Design Research and Thinking

My ongoing commentary on design can be followed here –

I treat archaeology as a branch, and the broadest, of design research – investigating across 200 millennia how design is at the heart of what it is to be human. You could call this

design archaeology

While I tend to use the term design in a rather loose way to refer to purpose, intention, significance and agency in making, we can certainly connect the emergence of the distinctively modern field of design with the growth of industrial manufacture from the eighteenth century. Design became a process most often separate from manufacture – creating a plan or specification for something, an artifact, system, service, or experience.

While designers work with mass manufacturing processes in the industrial design of everyday objects, they also deal with quite intangible issues of taste and style, functionality and desirability, safety and legality, the emotional impact of experience. Immediately implicated are the structures and cultures of modernity, class, gender, ethnicity – horizontal and vertical distinctions at the core of individual and group identities in an everyday world that has come to revolve around manufactured goods. Market competition throws emphasis upon innovation – developing artifacts that offer something new or different.


Wedgwood in 1770 – the first industrial designer

Then there are the different and sometimes competing design philosophies that have come to drive much design – notoriously, of course, modernist design where form is supposed to follow function.

More broadly, the term has come to be connected with particular skill sets and fields of application – architecture, software design, for example – and often occurring in studio teams. Human-centered design emphasizes how understanding people’s interactions with things, their experiences of the world, is the key to good design. Human centered design focuses on improving well-being, whether through the ergonomics of a chair or a user-friendly interface for a piece of medical technology. There is usually an ethical orientation, with innovation tied to improving people’s lives. This is where “design thinking” comes in: it refers to the transferable process of innovation at the heart of design – a process for imagining and realizing positive change that can be applied to anything.

So Bill (Moggridge) described a fourfold field of design:

design awareness – most people are quite expert in choosing assemblages of goods that help make them who they are and want to be – design awareness refers to awareness of how things are designed, as well as how to design our own lives

design skills – in industrial design and architecture these skills can be of a very high order and are developed in (studio) practice – car design, for example, typically involves large teams of experts in fields that range from mechanical engineering to materials science, via clay modeling (still used for prototyping), interface design, interior design (involving fabrics, texture, color), and a lot more

design thinking – the systematic and problem-oriented process for generating innovation

design research – focused on understanding the design process, historical and contemporary, or referring to the research behind much modern design.


Bernie (Roth), with whom I have taught classes in Stanford’s (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford), goes much further and identifies design with living itself, with an attitude or state of mind focused on innovation, agency and change. We are all designers now. For Bernie, design is about making plans for action. I think this is a great way to think of design.

We do live in a world concerned with change, not just the changes happening around us and to us. We are concerned now with our very implication in those changes (this is partly what I mean by agency). Our sense of human culpability, blame for what is happening in the world today, accompanies a call to accept responsibility and to change our ways. Design thinking presents itself as a candidate for doing just this – instigating change.

I certainly have a mission in this world of design. One story of contemporary design is how it has shifted from being a somewhat esoteric process of styling (making a product look more appealing, distinctive, significant, part of a look or brand, conforming to a design philosophy) to a collaborative process of problem solving that pays attention to users’ needs, expectations, experiences – our human, contemporary, and future needs, expectations, and experiences. As mentioned above, this is the rise of human-centered design, though really it’s about people-and-things, their entanglement, rather than a shift of attention away from products. My mission – to expand and enhance what we mean and understand by the human in such human-centered design. By looking back and around at 200 thousand years of our engagement with the world, tracking long term trends, offering grounding and context for contemporary concerns that often have far from contemporary origins, and, perhaps above all, exercising our archaeological imagination in design – the ubiquitous implication of memory, the past, temporal orientation, in who we think we are and where we plan to go.

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