Can design research education unlock a new foundation for design?

April 8, 2020


The purpose of design education is to prepare designers to engage with the world around them and make productive changes to what they find. Well-rounded design education trains designers to learn how explore the world and connect this new knowledge to creative action. This requires a deep engagement with the world that only high-quality design research can provide. But the potential richness of good design research is often overshadowed by design thinking’s overly-simplistic practices and outdated business research theories. It is time to reassess how design research is taught and turn away from the quick and easy processes of design thinking.

Dr Paul Hartley PhD is an anthropologist, ethnomusicologist and founder of Human Futures Studio, an insight and foresight consultancy

The need for this reassessment became clear to me on a February afternoon in a Banff meeting room. I was listening to a facilitator give the closing remarks to a day of design thinking workshops. They said, “as designers all we have to do is find the need, decide what to do, and then change the world. The rest is just academic. Design thinking teaches us that you don’t need training to do research, you just need to be in the world.” While I found most of it problematic, even wrong, I was struck how strongly I agreed with the final sentiment. Human-centric research is about being in the world, or “Being There” as the anthropologist C. W. Watson calls it. You have to insert yourself into a world that is not your own, and there is no substitute for being there to experience everything. However, because I disagreed with the rest, I realized I need to help others see that design research can be about learning how to “be there” in the most productive way possible.  

Design thinking’s promise of easy solutions is quite seductive but offers a false alternative to the hard graft of good research. While its core processes provide a good way to channel creative thought and action, design thinking promotes over-simplification and an over-reliance on tools and gimmicky activities. It cannot help designers learn to “be there” and gain the depth of knowledge needed to design well. Despite claims of greater human-centricity, design thinking borrows only the minimum from true, rigorous research methodologies. At its worst, it solidifies our reliance on old theories and ways of studying human beings that are damaging and unproductive. 

This presents a problem for contemporary design education. Recently, design thinking has become a framework for training designers too, and its troubled approach to research has entered the design curriculum. The majority of design programs teach design research as half-term, or single-term, courses that stick closely to the design thinking playbook. As a result, an entire generation of designers are not educated in research but trained in a process. This means they are not prepared for the kind of in-depth explorations needed to meet the increasingly sophisticated expectations of an audience that has grown up in a world filled with design.

Design is really about creating productive and positive interventions into people’s lives and then convincing them that the new way is better. 

Improving design research education requires a reassessment of many of the basic premises of design research and design thinking. The need for greater sophistication calls for more inputs than the design thinking approach can provide. This means moving away from studying simplistic structures and examining the richness of life in order to find how design can best fit into people’s complicated lives.  

First, we must find alternatives to outdated and simplistic concepts like unmet needs or gaps. The idea of unmet needs presents the biggest problem because unmet needs are not what we should be studying when we do design research. Using our time in field to find unmet needs means we are missing all of the contextual information needed to create guidelines for good design. 

For many, this is a shocking, even heretical, suggestion. Finding unmet needs is the core activity of business and design research. And yet, unmet needs cannot provide a good basis for solid insights because people’s lives are already complete. If they were gaping holes in the way we live, we would not be able to function as individuals or members of a society. We live complete lives and have reasonable solutions to most of life’s concerns. This does not mean improvements can’t be made, or that there are not exceptions. It just means that discovering needs is the wrong place to start. 

It is better to see people’s lives as complete and functional. This requires us to see needs in a different light. They are not pathologies that we design to solve. Instead, what we call a “need” is actually an opportunity for novel interventions into people’s lives. But interventions are intrusions, not solutions. They are alterations made to a life that is already complete. This means design is not an action to meet a need, but a way to do things differently. Design is really about creating productive and positive interventions into people’s lives and then convincing them that the new way is better.  

To accomplish this, we need a new approach to design research to identify not just what can change, but also how to design so that people will not reject the new alternative. Design research must provide understanding of the social and cultural limitations of these change factors predict the impact these interventions will have. But to do this, many of the cherished theories upon which business decisions have been based, such as Maslow’s theory of needs, need to be left behind. 

In fact, this is long overdue. Maslow’s work was problematic when it was first presented because of its relationship to earlier theories of needs that were widely discredited. 

By the time Maslow published in 1943, other similar theories had been circulating in sociology and anthropology for over forty years. The controversial anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, posthumously published a surprisingly similar theory of needs in 1942, a year before Maslow published his first paper. Malinowski claimed Western civilization was superior to other “primitive” societies because it satisfies more basic needs. He suggested that theories of needs justified placing the West above everyone else on the basis of the West’s location on the hierarchy—an implication lurking in Maslow’s theory as well. These racist ideas were rejected by many prominent social scientists and Malinowski’s theory of needs rightfully disappeared from their view. 

While Maslow was writing from a different starting point—from individual motivation, not social structure—his hierarchy of needs is part of a larger set of theories that repeat these injustices. Improving the usefulness of good design research will involve abandoning ideas that make misinformed claims of this kind. 

Currently, many fields and university departments are exploring what it means to decolonize their curricula. Decolonizing design education will allow us to eliminate the various theories of needs on the basis that they were, and still do, justify a view of social and cultural development that was disproven and rejected seventy years ago. 

Designers must study the conditions of change, not needs, because design is about creating and arguing for changes to the world that provide a lasting, positive effect.  Design research should therefore incorporate tools and theories that help designers understand social and cultural systems and how change is manifested and interpreted. This will help them plan how their designed changes will affect people and how to maximize the benefits while working around and through anticipated problems. 

Design research education needs to focus on preparing designers to understand change and plan for transformation. Reassessing what worked in the past is difficult, but it is right to rethink how we do research. Replacing what is removed with cutting-edge practices from anthropology, cognitive science, and sociology will help design research meet the needs of the designers who are working to make lasting, sustainable changes through design. The words “Being in the world” mean studying life as it is. 

The more we learn to engage with the world as we find it, the more “being there” can help change lives for the better.

This story originally appeared in Applied Arts magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.99 a year, click here.