Building a Culture of Design Research

Meredith Davis

NC State University


Research education in design is a timely topic given the current trajectory of design as a profession. Arising from trades, the field has developed over the last half century, now showing most of the behaviors that are common to well-established professions: documented history; code of ethics; interest in methodology; growing body of literature; and developing criticism. The work yet to be done, however, is to build a mature culture of design research, as all professions have individuals whose primary work is to generate new knowledge that becomes the basis of practice. And this is an effort that can be accomplished only through a partnership between professionals and educators.


If our discipline were medicine, we would look to the practice for guidance. For example, how many patients have been discharged from hospitals with type II diabetes as part of their diagnoses tells us something about the urgency of the obesity epidemic. There is some agreement in the field and in society that this issue is important and funding opportunities reflect that consensus. The standards for judging the quality of research, whether in the social or basic sciences, are in place. And the outcomes of such research are reported to the public and guide the recommendations of practicing physicians. (Davis, 2012)

But design has no common understanding within the field of what is meant by research, no unified theory guiding practice, few research methods that haven’t been borrowed whole ─ cloth from other disciplines, and little recognition by practice and the public of the value of design research findings. (Davis, 2012)

In a 2005, Metropolis Magazine survey of 1,051 U.S. design professionals, faculty, and students, respondents’ definitions of design research ranged from studies of user behavior to selecting colors from ink swatches. For most undergraduate students, research means library retrieval only and focuses on the subject matter of their design, not on the characteristics of users or context. When asked whether there should be a unified theory of design guiding research, the overwhelming majority of Metropolis’ respondents said, “No.” And when ranking potential research topics by importance to the field, respondents selected sustainability as their number one priority, but ironically, placed systems theory at the bottom of their lists. Clearly the field ─ at least in the US ─ is confused about what might constitute a research agenda and, if the popular design magazines are indicators, what role research education should play in the evolution of the design disciplines.

Today I’d like to address four topics in an attempt to untangle some of these issues:

  1. What about the contemporary context argues for design research?
  2. What is the nature of research education?
  3. What role can the profession play in furthering research development?
  4. What is worth doing in design research?


Contemporary design problems are increasingly complex and the goal today is not to simplify things, as we did under modernism, but to manage them. Complex problems require collaborative work by interdisciplinary teams. Design is no longer at the cosmetic end of a decision-making food chain but a necessary partner with a variety of disciplinary experts. Among those experts are users, who play an expanded role in the development of content and form; increasingly, we design with people rather than for them. And because people are now involved as co-creators, the designer’s work shifts from crafting discrete physical artifacts to developing tools and systems through which others create their own experiences. Because this work responds to a rapidly accelerating technological evolution, the stopping point for design moves from being “almost perfect” to “good enough for now.” And as a result, the relationships among objects, people, activities, and their settings constantly change, extending the demand for research that informs design decisions. (Davis, 2011)

There is, therefore, no shortage of research opportunity in this landscape for design practice. Cognitive scientist and design author Donald Norman proposes domains within which we might conduct research and I’ve added a couple to his list. The challenges for design are to decide which of the many pressing research issues within these domains are most worthy of our immediate attention and to prepare the researchers who will tackle these problems, either as research-informed design professionals or specialists for whom research is their primary activity. Here is the list of possible research topics:

  • How designers think
  • What people want and need
  • What the context demands
  • How design is produced and distributed
  • The effects of design action on people and conditions
  • Appropriate tools and methods for understanding these issues
  • What is the nature of research education?

Although professional bachelor’s degrees have the mission of preparing students generally for entry to practice, as faculty we can also develop in young students the predispositions that make them sensitive to important research issues. Achieving this awareness, however, is not without obstacles.

Few undergraduate design students, especially those in single discipline colleges of art, engage in original disciplined inquiry intended to inform design decisions, nor do most learn how to read and apply research findings from other fields. Starting with first-year foundation courses, undergraduate curricula generally infer that the way to begin work on a design problem is by drawing, that solutions reside in an abstract visual language, and that reading and writing belong primarily to the domains of history and criticism. General education is usually proximate to but not integrated with design study and depends entirely on the resources and general requirements of the institution. Design faculty rarely make explicit use of content and skills acquired from outside the design curriculum, except to “pour it into formats” as the hypothetical subject matter for design projects. (Davis, 2008)

Despite the complexity of the contemporary environment for design, therefore, little about beginning design instruction acknowledges the importance of relationships among objects, users, and context. Nor does it address the systems‐level scale at which today’s problems exist.

Instead, there is a longstanding assumption among graphic design educators that students’ primary learning task is about fitting form to content, predictably in discrete objects separated from a context of use. I recently reviewed an undergraduate program in which students were asked to design for a social movement on campus. The faculty assigned a poster, postcard, and book on the topic as the outcomes of the project and these were to be organized into a cohesive graphic system. When I interviewed a student from the class, I asked him what role a book might play in furthering student activism. He answered with a detailed description about how he could streamline production in time for a protest march. In other words, the student knew something about the social content and how to make books but not much about how social movements are organized or about the people to be persuaded to social or political action. His response about speeding up production was a hint that, instinctively, he doubted the relevance of books for achieving the goals of a protest movement. But unfortunately, the learning objective of the faculty was about formats and graphic identity, not about how to achieve change in a social system through design.

More recently, we’ve added coursework in interaction design to traditional curricula, as if design hasn’t always been about the interaction of people with reading systems, technological systems, social systems, and so forth. Massimo Vignelli’s design of the Audubon Field Guide to Birds is as much about the use of a database as is any website. But we have isolated the study of dynamic media from that of print and environmental design in ways that tell undergraduate students that these types of practices have few overlapping concepts.

If we shift the focus of projects from subject matter and specific formats to user experience and the consequences of design in larger systems, we make immediately apparent to students that a robust understanding of people, activities, and their settings is a necessary prerequisite to design action. This is not to say that the physical attributes of design objects aren’t important, only that they are a means to accomplishing some goal beyond that of pretty things and that they must be justified in terms broader than their own internal structure.

Student project example: This concept map is the first assignment given to undergraduate graphic design majors at NC State. They are assigned an object and supported with an array of books on the reserve shelf of the library. A series of prompts guide their reading and visualization. Their task is to map the context in which the object resides; the physical, technological, cultural, and social systems that shape its form, as well as the cognitive demands of its use. In other words, from the very beginning of their studies, undergraduate students are confronted with complexity and they learn mapping as a way of sorting out the relationships among components in large systems. We have three years in which to develop these students’ formal skills but it is crucial that such skills evolve within an understanding of users and context.

In the projects that follow, students are asked to frame problems within areas of the map. In other words, their assignments include not only artifacts but also problem definitions whose scope is open to reflection, criticism, and the need for research. So the curriculum in this case is organized not by increasingly complex artifacts or in a progression from abstraction to application, but by different entry points into very real complex systems.

Student project examples: Another significant characteristic of this curricular approach is the shift from designing for content to designing for experience. At the next level students are asked to develop systems of interaction, branding, and service. They are assigned behaviors that are the affordances of the system: wayfinding, customizing, searching, curating, and exchanging or bartering. In other words, their target is the activity the system makes possible.

A small portion of undergraduate students eventually enroll in master’s programs where the dominant educational model ─ borrowed from the studio arts ─ addresses the refinement of practice-oriented skills and portfolios. Typically, students pursue personal development through self‐defined investigations, often completing their degree requirements through independent study and occasional meetings with other students for critiques and seminars on current topics in design. More rarely is there specific graduate-level curriculum content, negotiated among faculty and delivered with consistency to all graduate students. (Davis, 2008)

Still other programs try to overcome the shortfalls of undergraduate education or prepare change-of-career students for entry-level positions in the field. In many of these schools, graduate students sit in the same classrooms with undergraduates and are simply expected to do more or better than their less experienced peers. In both types of programs, it is often difficult to explain how graduate study develops exportable concepts or brings significantly different benefits to professional practice. Hence, the periodic article in Communication Arts in which a famous New York designer boasts that he got where he is without the benefit of graduate study, so what value do master’s degrees really hold for the profession anyway.

There are a few programs in the US that develop “research-ready” master’s students for evidence- driven professional design practices, academic careers, or further study as doctoral students. The students from these programs who enter the field do so with a deep understanding of design as well as skills in using research that informs design decisions, in contrast to their counterparts in marketing and the social sciences who often struggle with the implications of findings for design action. Graduates who pursue teaching positions find themselves ahead of their peers in addressing the research agendas of universities, where the pressure to secure funded, empirical research opportunities increases with each year.

Of particular concern to the field, however, is the degree to which recent master’s graduates are hired into faculty positions with no research experience. Not only are they unprepared for the research demands of the contemporary academic environment, but they have few skills through which to develop the research predispositions of their undergraduate students. And in the absence of such leadership, other fields step in to claim expertise in what was once the domain of design.

Student project examples: At NC State, master’s students begin thesis work in their third semester, following studios and seminars in cognition, culture, and the social implications of technology. Their first task is to define a researchable question on a topic that is both situated in a context but exportable to other contexts. Their literature reviews and observations produce detailed concept maps that are built on propositions. These maps aren’t for communication to others but a way of visually sorting readings and fieldwork into meaningful clusters so that students can isolate particular concerns for further investigation.

In the case of master’s students, this is research through making in which they speculate on the nature of a design principle, method, or strategy. They’re not equipped with the background necessary for testing or claiming particular outcomes that will inform others’ work, but they do have an obligation to use the project as a demonstration of fruitful areas for further research and project development in practice.

Doctoral programs have been slow to develop in the U.S., however, to date, the handful of American programs have been clear in their emphasis on evidence-based research. The goal of these of PhD programs in design is to generate new knowledge, rather than to reflect on the nature of an individual designer’s practice. This is in contrast to the pervasiveness of practice-based research programs in Europe in which students examine their own behavior as designers and often earn their degrees by publication, without specific coursework in research methods.

There are a number of obstacles to the establishment of doctoral programs, however, including: financial support for students; faculty who are qualified to supervise doctoral research; library resources to support advanced study; access to experts across related disciplines; writing support for students whose first language is not English; and a well-staffed institutional research infrastructure. I can tell you that mounting a Ph.D. program is not for the faint of heart.

At NC State we began the interdisciplinary PhD in Design with two tracks: community design and information design. Before long, however, it was apparent that these traditional, practice-oriented distinctions were no longer descriptive enough of the contemporary context for research or reflective of our interdisciplinary intent. We re-organized study around seven interest areas and the result was more interesting applicants and stronger research projects.

  • Design for Health and Well-being
  • Design for Learning
  • Design for Sustainability
  • Design for Technology
  • Design for the Urban Context
  • Design Methods
  • Design History and Criticism

What role can the profession play in furthering research development?

Although 81percent of the professionals polled in the Metropolis survey said they engage regularly in research, fewer than 70 percent include students in research that is important to their practices and 72 percent shared their firm’s research only within the office or not at all. (Manfra, 2005) There is an almost total disconnect between the research done in these firms and the scholarship of faculty and doctoral students in universities. A 2000 conference at the University of Washington, titled Re- envisioning the Ph.D., recommended that doctoral students be provided with a wide variety of career options, not just teaching, and that academic “departments take responsibility for student access to [research] internships and provide visits from people outside the University who will share their professional career journeys with students.” (Nyquist and Wulff, 2000) So there is much work ahead in establishing partnerships that follow through on this recommendation.

At the same time, the work of doctoral students and faculty is largely inaccessible to practitioners because there is no research database in design. Unless people know the names of researchers or the specific issues of journals that publish findings, it is almost impossible to access the collective body of scholarly research on a design- related topic. And because there are so few refereed journals in design, many of the venues for sharing research outcomes are in other related fields. Until quite recently, a search in college library databases for “branding” yielded books on cattle. And while universities have the obligation to share findings, the Metropolis survey found that only 35percent of faculty publishes in journals and only 17 percent write books. (Manfra, 2005)

What is worth doing in design research?

Many in academia are tempted to legitimize the presence of design research in their institutions through quantitative studies that play to a counting-and-measuring culture. Not long ago I reviewed for tenure a faculty member who compared recognition of Cook and Shanosky’s 1974 travel symbols for the US Department of Transportation by readers of ideographic and phonetic languages. The sample size was too small to be generalizable, the differences in recognition were negligible, and the methods were unremarkable. But the bigger question for me was what significance the researcher thought the findings of this study held for the design of symbol systems, global communication, or our understanding of cognitive processing. Why was recognition of these symbols outside their intended context important and where in travel situations was it possible to separate ideographic and phonetic readers? On what basis was it assumed that interpretation of these pictograms could be attributed to the native languages of the readers or that the subjects of the study were innocent of all prior experiences with such symbol systems? And while this shaky quantitative study yielded several articles in scholarly journals, it is difficult to imagine how it might further the future work of other researchers. Are we simply counting things because it is easy to do, or should numbers really tell us something about how design works? (Davis, 2011)

In a 2010 article for Core 77, Donald Norman distinguished between the research of science and the research of application, saying, “The designer’s goal is to have a large, important impact. Scientists are interested in truth, often in the distinctions between predictions of two differing theories. The differences they look for are quite small; often statistically significant but in terms of applied impact, quite unimportant…Design needs to develop its own experimental methods. They should be simple and quick, looking for large phenomena and conditions that are ‘good enough’…These methods do not exist.” (Norman, 2010)

What Norman argues for is relevance, for measured claims that drive design decisions in particular contexts and that have the ultimate goal of creating preferred conditions. This is not to say research needs a client to be relevant, but it does mean that for the research culture to grow there needs to be some back-and-forth between the profession and research universities in determining what is worth doing. And because many of the likely investigations are “situated” in the contexts addressed by professional practice, partnerships between faculty and practitioners can provide the much-needed access to people and settings for design action.


I’d like to close with the observation that the United States is behind in the development of its design research culture. At the 2007 conference of the International Association of Research Societies of Design fewer than 10 percent of the submitted conference papers were from Americans. Little has changed over the last five years. By contrast, Asian and European professional associations not only list research as a high priority on their websites, but also follow through on that claim with funding and programming specifically dedicated to research activity. And although implementation is burdened with problems, most of these countries now require Ph.Ds. of faculty who carry the title of “professor.”

We have some catching up to do and neither practice nor academia can make progress alone. And I truly believe that maintaining the status quo in colleges and universities will lead to declining professional opportunity in a world that holds designers accountable for anticipating outcomes of their work. So my hope is that we work together to transform curricula in ways that are responsive to the contemporary challenges for design and build a research culture that addresses things worth doing.

About the author

Meredith Davis is Director of Graduate Programs in Graphic Design at NC State University. She is a fellow and the 2005 National Medalist of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. She serves on the AIGA Visionary Design Council to define “The Designer of 2015.” She has received numerous teaching awards for graduate education, including four university awards and is also listed in Who’s Who Among American Teachers and Who’s Who in American Art. Meredith was principal in the graphic design firm Communication Design from 1979-1989. She is the recipient of more than 50 national and international design awards and her work has appeared in numerous design publications. She is a former president of the American Center for Design and the founding president of the Graphic Design Education Association. Her research explores the use of design in achieving the goals of educational reform in K-12 schools and the relationship between design and cognition. 


  1. Davis, Meredith. (2008). “Why Do We Need Doctoral Study in Design?” International Journal of Design. Volume 2, Number 3.
  2. Davis, Meredith. (2011). “What is Worth Doing in Doctoral research?” Presentation at the conference on Doctoral Education in Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, to be reproduced in proceedings.
  3. Davis, Meredith. (2012). “Leveraging Graduate Education for a More Relevant Future.” Visible Language, Special issue on Envisioning Future Design Education. 46.1/2.
  4. Manfra, Laurie. (2005, August/September). “School Survey 2005: Research – Its role in North American Design Education.” Metropolis, 132-136.
  5. Norman, Donald. (2010, November 26). “Why Design Education Must Change.” Core 77. Retrieved from…
  6. Nyquist, J. and Wulff D.H. (2000). Recommendations from national studies on doctoral education. Retrieved from…