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Design Research?
What do you consider to be design research? Rather than taking the easy way out with a statement like, "Research evolves out of the problem and changes every time," talk about specifics. How do you gain a clear understanding of the problem, where do you get more information, or who do you work with during this process. Share your methods: preliminary data collection, observing relationships, interviewing shareholders/consumers, understanding the competition, or establishing constraints (controls). Perhaps good design research boils down to one skill: listening. Or maybe with you and your team it deals with pattern recognition or information mapping (described by Robert Horn in 1966), where you source information/inspiration to help you see connections. But sourcing and mapping isn’t the same as conceptualizing. Don’t talk about research at a visual level where you generate solutions/comps/roughs through paper, pen, pencil, or pixel to see if your idea “looks” right or if it holds water with the shareholder/consumer; instead talk about what happens prior to these steps at the earliest stages of the problem/project.
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PUBLISHED ON Feb.24.2006 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Ravenone’s comment is:

When working on art projects, my research tends to involve going through art history books, as well as copies of PRINT to see what other people have done, some browsing of Flickr and various other image-related websites in case I'm unsure how something would/should look; I also have been known to email fellow artists or designers with my questions and see what they have to say on the subject. After a few hours of looking at what other people have said or done on the same topic, I tend to take a coffee break to let the information settle, then re-attack the idea from there.

On Feb.24.2006 at 02:35 PM
Randy’s comment is:

Research is often non-visual for me. I tend to seek out academic texts, fiction, and journalism directly related or tangent to the subject matter.

Many times, leads to this material develope over phone conversations or, if local, dinner meetings with clients.

I also tend to try and find information related to the global relevance/scale of the subject matter. What % of the world population does something similar, what miniscule effects may this have on living patterns or even temperature. This isn't to try to blow greater importance into projects, but rather, it provides a nice launching point into further research or visual exploration and it hold my interest long.

I guess, then, the side effect and benefit of research becomes prevention of bordem with the task at hand.

On Feb.24.2006 at 02:46 PM
DC1974’s comment is:

I do a couple different things. I read the creative brief. And start doing some word association. (With a separate column of visual cues that come to mind.) Sometimes, I'll just tap random words from the word association into google search or stock search to see what additional associations I come up with.

Then I open my eyes. I particularly find inspiration in television graphics, but I'll also browse through art books at the museum and of course consumer magazines. I'm establishing a collage of visual cues. How to handle a page number here. A way to set the leading there. A color palate over here. And then I start the sketching, setting up a grid, comps etc.

I wish we had talked about research techniques more in art school, though. It's taken a lot of trial and error to get a good process going.

On Feb.24.2006 at 03:49 PM
Stacy Westbrook’s comment is:

I've been reading Design Research, and it has a lot to say about the many forms design research can take. I think the specific types of research one does is relative to the nature of the work at hand.

For me, being an interactive designer at an e-learning company, design research tends to include visual research of our client's current marketing and brand positioning, reading usability findings, reviewing user survey results and user trends, and reading a variety of books/blogs/articles. It also involves talking to some of our users, our clients, and other team members about what the current need is so we can develop a good solution.

On Feb.24.2006 at 03:50 PM
Ash Arnett’s comment is:

A useful definition of design research requires a clear definition of design. If your definition of design includes value, relevance, planning, usefulness, strategy, purpose, clarity, emotional resonance, or other notions that involve context of human use, then it is necessary to engage in some amount of primary research, like contextual inquiry, where you learn how, where, and why your output will be used, by whom, and what the expectations and outcomes of its use are likely to be.

If those things aren't part of the value proposition (to yourself or your client--i.e., if how and whether it is used don't really matter that much) in "design" work, then secondary research (like historical research or the cleint's brand landscape) and intuition are just fine.

My company does design research.

On Feb.24.2006 at 04:22 PM
Josh’s comment is:

Ash- Read through a bit of your website and case study for Cingular. Really interesting stuff you do.

It's kind of funny to me after having worked in varied environments how much or how little actual quality research like Matter(ash's company)is done. I guess a question I would pose would be, is there an appropriate amount of research that should be done?

In an example from Matter, they staked out various Cingular locations and observed and perhaps tried to interpret every customer/viewers habits as they browsed the store. They broke down the information for Cingular into what they concluded were logical areas to address and how to do so.

Though often many interior user experiences are "researched", are the majority of solutions derived from the presumptutous designer feeding their personal visions with minimal semiotic curiosity? Or is it more appropriate to stick to the carefully considered analysis which should in theory give you the answers?

I ask this because the processes that designers use to do research vary immensely and if one were to do appropriate research and then implement, it would alter the often wonderous, art-seeking aesthetic that many designers use as a protective shield. Or is too much research detrimental to the freedom of design?

On Feb.24.2006 at 05:38 PM
Damien Newman’s comment is:

Excellent question Jason, and equally valuable answer Ash.

But yes - to Josh. Research for certain areas of design activities varies immensely.

The type that Ash describes is where the solution is not known at the beginning of the process, and in some cases, neither is the problem. So in this context, certain activities help define the problem and present a framework from which to design a solution.

Other activities, perhaps like illustration, or preparing a book cover might require very different research activities.

I think there can be some overlap in the activities you might do regardless.

Ethnographic research really is simply a method of fieldwork in particular participation-observation. So researching a wedding invite could start with scouting the site of the wedding, and looking for colors, landmarks and icons to use within the design of the materials.

For me, research starts by trying to define the problem statement. Sometimes this is much more difficult than it seems, because you're dealing with a large complex system with competing goals.

Like Ash, I don't get a brief at the beginning of a project, but more of a scenario and scope to research a possible framework for solutions.

So the research has to combine many different types in order to derive valuable insights from which to draw a design direction.

I also use the design research phase to collaborate with my clients, allowing them to get a firsthand look into how to observe people, prototype rapidly and uncover issues together that may or may not be useful to the end solution.

So whether I am designing a web site, business cards or a set of design principles for a multi-billion dollar company - I always start with no assumptions that I might know the solution.

If I wish to collect rich data, then observing and interviewing a selection of the key constituents in the solution is a must. For market and competitive analysis, the clients tend to know their business better than I can in the time-frame of the project, so I tend to gather that kind of research from them. Most often the process of converting the research into key insights and developing a framework from which to design from is where experience and being a design-thinker counts. Validating this stage of research is really only done in prototyping and iterating at this stage.

Sometimes I’ve gone out and with a team uncovered that the initial problem that was defined isn’t the most important problem to solve, and in fact there are many other areas of opportunity. In order to not stay in the field of research, and participation-observation too long, it is important to bring it back and synthesize it into meaningful (not logical) and valid insights.

I think the key is, and do correct me if I am wrong, is to begin the research as if you know nothing. Work fast to define the problem, or reframe the problem statement. Then design research activities that will help you uncover valuable insights into how to solve that problem, within that context.

Sometimes it is just researching the history of something or some area to pull out key pieces of information that can act as the guiding principles for a visual design. Other times it is the lengthy and varied participation-observations that are needed to produce design principles before any high-quality design is even considered.

I’ve found it invaluable to work with both anthropologists/researchers as well as simply some of my bright and articulate friends on projects. If I go out and collect the data, and bring it back, then inviting a friend to help me sort it out into patterns or key insights, can be invaluable, even if they weren’t involved in the research or a subject-matter expert. Again, reinforcing that I’m not being hired because I know the solution, but because I can work with my client to define the problem, frame the context for design, and help them design the solution.

On Feb.24.2006 at 06:21 PM
SCox-Smith’s comment is:

Being primarily a designer of multi-page documents, (read magazines) I, of course, spend a lot of time reading magazines, buying magazines and tearing pages out of magazines. Mostly to remind myself of the bad ideas, not good ones.

Amazingly, I find a big disconnect between what publishers (or clients) expect research-wise for their editors and their art directors. It never occurs that readership information could have great bearing on a magazine's look and that it should coordinate with an editorial voice. The assumption is always that "It should look like an interesting magazine and the words will give it the appropriate personality."

Therefore, I often take it upon myself to become more knowlegeable about subject matter and who would potentially be interested in that subject as a way to narrow down design options. I would definitely say I'd like to know a lot less about data warehousing and a lot more about international travel, but that's just me.

I've found in the past few years my approach to research has changed dramatically in that I've become much more interested in finding out how non-designers interpret the world (or a specific design issue) than trying to look at how other designers have solved the same or a similar problem. I think it has made me a better designer because it allows me to design for the audience, not my interpretation of the audience. I know, for example, that visual cues that seem clear, direct and perhaps, even clever, to me can be completely invisible, or even worse, distracting to a reader who doesn't have my visual vocabulary. I've learned it doesn't have to be dumb, it just has to be the right smart and that's where the research comes in.

On Feb.24.2006 at 06:29 PM
Nathan King’s comment is:

I always start each project with research. Last year I was hired to create a logo and packaging for a cosmetics line geared towards tweens (girls age 9 - 12). I started by reading everything I could about tweens. Online articles included information about the buying habits of tweens and the psychology of buying. Later I went to Toys-R-Us and Sephora and spent some time looking at the products that were out and even asking empoyees what the top selling products were. Finally I spent some time on the web looking at competitors websites.

On Feb.24.2006 at 08:38 PM
Elizabeth’s comment is:

I'm finding that I'm particularly interested in what kind of typography will best communicate; it's amazing how much coming up with a short-list of type will drive the rest of the research...

On Feb.24.2006 at 09:50 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

value, relevance, planning, usefulness, strategy, purpose, clarity, emotional resonance, or other notions that involve context of human use,

Ash, this is a great qualifier, and thanks for doing this.

On Feb.25.2006 at 08:28 AM
Doug B’s comment is:

One constant that we acknowledge every time we take a project with a new client:

We will never know as much about our client's business as they will

However, knowing as much as you can is no doubt beneficial to the results. The amount, type, and direction of research (for us) varies from project to project, but it is always directly tied to the project's objective. One of the biggest benefits of client retention is that long-term relationships foster a broader understanding of a client's business/goals/dreams/faults, etc...

ps: nice post, Jason.

On Feb.25.2006 at 09:27 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

knowing as much as you can [about the client's business]

Give an example of something specific you do to gain knowledge of their business.

On Feb.25.2006 at 01:19 PM
Haig Bedrossian’s comment is:

An interesting question. I didn't think design research was formally practiced in graphic design. Do any schools teach it as part of their course?

A survey of 1500 graphic designers (U.S.) in 1996 found that 67% of designers fail to do any "information gathering and analysis, and planning" when starting a design project. (Nina 1996)

When you say design research i refer to something called the "science of design", where a method of working which attempts to improve our understanding of design through "scientific" (ie. systematic, reliable) methods of investigation" (Cross, 2002). Research here is a bit formal, not such a casual thing.

A prevailing sentiment among academic literature describes designers of visual communications to have "largely relied on their intuition and training to create appropriate visual messages" and do not use research techniques in their process (Forlizzi, 2002).

On Feb.25.2006 at 10:02 PM
Steve Adams’s comment is:

Research is a hard thing to do if you're new to it. I think learning is an art in itself.

To be honest, I don't really research... Not as I should. I'm 19 and the only research I'm familiar with is reading a textbook that has the answer to the physics questions I've been asked on a piece of paper. Applying something similar to design would probably result in less than mediocre work that you could assume had been done before, haha.

This entry is inspiring me to improve my research skills because I think without them I'm seriously impared. How can I fully understand my clients or my subjects without being able to really learn about them? And design is an expression - The more you have inside the more there is the express.

Thanks for a raising a great point.

On Feb.26.2006 at 11:28 AM
Ravenone’s comment is:

I didn't research until after I took advertising 101, and learned just how important the design choices one makes are, in affecting how others precieve works, such as the importance of color choice...

While I haven't really done any actual design work (Does making a newsletter count??) since that class, I'll admit to using my research to better my artwork.

I do 'feel' better after doing some research, though; it suits my more biology-oriented scientific mind, makes me feel like I'm acomplishing something to be able to say "This is how I got here and why I made the choices I did" instead of just "...well I thought it looked cool".

On Feb.26.2006 at 01:10 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

As I said in Jason’s last thread, I’m always made nervous by graphic designers’ use of the word “research.” Does this mean learning some basic stuff about your client, your client’s products, and your client’s customers? Is reading your client’s annual report or checking out their field in the encyclopedia “research”? There are many design projects that may not warrant “information gathering and analysis” beyond client interviews. It’s somewhat absurd to call talking to your client “research.”

I’m worried that the fact that too many of us call any seeking of understanding “research” gets in the way of the appreciation of actual design research.

On Feb.26.2006 at 02:51 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:


You are the first person to draw qualifying distinctions in this thread. If design research is misunderstood, please elaborate or point us in the direction of a good book you could recommend.

It would be a huge favor for many of us.

And while client interviews might not count as �research,’ they might be appropriate, and must be justified somehow as billable time.

On Feb.26.2006 at 03:37 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


There are several possible categories of methods to gain knowledge and/or understanding regarding graphic design projects. I don’t pretend that this is a comprehensive list:

1) Reading a brief supplied by the client.

2) Conducting interviews with the client (either in a formal, systematic manner or informal conversation.)

3) Reading commonly available materials about the client’s industry or trade or the subject of the project.

4) Conducting a study to develop or unearth knowledge that is not commonly available and might not be something that a designer specializing in the particular industry might be expected to already know.

I would call #4 research in the full sense of the word. Items 1, 2, and 3 might be considered research in some sense of the word, but in a comparatively weak sense. Graphic design needs a lot more of #4. Congratulating ourselves for doing the first three (which are, BTW, necessary and billable) lets us ignore the need for much more #4.

There are a couple of other categories that come to mind. In Jason’s recent computer thread I mentioned discovery through design where designing acts as a meditative or contemplative focus, a conversation where there is only one human being involved in the dialog.

Something that could be seen as a weaker version of discovery through design is the sort of review of other designers’ work that has been mentioned here. It would be easy to confuse this with a review of the market or a study of the competition. I’m not sure whether an audit of the market/competition falls into my category 3 or 4. I suspect that flipping through design magazines wouldn’t reasonably count as a market audit. I also wonder what level of knowledge and/or understanding comes from reviewing the designer’s competition rather than the client’s.

On Feb.26.2006 at 04:29 PM
Teresa’s comment is:

Research was an integral part of my graphic design degree at Penn State (which is, not so coincidentally, one of the top research universities). I couldn't imagine how graphic design could be taught in any other way. Designers don't live in a black hole; they have to understand the world that they work for.

Under the direction of Lanny Sommese combined with the on-campus library housing more than 4 million books, we were taught that there are no answers on the computer--any designer has access to that the "google library." If we were to present the client with a relevant solution, we needed to defer ourselves from accessing the computer to find answers. Our minds are stronger than that.

Research is simple, really. State the problem, define the audience and the functional parameters. Be the best informed person in the room for that particular client. Listen closely to what the client says--don't make any judgments upfront.

I don't believe that looking through a design annual classifies as "research." To me, that lends itself to a stylistic research of how we want the piece to look in the end. What we need to do is first research the client and the client's competitors. Search through articles, books, etc that have NOTHING to do with design. The form will then follow the content. In a design world where everything is reinvented and nothing seems new...well, maybe that is because designers recycle material that they see in the design magazines instead of using other resources for the client's problem.

On Feb.26.2006 at 07:45 PM
Haig Bedrossian’s comment is:


It seems the issue here is defining what "design research" is and isn't. Gunnar has raised some good examples that illustrate the varing degrees of research, his examples 1-4.

Thank goodness we are not performing clinical research (like drug industry), where the results need to be replicated by means of a formal method. I am afraid we would suck at that.

What we do needs to reveal some knowledge not currently known, to change a situtation, and to then create something.

We (designers) need to use research to uncover an answer to a question. This answer should provide the designer with insight and guide us to choose the appropriate methods for the design problem/solution.

Here is something to bite into. It is a bit academic, but here it goes.

There are 3 "catagories of inquiry" for research according to Roth (1999 in Design Issues).

They are:

1. Concrete/specific

2. Conceptual

3. Theoretical/philosophical

....areas of inquiry.

Here are some examples for each:

1.Which visual attributes (type, color, etc) are most effective and appropriate for a specific audience? (Concrete)

2. How does the user's conceptual map of an interactive program "space" affect navigation and the exploration of content? (Conceptual)

3. Is universal, cross-cultural design possible? (Theoretical)

Now, how we would we answer these questions? A formal or informal method. Maybe if we had the budget and time, it would be formal research. But if there is not much of anything, well lets do an unstructured, informal, inquiry into these questions.

If we do the latter, is it not valid because it doensn't follow a formal method?

On Feb.26.2006 at 11:30 PM
Frank’s comment is:

We usually conduct 1 month of research and strategy before starting a design. This consists of things like secondary research, competitive analysis, interviews, target profiles, branding and business strategy, information architecture, etc. Seems crazy, but it allows us to not only get smart about a client's business, but also gives us insight into what is their key competitive edge. When we did the Computer Recycling website, the design turned industry heads because it had never been seen like that before. Our research phase also keeps client objections and "tweaking" creative concepts to a minimum. We're able to offer just one concept and be 95% sure it's on target for their goals.

On Feb.27.2006 at 08:22 AM
Doug B’s comment is:

Give an example of something specific you do to gain knowledge of their business.

Ok. We did a rebranding for a craft brewer/brewpub/performing arts center 2 years ago. The brewpub had been through a few name changes in its first 10 years due to legal issues (one of the original partners left, etc...), and the current owner wanted to rebuild the brand under one umbrella name that could be bicycled out to the brewpub restaurant, his craft brewing business, and a performing arts center he owned (on the same campus). Given the rich history of brewing in upstate NY, we started by researching local breweriana via the local chamber of commerce, and by speaking with local historians. We collected print ads, brewery items from local antique shops, and started shopping at the local bevy marts to build a colection of label designs (both good and bad). Working directly with the client, we discovered that the visual history of British brewing (and all related ephemera) was a good starting point (as opposed to the very different look and feel of eastern Europe.) We arranged a 4-day trip to London with our client where we visited 3 breweries, 25 pubs, and 1 museum. We hammered out the name for the new operation on that trip. When we got back, we had 1 week to put a look and feel to that name. Results are here. I had a really easy time designing that mark, and all the subsequent work that went along with it. No doubt, the total immersion/research in the culture helped me do the work.

On Feb.27.2006 at 12:10 PM
ben weeks’s comment is:

During a particularly difficult jungle based war, one that seemed increasingly impossible to win, a 4 star general came to the front lines, asked for a rifle and disappeared into the jungle. Time passed. Was he still alive? People wondered.

The months passed by until one day he emerged from the dense jungle. "I know how to win this war."

On Mar.04.2006 at 02:14 AM