Design Research – Techniques for Transforming the Context

Peter Jones Design research, Transformation Design, Wu Wei

Design is not a single discipline, it is rather a changing world of changing the world. And design thinking has evolved. But has design research evolved?

While the processes and perspectives collectively referred to as “design thinking” have evolved progressively in the last 10 years, design research thinking has not demonstrably advanced. It has largely remained instrumental, at the service to design outcomes, and has not taken its place to lead as an intellectual force. Research follows design thinking, and design thinking (very often) follows business thinking.

Design researchers have added new methods to the collective roster, and we have seen development of venerable methodologies, such as ethnomethodology and contextual research. But do methods and tools collectively contribute to a new whole greater than the sum of the methods? Is there a substantive field of “design research,” and if so, where are we heading with it beyond the instrumental purposes of product and service design?

We can observe a movement toward designing for organizational and social contexts, which have been framed as Design 3.0 and now Design 4.0, by NextD. One way to understand the difference in design applications is by reconsidering the way we understand and make sense of design opportunities. Where do we actually apply research work in this context? What are the appropriate research methodologies that account for observations about the targets of Design 3.0?

These include the larger system within which a service is conceived, the organizational context, social systems with multiple stakeholders, large-scale information ecologies with multiple emergent participants. We continue to study pieces of the problem, with user research, ethnography, participatory design research, smart sampling, trend analysis.


But why have we not adopted methods from other disciplines that also contribute within the systems we intend to transform? The DAAP presentation shows models and perspectives relating research methods and sensemaking approaches that bring the power of contextual understanding and collaborative problem solving to these organizational and social frames of design.