A win-win situation for design theory and practice

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Key aspects that each community would benefit from learning from each other.

Much has been written and discussed about the gap between design practice (industry) and theory (academia), and how to bridge that gap has become a major current preoccupation. Although professional and research designers appear to be narrowing that gap by increasingly working on collaborative projects, little has been actually done to marry those communities. Misconceptions about what each community does and how each works are recurrent. Each time design is being practiced, researched or taught from one approach only and, therefore, excluding the other, the gap grows wider.

During the last decade I have been closely related to both communities. Thanks to having this inside view, I have learnt to appreciate positive and negative aspects of each. Now, instead of seeing both as extreme approaches to design, I see a strong complementarity between them. Below an overview of each community and a discussion of those key aspects that could be improved from a closer link between them.

Design Practice

Design is a practice-led discipline with robust trajectory in industry. Design practitioners’ experience and skills develop further by encountering varied range of situations and solving different problems day after day. Independently of the design role (in-house, freelance, self-employed, etc.), design practice is characterised by having tight deadlines, long working days, short nights, collaborative work, a strong aesthetic component, colourful studios, ambient music, and a drawer with cookies and chocolates (maybe this one only applies to me though). Most frequently, designers’ learning process is nurtured by peers and experiences. The design process involves constant liaison with internal and external professionals, problem understanding, conceptualization, production and evaluation of solutions. This scenario can sometimes be full of fun and others can be pretty stressful, with no enough time to think and conceive ideas. Many myths surround this community. Some of the frequent ones are that:

  • Designers make pretty drawings and focus only on form
  • Designers don’t support ideas with theories
  • Theories are not applied into practice
  • Designers don’t read books without images

Origin of the myths: Creativity and organic problem-solving processes seem to define designers’ behaviours. Practice-led and hands-on learning environments have set a trial-error working design mindset and methodology, in which there seems to be no room left for theoretical insights and hence they are not always considered in the process.

Willingness to change: Lately, this approach has been changing. Design studios and companies are adopting a more holistic thinking approach, acknowledging the relevance of research and theory, and questioning the design of purely formal-led solutions. The growing adoption of evaluation and usability user-centred methods, ethnographic studies, and other social research tools evidences the change.

But…: Taking into practice an unfamiliar approach takes time and learning. Methods aren’t being formally adopted or used with appropriate rigour. Not enough time is allocated to each research phase and therefore insights tend not to be always considered in later stages of the design process.

Design Research*

Likewise, design practice, design researchers solve problems (by answering a ‘research question’). Research environments vary significantly throughout the day and from centre to centre. Sometimes they can be very quiet places, sometimes can be quite noisy. Experts from different fields and disciplines work together and share knowledge, but there is also a strong social component involved. The research process starts with the definition and understanding of the problem to solve, followed by a learning phase. During this phase, researchers learn what has been done, sometimes to use as guidance, sometimes to use as a starting point for ‘what to do next’ and design studies. Then the studies (evaluation studies, user studies, etc.) are conducted and loads of data sets are collected. The data sets analysis is one of the most important steps of the process, often demanding significant amounts of time. Each step of the study must be documented and/or recorded to ensure credibility. When studying people, confidentiality, ethics and risk assessment approvals are necessary too. Decisions and findings must be based on results obtained from those studies, reason why rigour plays a key role. Findings and results are often shared when published or presented in conferences, meetings and seminars. Most frequent myths of design academics (and of academics in general) are:

  • Design researchers cannot design
  • There is no creativity involved in design research
  • Academic language needs to be complicated to be considered valuable
  • Academia is purely theoretical 
  • Academics are serious

Origin of the myths: There is a heavy theoretical component involved at the beginning of the process, i.e. reading and writing, and at the end in order to present findings and conclusions, i.e. writing. Communication cannot be ambiguous, requiring the use of specific terms and consistency. When reading and writing there is little interaction with peers, so yes, sometimes no one is talking.

Willingness to change: Inter and multidisciplinary projects are being proposed and funded. Collaborative projects involving various university partners are encouraging knowledge exchange and more active interaction. 

But…: To amalgamate knowledge takes time and effort from all parties involved. Some projects don’t make it until the end of the original plan, and only conceptual or working versions of outcomes are developed. Having excessively extended deadlines cause lost of momentum too.

Design Practice and Design Research

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Core stages of the problem-solving process, and how each community approaches them.

As mentioned at the beginning, design theory and practice are often described as opposed approaches, however they have similar processes and objectives. To name a few, both design practitioners and researchers:

  • Have highly productive days and some no so productive days
  • Work with creativity each day
  • Go through similar stages of the problem-solving process
  • See the user as having the main role in the process
  • Rely on parallel thinking
  • Work flexible hours
  • Work on multi / interdisciplinary projects
  • Work towards clear communication and thorough understanding

Learning from each other would be a win-win situation that would greatly benefit both of them.

Learnings from…

Academia: 

  • Allocate longer time-slots for conceptual design
  • Increase the use of rigorous user-centred and usability studies throughout the design process
  • Use findings and results to inform and guide the design process
  • Make evidence-based solutions
  • Get familiar with non-design related bibliography
  • Have more relax deadline

Industry:

  • Have tighter deadlines
  • Have an open mind to new views and approaches
  • Design more practice-led and hands-on studies and experiments
  • Engage in collaborative projects (in the broad sense of the word ‘collaborative’)
  • Develop prototypes into more refined stages
  • Increase the use of  visuals to inform meetings, outcomes, findings and results

Designers and researchers should learn how to work together and share they skills. Having a closer relationship, more fluent dialogue, and seeing each others’ skills as complementary are the first steps towards bridging the gap between theory and practice. This closer relationship will help both tackle problems and gain understanding more successfully.

*NB: To give a more detailed view of the design research community this description is mostly based on human computer interaction and engineering design-related models. The communication design research community (particularly information and graphic design) presents a different scenario than the one described here (For a more extended description, read here).

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Looking ahead: Design Practitioners-Researchers | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

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