MDes Talks: Design Research (Not) as We Know It

Jane Fulton Suri once said, “Successful designers are keenly sensitive to particular aspects of what’s going on around them and these observations inform and inspire their work, often in subtle ways.”

Research “In Context”

design research not as we know it

For the past two weeks, our class in Research and Analysis for Design has been discussing contextual research methods in a design process and the groups have been applying them to their project. Unlike in scientific approaches, where scientists take a “variable” to a laboratory for examination, researchers in design bring their work space outside in the field – this is called fieldwork or design ethnography. They immerse themselves in actual situations and dynamic cultures, unboxed out of the four corners of their studios. They are to observe phenomena in their natural setting, to talk to spontaneous people and to be intrigued with less-obvious patterns. Eventually, after some design thinking, which is not only limited to developing creative ideas, but will also involve analysing, implementing and reflecting on them, these findings would produce new answers and surprisingly more questions, reinforcing curiosity which is the springboard for creativity.

Collecting Information and Inspiration

design research not as we know it

Moreover, design researchers are not to be limited to conventional ways of gathering data, such as interviews, surveys and focus group discussions. Approaches can be as casual as probes or as inspirational as mood boards and collages. As far as data collection goes, they may also get ideas from methods of different fields in sciences. Although these methods may be diverse in terms of context and materials, there is one thing that unites them – information is drawn straight from the participants’ words and actions.

And these two points are the common stumbling blocks for designers.

In Practice

design research not as we know it

I remember the times when I was tasked to design an advertising campaign for a certain brand. I often got bogged down with shallow ideas, which largely sprang from common insights and orthodox understandings. There were possible explanations for this struggle: 1) I did not study our market or even if I did, I simply relied on articles from the internet, where experts share their view on people, 2) I already had an impression of the subjects and it was inevitable for me to confine them or my research to this presumptive picture or 3) a potpourri of both, which was the worst scenario.

Fleshing out on the first reason, I noticed how whenever we research for a project, we usually sit down, look at books, search online and/or study previous works. This is not to say that these materials mislead us, since there are no universal restrictions in doing research when it comes to methods and references anyway. However, we miss the whole picture when we do this method routinely. The knowledge we gripped is constrained by what is fed to our mind, which most often than not are just bits and pieces of what we want to communicate with.

design research not as we know it

Alternatively, by stepping out to search for answers ourselves, we discover more and understand people better. Settling with what is provided for us should be the last option. We continue our quest to uncover truths ourselves, even though the work would seem like an impossible one at first. As much as possible, we are to test a myriad of routes to see things from different vantage points. Only when we have achieved this practice can we be proud to call ourselves researchers in the end.

The second one is more often than not unrecognisable. Perhaps because of time constraints or the scarcity in resources, we tend to presume answers before we understand how things actually are; thus hand-picking only the details that back them up and throwing the opposing truths away. Whether we like it or not, we are not in the position to pull the strings of what people’s thoughts and behaviour are. Genuine experiences, both prior to and subsequent to our study, are from unscripted people. This is why human-centered design, where people and their needs and aspirations are at the core of the design process,plays a big role in generating solutions. Rather than staging them into own imagination, it makes more sense to align our inspiration, ideas, implementation and feedback (in essence everything we do during the design process) open-mindedly, with their reality.

The Challenge Ahead

design research not as we know it

After having provided these reasons, I want to invite you, readers of this post – whether you are a designer, a researcher, a scientist or an entrepreneur – 1) to break away from your comfort zone, 2) to forget about your impressions of the world and the people around you, 3) to just dig deep to something different or unnoticed and get to know people from a different light. Let yourselves be inspired by the small details of the everyday and take your newly-found understandings with you to the everyday ahead.

Quote from: Fulton Suri J. (2011). Poetic observation: What designers make of what they see. In A. Clarke (Ed.), Design Anthropology. Springer: Vienna.

Photo Credit: Margaux Tan

Posted by Margaux Tan – Margaux Tan started her design career as an art director in one of the leading advertising agencies in the Philippines, creating campaigns and solutions that would benefit the brands and the consumers. She is currently in her first year, taking up Master of Design (Design Strategies), in the hopes of improving her creative and critical expertise.
MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.