussed on the concept itself, so they do not have to think about a theme. To help participants fully understand each concept, the back of each card contained a definition of the concept asked in the front. one-day workshop. January, 2010. London

Participant during the one-day workshop working on task B. January, 2010. London

The one-day workshop was again a great success and 37 students participated enthusiastically.  I am currently finishing the analysis of this workshop.

Special thanks to all participants from 2008, 2009 and 2010 workshops!

online workshop. I am still working on the guidelines evaluation with the second focus group: professional designers. For this, I am getting in contact to information/graphic design studios and freelancers to invite them to take part in an online workshop. The tasks are very simple, and I am sure they will not demand much time to complete.
Information collected from workshops will remain strictly confidential, as had happened with that of previous workshops. The identifiable data will be shared with no one other than the researcher and data will be made anonymous through a coding system only known to the researcher.

Professional designers who want to participate in this online workshop are more than welcome. Please contact me at

– Bertin, J. (1983). Semiology of Graphics. Diagrams, Networks, Maps. UK: The University of Wisconsin Press
– Jones, C.J. (1992) Design methods. Second edition. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold
– Oppenheim, A.N. (1992) Questionnaire Design, interviewing and Attitude Measurement. London: Continuum
– Tufte, E. (1998) Visual Explanations. Cheshire, Connecticut, USA: Graphic Press.


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