The whole point of doing research is to extract reliable knowledge from either the natural or artificial world, and to make that knowledge available to others in re-usable form.
Nigel Cross, ‘Design Research: A Disciplined Conversation’, Design Issues 15(2), 1999, p.9 [PDF link]
It’s incredibly sad that it took Aaron Swartz’s death, but the issue of open access to academic literature has been dramatically brought to the fore again, coincident with interesting practical developments, some ‘official’ and some less so. The movement towards open access is not going to stop, and in some academic disciplines will leave the ‘landscape’ of journals and publication methods very different.
One of the main arguments for open access is to make (often taxpayer-funded) research available to the public — to people who might find it useful or valuable to apply, to enable use in education, to enable people to learn and explore and understand without the barriers of paying for publishers’ astonishing profit margins. Others have discussed the nuances of the reasoning better than I can.
Design research and practice
What I want to talk about here is how this is relevant to design. ‘Design’, as an academic subject, covers a lot of ground from advertising to manufacturing engineering to art history to videogames, but the majority of academic design research is, in some way, rooted in design practice in some way.
It’s about understanding how designers work, how they could do things differently (better), how to apply knowledge from other disciplines to the practical work of researching and designing and developing products, systems, services and environments, and how to apply methods from design practice to other fields. If we needed candidates for disciplines that ought to have a really close integration between practitioners and academic researchers, design would be high up the list (probably along with most forms of engineering and computer science, and — one would hope — educational research).
But how much do actual designers really make use of academic design research? I’m not sure there’s as much interaction as there could be: over the last few years, I’ve gone to a lot of design events: industry conferences and academic conferences, and — while maybe I haven’t been asking the right questions — it’s fairly rare to find examples of direct practical applications of ‘design’ research (although HCI research is maybe more closely coupled to practice? Certainly much of it seems to be). If anything, where there is practical application, it’s often of research from outside ‘design’ (something my own PhD was about, on some level).
Uncovering the barriers: the survey
There are lots of potential barriers I can see as to why this cross-fertilisation might not happen as much as it could do, and many are related to access issues. Others are almost certainly due to the way academic research is written and presented, which is — being charitable — often somewhat at odds with what is practically usable and immediately understandable.
But it seems as though it would be interesting to find out what designers actually say. So I’ve made a very quick survey, and would very much appreciate your input if you consider yourself a designer, of whatever kind. Please also pass this on to anyone else who you think would be interested.
Thanks to everyone who’s answered so far (and reweeted my initial link to the survey). It’s not a great survey, but should help build up a set of insights which enable some action around improving these connections between research and practice. I am sure there is ‘proper’ research on this, and probably whole research groups looking at it; I’m certainly not claiming the result of this survey to be anything other than a snapshot of a few anecdotal responses. If you just want to see the results without doing the survey, there’s an automatically generated summary here.
— Dan Lockton (@danlockton) January 31, 2013
Here’s a very interesting blog post from Andy Budd discussing the relationship between design practitioners and academia — don’t miss the comments for some further discussion.