Academic journal article Visible Language

Get Real: The Need for Effective Design Research

Academic journal article Visible Language

Get Real: The Need for Effective Design Research

Article excerpt

Designers use intuition in order to envision possibilities. In that strength also lies a weakness: a disinclination to account for what exists in reality. That prevents design from evolving into the powerful role that it could otherwise be. Learning about reality requires the tools that are necessary to perform research such as theory and methods. Research tools are essential in order to support an opinion or position, to build design solutions in technically challenging application areas, or to advance design as a leadership role instead of a support role. Better understanding and use of research would enable the designer to evolve from craft-bound artisan toward professional. This essay addresses recent influences on design practice, the opportunity for design to evolve in a professional direction and the methods that will support that evolution.


Herbert Simon (1998:4, 111-4) contends that "the engineer, and more generally the designer, is concerned with the way things ought to be-how they ought to be in order to attain goals and to function." For Simon, the designer takes action to "change existing situations into preferred ones" by "devising artifacts to attain those goals." The term "designer" represents the disciplines that work to create and develop new systems and products for human use. Traditionally, that includes architects and space planners, urban planners, product (industrial) designers, communication (graphic, information) designers and environmental designers. In recent decades, software interface designers and software architects and fashion and interior designers who deal with functional issues have assumed a design role.

Addressing each one of these design disciplines would result in a book, not an essay. Instead, this essay will use one discipline as an example: communication design. The role of communication design stems from the human need to negotiate between our inner self and the outer (natural) environment. (Simon, 1996:5-6) It is a natural extension of the human need to make sense of the world. In this context, communication design is the practice of visualization in order to inform and/or persuade. The communications designer detects and demonstrates patterns, making the implicit or abstract evident. Table 1 summarizes the kinds of knowledge that comprise communication design. The examples that it contains are not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, they demonstrate the relationships among theory, knowledge and skill.


Philosophy informs design practice by framing views of reality and the human role in it. Semiotics, the understanding of reality through perceptions, is one of many philosophical approaches. Designers structure properties in order to send messages, using hierarchies (taxonomies) in order to organize them into purposeful wholes.

Social Sciences

Anthropology and sociology provide theories of culture and society. Methods such as fieldwork make it possible for the designer to learn about both through observation.

Human Factors

Designers rely on human factors knowledge about human limits and abilities, primarily in visual sensation and perception and in cognition (e.g., learning, decision-making and memory). Designers can employ methods such as flow analysis to decompose, analyze and experiment with new models of complex environments.


As there is no current body of knowledge that represents design theory, the theory section in the design column contains no examples. Designers use visualization as a means to embody possibilities by creating physical models.


Through management, the designer leads project teams that include vendors who can be monitored through quality assurance and control methods in order to achieve optimal results. The designer also relies on management skills to develop business relationships and to compete.

As an applied artist, the designer accepts the responsibility for solutions to work, but on what basis? …

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