Design as Social Science.

Design is a form of research, and research is a form of design. The two practices overlap. Perhaps not all design is research, and not all research is design, but the two domains overlap. In fact, it can be argued that you can’t complete one without the other.

Now of course design is a boundless term. Trying to define it elicits opinionated judgements from almost everyone these days, and so it’s not surprising to find a lack of consensus about what design actually is. Is good design a form or object? Is good design about usability? It it concerned with features and functions or how it makes us feel? In fact, we can hardly agree if is a noun or a verb. I suspect this lack of agreement is somehow linked to the hermetic cultural and academic divide between art and science, leaving neither camp with the complete tools for writing a complete definition.  

In this brief article, I don’t want to dwell too long on this notion of the divide between humanities and the sciences. However, anyone interested in design should be aware of the “two cultures” conversation begun over 50 years ago by C.P. Snow. Historically speaking, this debate might even predate Snow’s thesis, appearing in historical perennial forms ranging from philosophical investigations into “positivism verses interpretivism,” to the familiar “right brain/left brain” discussion. 

My aim in bringing up this topic here is to conscientiously resist it’s partisan effect on my identity not just as a designer, but as a human being. Design, like people, exists in both the humanities and social sciences. The emerging popularity of research tools for design is evidence that most designers want to live in the intersection between human experience and scientific method. 

In the 20th century design was an industrial art, but 21st century design acts like a branch of social science.

20 years ago the education of designers was still largely rooted in critical or cultural theories, drawing inspiration from influential movements such as the Bauhaus school, the Swiss school, constructionism and post-constructionism. In the 21st century, more sensible concerns seem to have distracted designers from theory. In Steve Hellers book “The Education of an E-Designer,” design critic Katherine McCoy suggests that perhaps the reason theory has taken a backseat is because of technological experimentation. Certainly designers are preoccupied with new technology, but artists have always sought new technical tools in every century.

While technical experimentation is important to a successful design career,  I believe critical theory is being pushed aside for more pressing concerns of learning with business strategy and human centered research. Critical theory is not being neglected because of technological obsession but rather because of consumer-market pressures to learn empirical research methodologies with names like “User Experience, Human Centered,” and of course “Design Thinking” which begins with phenomenological inquiry. This is not so much design as a branch of the humanities, but as a branch of social science and behavioral psychology.

All of this discussion about the humanities and social science is a prelude to explain my interest in research methodologies. This is not an “either or” choice, but rather my attempt to practice design at the intersection between both the arts and sciences, where people live. The search for empathy, can function as a kind of bridge between the arts and sciences. It requires all of our intelligences, from emotional to engineering. Above all, it requires that we learn and grow in order to understand.

My professional practice still has roots in the arts. I value the technical and theoretical disciplines I have honed over the years. In fact, my interest in design as research is to amplify and extend my formal training as an artist, not abandon it. Whereas my undergraduate studies focused on design as art, I want my graduate studies to focus on design as a social science. I’m looking to combine form-factor with human-factor.

Even as I talk about my own motivations, it is important to point out that design research is not just a pet interest I have. There are macro-economic forces which will seismically altar not only design for business but also design education. The emerging demand for designers to have their own primary research capabilities is due to the increased demand for design strategy.

This pursuit of strategy has led to growing trends of applying ethnography and anthropology in business. It is proclaimed as an innovation that marketers should live with their customers in their own environment to better understand them. This new trend correlates to the rise of consumer choice. In short marketers and designers have to do a better job of knowing the people they are wanting to attract, and how they can improve their lives. This is design as a social science.

Now there are already plenty of toolkits for designers wanting to practice research. My thesis project is to look past contemporary design literature, into the social science literature base. I’m not looking for design tools per se, but essential research tools for designers and innovators. Also, I’ve found that almost none of the existing toolkits talk about how to successfully market design research. My goal is to assemble a well-rounded kit of tools that are just as usable in the commercial sector as in the academic arena.  The “commercialization” of research will be one of my primary interests. For me, this means recognizing that businesses are looking for rapid outcomes, and place less value on meticulous process. So in addition to building tools for practicing research, I am also including tools for proposing and presenting the value of qualitative research to clients. If design research is not a demonstrable value to business clients, the conversation becomes…well, academic.

It is my belief that all of us have a basic need for intellectual growth and freedom. Research is a practical empowerment of our need to be free creative beings. If we would be creative we must become researchers. More pragmatically, research capabilities enable us to give strategy to businesses and people. When we read about the “creative class” we are reading about people who are making a living doing creative work. In this sense, research is not an innovation, but a recovery of something lost.

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