Research and Practice in the University Education of Designers

Dr. Terence Love


The foundations of design education are being questioned on a variety of fronts. This paper offers an overview of a recent international discussion exploring the role of practice in postgraduate awards. It points to implications for design education at the undergraduate level.


University education has changed many times since its origins in studying the classics as an elite education for the offspring of the rich and powerful. Over time, many new fields of study have been added, such as Medicine, Science, Engineering and the Social Sciences. Each of these new additions has resulted in changes to the defining characteristics of university education and to the fields of study themselves. Design is a relative newcomer on the university scene, and is currently traversing these change processes.

As a field of study, Design has a special relationship to other disciplines. In functional terms, it is highly interdependent with several other disciplines because it provides the external means by which their outcomes are actualised. This close-coupling has led to designing being defined in terms of those disciplines, for example, Engineering Design, Fashion Design, Industrial Design and Graphic Design. Designing also occurs, however,  in the myriad of micro-level decisions and plans on which research and analysis in all other disciplines are based but, in most cases, this subtle dependence on designing is ignored.

Prior to being included in university programs, design was mainly taught in colleges associated with vocational education, and was aimed at training students for the business areas that employed designers. This vocational emphasis led design education to focus almost exclusively on the tacit skills of design practice, especially on training students in being professionally competent at visual representation.

These three factors currently result in a substantial misfit between the traditions of the design disciplines, and university culture. This misfit has resulted in questioning of the foundations of design education, and, to some extent, university culture.  A major aspect of this questioning relates to the role of design practice in post-graduate research.

A recent posting on the Design Research Society list server at asked whether a Masters degree could be awarded for designs or artifacts submitted without a substantial written thesis, and, if so, would this also be acceptable for a doctoral award. The ensuing dialogue consisted of forty-seven responses whose main points and arguments related to:

·         The structure of post-graduate awards in Design

·         Design Education in University settings

·         Underlying epistemological issues

Acknowledgement of the contributions of respondents to this debate is via their initials. The full record of the debate can be found in the Design Research Society archives listed as ‘hypermail’ at research and details of the Design Research Society can be found at .

Post-graduate awards in Design

Several contributors drew attention to the need to readily distinguish between different sorts of post-graduate award, especially Masters degrees awarded on the basis of varying proportions of research, coursework and vocation-specific professional practice (AR, CR, DD, HD, LP, MT, NC). One contributor cautioned that the characteristic form of the PhD is poorly understood in the ‘art and design community’, and emphasised that it is not a continuation of undergraduate design practice (DD). Other contributors felt that PhD award is different from other post-graduate awards (including doctoral awards) (AR, CR, DD, DO, HD, LP, NC, SN) because of it being a training in research and ‘high thought’ (AR, CR, HD, NC, SN). This implied that practices other than those associated with research were not viewed as primary evidence of PhD level competence.

There were differences of opinion as to how much reliance should be placed on artefacts as evidence. At one extreme, it was claimed that an artifact designed with sufficient skill should be sufficient to satisfy all aspects of a post-graduate award and act as a demonstration all the underlying research and analysis (CR. DD, LP, SK, TS). At the other, was the argument that practice is not research, and therefore, evidence of good design practice is not relevant in awards focusing on research and academic competence (CR, DD, DO). The full spectrum of possibilities included:

·         Written thesis only

·         Written thesis relating to the design of an artefact — the description of the design project, its  outcomes, and any artefacts that resulted from the project are appended to the thesis

·         Written thesis relating to the design of an artefact — the artefact/design is appended to the thesis

·         Artefact/design with explanatory discussion

·         Artefact/design with short commentary

·         Artefact only – no written thesis

Contributors implied that the validity of each of these forms of evidence depends mainly on whether they match the aims and criteria for assessment of each award.

Design Education in University settings

It was noted that research associated with design education in university settings is problematic (FMdS) and needs to be reconceptualised (LP). This is mainly due to a clash of cultures between traditional university education, and the ways that competent design practitioners have been trained in other settings. Several reasons for this state of affairs emerged in the discussion. First, research has not been a natural part of design education (ES) because the main aim of design education has been to get students to the stage where they can design well (CD). Second, achieving this aim has required many design academics to be practitioners to keep the teaching up-to-date (DH, JvdM). This conflicts with research and other academic goals because design practitioners, educators and researchers have different aims and purposes (KvdW, ES). University design academics need the skills of analysis on which university education and research is based, but these are not traditionally skills of design practice (CR, JvdM, HA). Third, much design research has not been of interest to practitioners (ES), many of whom ‘ideologise, polemicise but rarely theorise’ (DO), and think without using words (AR). This implies that the current situation with respect to design research is unlikely to improve whilst the focus of design academics is on being practitioners rather than educators and researchers (NC).

An alternative response to the pressures that result from the clash between university and design cultures was the suggestion that design practice should be viewed as equivalent to academic research (JvdM) — that academic design practitioners undertake research through the activity of designing (AR). This suggestion appeared to be grounded in the desire of many practice-based academics to have what they view as scholarly activity recognised and rewarded by the university systems of assessment that at present focus on research and written outcomes (AR, DH, SN). The suggestion that designing should be viewed as research was based on several factors:

·         Making an original contribution to knowledge is a mainstay of the definitions of university research excellence, especially PhD research, and design practice creates original contributions to knowledge (DO, DD, SK, CR).

·         All research is a creative activity, and designing is essentially a creative activity (TS).

·         That an object/artefact/design can fully represent creative activity as an original contribution to knowledge. (DD, SK, CR, TC)

·         That design education depends on an up-to-date knowledge of design practice — a scholarly task that many design academics undertake (CR, JvdM). Design practice is similar to research in that they are both measures of appropriate scholarly activity (SN, KvdW).

Most contributors to the discussion, however, differentiated between designing and conventional research, viewing them as different sorts of practice (CS, JS, LP, TC, SN, TS, ES, KvdW, NC, EY, CR). Underlying many contributions was the implication that research and conventional academic skills should be part of the training of post-graduate design students, and several benefits were identified:

·         It adds ‘explicit research skills’ to students’ tacit design practices (CS).

·         Design practice and industry are expected to require skilled design researchers, and employers will need to be confident that they have been appropriately taught and assessed as competent (DD)

·         It enables designers to take a central place in design strategy making for projects. This would not be likely if they had to leave research issues to other ‘research professionals’ (CS).

·         It is a part of communicating the ‘means of arriving at an innovation or solution’ (EY). It helps students to learn to understand their own thought processes, and improves the way that they approach design problems (JvdM)

Underlying epistemological issues

There are several epistemological considerations that contribute to deciding whether evidence of design-practice based work is an adequate substitute for a written thesis as evidence for a postgraduate award.  In the main, these epistemological concerns are factors that underpin the justification for post-graduate research awards in design. First, research conventions require a researcher’s data and arguments to be made fully explicit to themselves and their peers (TC) — not normally a convention of designing.  Second, research, and the critical analysis that is essential to research, require a well-defined research problem as a starting point (JS, DD) — not an essential aspect of creative designing. Third, post-graduate research is aimed at training candidates to understand a range of research methods that they can later use in investigations (DD) — this contrasts with the focus on creative methods in traditional design practice. Competent and rigorous scholarship depends on knowing whether the underlying qualities of a particular method are those of research or design-practice, and support the claim that it is important to differentiate between the practices of research and designing (TC).

Research that is associated with a design process presents special difficulties in maintaining clarity about these distinctions. ‘Conventional research’ and ‘scholarship through designing’ differ because their processes and outcomes bear a different relationship to each other (SN). Conventional research is a process of gathering and analysing data to test an hypothesis. This means that research operates through theory and theoretically expressed concepts. The outcomes are the researchers’ findings with respect to the hypothesis via the theoretical analyses that form the discussion of the thesis. Designing, however, is usually aimed at producing a physical object, or a description of it, and any associated research is aimed at gathering the information necessary to undertake this task. Designing is equivalent to research in those few situations where the designer/researcher can describe and critically analyse a theoretical path that explicitly, and deterministically, defines the properties of a solution on the basis of a theoretically-defined problem. In this case, where design and research coincide, the main focus of the process is research, and the end product — the design — is a bonus (JvdM). One contributor described the above situation as one in which it was necessary to differentiate between ‘implicitly-held knowledge of empirical work’ and ‘explicitly articulated theoretical devices or frameworks that have real world applications’ (DO).

Respondents also explored these issues at a more detailed level. It was noted that research is creative but not all creative work is research (TS), for example, a report explaining a project to clients is not research, it is the project — cast again in words (LP). This is as would be expected, there is no requirement that there be any similarity between the practices of research and any practices being researched (ES). The idea that designing itself is a form of researching (albeit tacit) also presented difficulties in relation to identifying exactly how a design-based research component could be theoretically substantiated, and whether objects make their full explanation explicit (JvdM). PhD research provided the touchstone for much of this analysis of the relative roles of research and design. It was argued that PhDs are not a training in design practice, and that any creative practices, such as designing, that they include as part of the research method are not ‘in and of themselves’ equivalent to academic doctoral work (CR, DD, NC). In most cases, contributors supported the idea that it is generally unhelpful to assume that design is equivalent to research (SN). In spite of the concerns identified above, a few universities already have regulations that allow substantial non-written arguments as evidence, and some PhDs have already been awarded in the UK on this basis (BD, DD). Taking an overview of the debate (SN), it was suggested that the only satisfactory way forward was to change university culture away from academic status being defined in terms of research. In the long term, this may be the most satisfactory course, and details were given of institutions moving down this path, but, in the short term, the weight of tradition lies behind existing values and an emphasis on conventional research.


When this diversity of contributions is brought together, the picture that emerges is of  an integration between designing and conventional research through using the design project as a research focus to help the candidate to demonstrate their competence in analysis and their application of disciplinary knowledge (JvdM). At this stage, presenting and disseminating the findings of research — the thesis, the candidate’s understanding of prior knowledge, and their analyses and conclusions, in all, the reasoned line of argument exposing the research effort for public scrutiny by peers — is best done through a written thesis (DD).

For the university, design education brings several beneficial attributes. Commercial and academic best-practice in designing involves a high level of integration between creative activities, and formal, rigorous academic approaches to research and planning (CS).  It is one of the few academic disciplines that accept creativity and planning as a significant aspect of practical human functioning, and design education also brings to university settings expertise in the creation of proposals, artefacts and performances that offer the basis for facilitating discussion and debate about complex issues (AD), or stimuli for social critique (AR). Perhaps the most significant attribute of design education, in times of economic pressure, is its popularity in terms of student enrolments (SN).

For design educators, it is possible that there are scholarly activities associated with design education and design–practice that can be identified and focused on to obtain rewards for research outputs (SN). For example, designs that are intended to have a role in social critique could be repackaged as research outcomes in order to explore issues and to expose them for critical review (AR). This is one example of the way that ‘design-practice based research’ may be reformulated in terms of design being a part of a directed investigative process (CR). Taking a new approach to identifying more highly valued scholarly activities may be helped by an exploration of the research ‘codes’ of other disciplines (DD). Karel van der Waarde identified nine different types of academic involved in design education, and this implies that there exist nine different pathways each with different sorts of research aims, objectives, methods, types of thesis, and scholarly approaches.

Undergraduate study is closely linked to post-graduate education, and although the discussion described above focussed on post-graduate design education it has implications for under-graduate study. It seems clear that the influences of university traditions are moving post-graduate study and approaches to research in the design disciplines further towards the norms of university culture. These changes have implications for undergraduate design education because of the need to support students to gain the skills necessary to continue into post-graduate education, and also to differentiate university-based design education from that delivered in more traditional art and design settings.


The discussion is available in the Design Research Society archives via ‘hypermail’ at research

Details of the Design Research Society can be found at .

Contributor identification

AD                Anthony Dunne

AR          Alec Robertson

BG           Beryl Graham

CD          Chris Dowlen

CR           Chris Rust

CS           Cal Swann

DD          David Durling

DH          David Hawkins

DO          Dellé Odeleye

ES           Eric Stolterman

FMdS     Flavio Mesquita da Silva

EY           E M Young

JS            Jean Schneider

JvdM      Johann van der Merwe

KvdW    Karel van der Waarde

HA          Henri Achten

HD          Howard G Denton

LP           Ludomir S Popov

MT         Mark Timmins

NC          Nigel Cross

SK           Satoshi Kose

SN           Syd Newton

TC           Tim Coward

TS           Tim Smithers