Why should one do design research?

The following is one amongst the top 10 essays read at International Conference on Research into Design’ 2011

Lets rephrase this question to read as “What is the value of carrying out an activity like design research?” Possibly one can then find an answer to “Why should one do design research?” For a large part of research history, research as a field seems to be dominated by natural sciences. A surge for specialization in the earlier quarter of the 20th century with the advent of industrialization also reinforced the notion of research as an activity integral and central to natural sciences. This perspective clearly demarcates a stark distinction between sciences and other human activities viz. design, art. It was believed that science and other disciplines (creative, arty or designerly) could never share a common dictionary and thus there could be no communication possible amongst them. But in the recent past, especially post 1970; there have been attempts to bridge this gap. Talking alone of design, it is realized that there could be forms of knowledge peculiar to this discipline.
As evidences to above claim, Nigel Cross (Cross, 1999) records a growth of research based journals in design over the last 10 to 15 years like Design Studies in 1979, Design Issues in 1984 and Journal of Design History in 1988. He quotes Bruce Archer’s definition of research from Design: Science: Method conference of Design Research Society in 1980, as “a systematic inquiry; the goal of which is knowledge”. While the former part of the definition might be contestable on grounds of choice of methods of performing a systematic inquiry; it is probably in the later part of this definition that we look for clues to find relevance of doing design research. We lay our emphasis on design as a discipline which can contribute a rich body of knowledge. It has always been seen as an act of creation- deliberate and conscious which asks of a designer (or anyone who gets in to an activity like designing) to think of contexts in great detail before proposing a possible solution to the problem at hand. It is thus more the process of design with all its complexity and variables than the designer or the designed solution, which is relevant. We acknowledge that we could possibly say this only in the light of design activities which cater to day-to-day shaping of human experiences and environments but not for “elite high designs” by few professionals.
We can now state reasons for doing design research. We believe that design research has the potential of establishing a conversation between different disciplines. Although still at its nascent stage but it is doing this by attempting to draw on methods and tools in use by natural sciences and other disciplines like psychology, social sciences to devise research methods of its own. This is synonymous to the discussion of “breaking the disciplinary matrix” by Kuhn; something which he regards as essential to bring a paradigm shift. May be utopian but as design researchers, we believe that interdisciplinary learning is essential for the growth of knowledge and design research can do this. On the other hand we also see a great value of design research to the development of design itself. Design, in the form of design research is learning to subject itself to a wider criticism and review and to a practice of acknowledging different sources of influence and origins. This brings a wider understanding of the context along with an ability to filter out any totalitarian or relativistic solution. We look forward to bring more insights into future discussions based on these notions of design research and its implications.
Cross, N. (1999). Design Research: A disciplined conversation. Design Issues , 5-10.