The Link Between Design and Research


Research and good design intertwine in a number of symbiotic ways. On one hand, design research can be described as a systematic and investigative approach used to inform the design process. On the other, design thinking and methodology can be applied to research to generate more innovative and user-centred insights.

Both approaches promote and employ various research methods to uncover human experiences, identify problems, grasp opportunities and generate iterative solutions. Whether it’s in academia or industry, these techniques guide the considered development of meaningful outcomes and encourage innovation. 

From tech-centred to user-focused: The Time Layered Cultural Map of Australia is a set of tools that work together for mapping Australian history and culture. Image: Australian Research Council University of Newcastle.

Research as a design discipline 

The Australian Good Design Awards define design research as scholarly investigations within the design process that aim to discover new knowledge or advance understanding for more user-informed designs. Through the implementation of qualitative and quantitative research methods, design researchers bridge the gap between user needs and design solutions, ensuring that products, services or experiences are effective, usable and meaningful.

Design research is applicable at any stage of the design process. It can inform the academic and theoretical groundwork of the early exploration phase, bolster the user-centricity of a concept’s development and empower efficacy testing and prototyping in the later evaluation iteration stages. 

The crucial aspects of design research include:

  • Understanding people, communities and environments

Design research explores the needs, goals, motivations and behaviours of target users and stakeholders, all while uncovering a design’s possible impacts on its environment – natural or otherwise. Through research methods involving interviews, observations, co-creation and usability testing, design researchers are able to develop empathy on a zoomed-out level that incorporates all possible design interactions.

  • Identifying holistic design opportunities

By putting the comprehensive findings, results and data of the initial research phase into play, design research can begin to identify opportunities for innovation. This might come in the form of unmet needs, pain points or inefficiencies.

  • Guiding design decisions

Research findings are used to fuel and orient design decisions. Insights can guide design priorities, trade-offs and solutions that align with real-world experiences and realities. Collected data can further validate design direction or steer problem-solving down other pathways.

  • Evaluating and uplifting designs

Existing designs and prototypes can similarly benefit from findings arising from research. Design researchers explore the experiences of end users to evaluate a design’s suitability and feed user insights back into the design process to refine and iterate a solution.

Design thinking in research 

Design principles are being increasingly applied to research methodologies to guide new pathways of discovery, gain multi-disciplinary perspectives and unearth fresh research approaches. An end design or outcome doesn’t have to fuel the process, with opportunities for action possibly appearing throughout the research journey. 

In academic research and in the exploration of health, community and other social problems, design methodology in research is especially powerful as the individual is commonly at the centre of it all. 

Research embedded with design thinking frequently implements:

  • Empathetic, community-focused and collaborative approaches

Modern design frameworks value the multi-modal needs, motivations and perspectives of end-users, communities and environments. By applying this big-picture thinking to research, researchers outside of the design space can connect with valuable insights that could expand their scope of exploration. Collaboration with researchers from different backgrounds can similarly unearth nuanced perspectives for further consideration.

  • Problem reframing

Researchers employ design thinking to reframe research questions and problem statements to widen avenues of exploration. This enables different angles, hidden insights and overlooked opportunities to be exposed. 

  • Prototyping and testing

Prototyping and idea testing is vital to design processes. In research, this can be applied to experimental avenues, as well as in the creation of research materials to gain feedback, refine research methods and stay in-line with research objectives.

  • Humanising data analysis

Data collection is commonly an integral part of the research process, informing and validating research directions and outcomes. By implementing design thinking’s emphasis on the human element to data, researchers are able to evaluate findings with respect to lived experience. This fortifies more enriched analyses that look beyond the numbers, identify valuable nuances and secure relevant insights. 

The multifaceted power of design

The research lens exposes design’s incredible potential to guide the development of meaningful ideas, products, services and insights. When applied throughout the design process or within more general avenues of research, an idiosyncratic focus on the individual, their community and environment eventuates, as does an emphasis on iteration, refinement and innovation.

The result? Creative solutions and findings that look outside the box to uplift society, industry or further exploration.

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