The Impact of Design Research in Other Research Fields
"Design research is increasingly weak in comparison with other fields; without action to increase scientific, theoretical, and methodological rigour there is a real possibility of the field being superseded and becoming obsolete through lack of impact.”
This is an excerpt from “Developing Theory-Driven Design Research,” an article by Philip Cash that appeared in Design Studies (May 2018). We spoke with him about this article and his views on design research, with the goal of initiating a larger discussion about the rigour, relevance and impact in design research. Cash is Associate Professor in Management Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark. Along with his co-authors, he is the recipient of the Design Studies Best Paper Award in 2017 for a previous article.
Let’s start with what might be the hardest question – how do you define design research?
Here’s my attempt: design research is the scientific study of the phenomenon of design and the activity of designing.
What’s your paper about?
I express concern about the strength of design research. We struggle to build new theory and this is holding us back. We’re ready for a new way of doing things and to develop more theory-driven design research!
How did you come to this conclusion?
I reviewed articles in six design research journals, looking at the theory and methods used and how theory develops over time.
What’s evidence of a strong body of research?
There would be a literature stream on methods, detailed review papers about major theories and constructs, meta-analysis, consistent use of terminology, and standards of good practice.
And design research doesn't have this?
Not really! Although there’s lots of great work in design research, I haven’t seen structured reviews, consistent reuse of theories or clear standards. We also need to have a serious discussion on research ethics. For example, exploring systematic bias and problems like over focusing on positive results.
Are these issues unique to design research?
Every field goes through a process of research development. We could learn a lot by looking at what other fields have done or are doing. As an example, education could be a comparable field because of their theory-practice relationship. They’re also at a similar phase of research development.
What would you recommend to move forward?
Individual researchers need to be explicit about the theory and constructs they’re using. My second point might seem obvious, but we also need to write expecting to be read! Clear presentation of research and results is really important.
What role can organisations, institutions and publishers have?
Their leadership can make a huge difference. They should initiate discussions on research expectations and establish best practices, including theoretical and methodological standards. They could also aggregate data and develop theory databases.
What’s next for you?
I’m starting a deeper dive into theory development and methodology in design research through a massive review of literature. I’m also looking forward to having discussions on rigour in design research.
Write your comments below or contact Isabel (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have thoughts on this interview. The DRS Online would like to prepare follow-up articles on this important topic.