Theoretical Perspectives, Design Research and the PhD Thesis

Dr. Terence Love
Edith Cowan University, Perth, WA


This paper describes the roles of ontology, epistemology, methodology and theory as they relate to the theoretical perspectives that underpin design research. The paper concludes with a description of how clarification of the above aspects of theoretical perspective assists in improving the quality of research, and contributes to simplifying the writing of successful postgraduate theses.


Within design research, there has been a lack of attention to the different roles of ontology, epistemology, methodology, methods, and techniques: for many years 'design methodology' and 'design philosophy' were almost synonymous (1984; Cross, 1993). Design research, of the sort described in the journal Design Studies, originated around 40 years ago in the theories and methods of systematic design which led to the formation of the Design Research Society in the UK, the Workshop-Design-Konstruktion (WDK) group in Germany and the Design Methods Group in the United States (Gregory, 1966; Jones & Thornley, 1964; Pahl & Beitz, 1984). Since that time, a variety of research avenues have been explored, and laid out in a variety of thematic and conceptual taxonomies and reviews (see, for example, Cross, 1984; 1992; 1993; 1996; Dorst & Dijkhuis, 1995; Franz, 1994; Jones, 1970; Konda, Monarch, Sargent, & Subrahmanian, 1992; Reich, 1994; Ullman, 1992). The technical disciplines—the different forms of engineering, planning, informatics, systems analysis and architecture—have been the largest contributors to this relatively new field of research. This technical and scientific emphasis in mainstream design research has led to most explanations of the epistemological foundations of design research focusing on the object of design (or research) and the theory used to represent it (Love, 1998). In recent years, it has become apparent that this positivist emphasis on the research object and its associated theory is insufficient to address the myriad facets of research relating to designing.

Positivism has declined in privilege, and this has allowed the scope of epistemological explanation in research to be extended to include both the researcher and the sociological, historical, cultural and theoretical context of the research (Guba, 1990; 1981; Reason & Rowan, 1981). A major influence in this change was Kuhn's (1962) description of how 'paradigms' bound and shape the conceptual understanding and creativity of scientists and, hence, shape the concepts and theories that are produced. Kuhn’s analyses were originally justified with respect to the natural sciences, but the idea and term have since permeated other disciplines such as design research.

The field of design research adopted Kuhn's ‘paradigm’ to facilitate discussion about its foundations, especially research methodology (see, for example Colajinni, de Grassi, di Manzo, & Naticchia, 1991; Cross, 1996; Woodbury, 1993). The term has become problematic, however, because of the variety of different ways that it has been used (Stegmüller, 1976). These include; a ‘world view’ that includes any of the assumptions and bases of theory of research (Reich, 1994; Reich, 1994), the public face of any theory generated as a result of research (Konda et al., 1992), and the running together of methodological perspective, methodology and method (see, for example, the publications of the ‘design methods movement’ (Cross, 1984) and, more particularly, the ‘received view’ of Suppe (Cross, Naughton, & Walker, 1981). Each use is different, and non of them includes all the factors that underpin research and theory-making.

Three other terms, ‘metaphor’, ‘reification’ and ‘privilege’, have promised a similar conceptual and terminological economy. ‘Metaphor’ has been used to describe the way that humans represent the unknown in terms of the known, and, like ‘paradigm’, its utility has declined because contradictory meanings are in use (1992; Coyne & Newton, 1992; 1992; Indurkhya, 1992). The terms ‘reification’ and ‘privilege’—as in ‘reified frameworks’ (Nideau, 1991), and ‘privileged metaphors’(Coyne et al., 1992) have had supporting roles to the more primary concepts of ‘metaphor’ and ‘paradigm’, but are also limited by lack of consistent definition and subsequent conflation. These weaknesses in modern terminology of the foundations of design research point to a return to the more established philosophical terminology of ‘ontology’, ‘epistemology’ and ‘methodology’ being beneficial for exploring how prior circumstances and factors affect design research and its outcomes.

Roles of Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology in Research and Thesis-writing

The philosophically well-established areas of ontology, epistemology and methodology are foundational to research and theory making. Ontology is the philosophical study of reality and being. It derives from the Greek ontos - being, and logia - study. In essence, ontology is the exploration of the fundamental kinds of things that exist in the world. Ontological inquiry is closely tied to its modes of study. Epistemology is the critical study of the nature, grounds, limits and criteria of validity of human knowledge. It originates in the Greek episteme - knowledge and logia - study. Epistemological knowledge, as theory, is reflexively defined through sociological accounts of knowledge and science especially through the different varieties of constructivism. Methodology is the science of method, and derives from the Greek methodos - method and logia - study. Methodology is the philosophical evaluation of investigative techniques within a discipline. The most abstract of the three is ontology. The most concrete is methodology. Epistemology links ontology and methodology through its role in the study of the way that reality is represented by theory created as a result of the application of research methods. Definitions of each of ontology, epistemology and methodology have varied over time as Philosophy has developed. The above definitions were derived from Websters Comprehensive Dictionary and Collins Dictionary of Sociology (Jary & Jary, 1991; Marckwardt, Cassidy, & McMillan, 1986).

It has been argued that ontology and epistemology are inseparable because of the reciprocity between how 'an individual human’s sense of what existence is' is constructed, and the model of existence on which that construction is based. That is, they are inseparable because the answers to ‘What is existence?’ and ‘What is knowledge?’ are mutually interdependent (Guba, 1990). This meta-epistemological interrelationship presents few problems, however, in design research—just as the theoretical relativistic overlap of kinematics and dynamics in the study of moving bodies presents few difficulties for those using Newtonian theories.

More important, however, are the ways that the roles of ontology and epistemology change between positivist and post-positivist research situations. These differences are consequent on the exclusion or inclusion of human considerations in research, and the shift of focus from objective to subjective considerations. In positivist research, human considerations are excluded, and the focus is on the objectively observable properties of objects, including their behaviour. Positivist epistemological analyses are aimed at the "correctness" and accuracy of theory as a representation of objectively observable situations. That is, the grounds and validity of knowledge is evaluated in terms of how well it represents the properties of objects. In this positivist context, ontology focuses on the elements, such as axioms and concepts that are the building blocks of theories about objects. In contrast, post-positivist epistemology is aimed at human "knowing". Its main foci, therefore, are the conscious and unconscious aspects of human cognition and affect that shape the development of human knowledge. Post-positivist ontology, therefore, focuses on the factors that influence individual human beings' senses of reality and agency. At core, this is the study of human values, beliefs, assumptions, presumptions and conditioning, and the ways that these shape human functioning. To summarise, in positivist research, the focus is on objective information, with ontology the study of the basic abstract elements utilised in the theoretical developments that originate from epistemological and methodological application. In post-positivist research, the focus changes to "human constructed knowledge" with epistemology as the study of how it is constructed, and ontology the study of the basic elements, such as human values, that shape an individual's construction of knowledge.

Two other factors are involved in clarifying the roles of ontology, epistemology and methodology in research. The first, is the nature of research as an activity in the public domain. This "public" aspect of research requires that descriptions of research , with their theories, concepts and terminology, are presented in a publicly well-agreed and well-defined discourse chosen to be as unambiguous as possible. This implies that researchers should, as much as possible, build on other well-established and clearly defined scholarship. The second factor relates to the guidance of the processes of inquiry that underpin research. Inquiry is not useful of and by itself. Research involves directing inquiry in particular directions, and for particular purposes. In most cases the processes of inquiry  are directed by the subject of research, the research problem and context through, for example, keywords in an internet search engine, journal subject searches, and serendipitous exploration of library bookshelves. An alternative, however, is that inquiry can also be guided via the types of theoretical entity involved in particular research project. For example, by the theoretical characteristics necessary for (say) the definition of cognitive artifacts. This is an important alternative approach in undertaking research and making theory about an activity such as design that has many aspects that are operationalised theoretically. Its alternative, attempting to address the issues of theory by focusing on the physical characterisitics rather than the characteristics of theoretical elements, leads to terminological conflation and confusion of the sort identified by several researchers (see, for example, Hollins, 1994; Lewis, 1964; O’Doherty, 1964; Pugh, 1990; Ullman, 1992).

Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology in Design Research

Issues of theoretical perspective, the underpinnings of research, are more complex in Design Research than in many other disciplines because design research frequently involves both quantitative and qualitative issues, is spread across multiple domains, involves cognitive and subjectively perceived artefacts, and philosophically extends into those boundary areas of human cognitive and affective functioning that Rosen identified as beyond what is classically included in analysis (Rosen, 1980). The scope of design research includes issues of theoria, praxis and techne (Reich, 1992) alongside social, environmental and ethical issues and exploration of human functioning and agency (Love, 1998). Potentially it includes  the theoretical and methodological approaches of most other disciplines. Love's meta-theoretical taxonomy of design theory maps out the diversity, complexity and theoretical scope inherent to design research in terms of the sorts of theoretical abstractions that are involved (Love, 1998). This meta-theoretical taxonomy separates out nine epistemologically different sets of theoretical subjects for design research.




Ontology of design theory


Epistemology of design theory


General design theories


Theories about the internal processes of designers and collaboration


Theories about the structure of design process


Design methods


Theories about mechanisms of choice


Theories about the behaviour of elements


Initial conception and labeling of reality

Subjects of design research in each of the above levels in the taxonomy may have a wide range of physical or object characteristics, regardless of their similarity of attributes as theoretical abstractions. In research terms, this means that a large number of research ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies may be associated with each level.

In addition it is necessary to take into account that design research also involves research into itself and each act of research is also a designed phenomenon. This suggests that it is also necessary to separate; theories and concepts of meta-theoretical research into design theory, theories and concepts of design research, and theories and concepts of design. It also implies that, because research and theory are themselves designed, each of the levels in the above meta-theoretical hierarchy also may be deconstructed into their own meta-theoretical hierarchies that nestle like Chinese boxes similar to the ‘holonic’ models of systems research described by Hollick (2000 (in press)) and Hutchinson (1997).

Implications for Design Research

Drawing out the research and theory issues associated with better addressing ontology, epistemology and the methodological aspects of design research points to several implications.

First, are the implications for the training of design researchers. The difference between the PhD and Masters level research is to a large extent marked by the analyses relating to the design of appropriate research instruments, and choices of theoretical constructs (Phillips & Pugh, 1992). These analyses define the ontological, epistemological and methodological foundations on which otherwise tacit choices of research methods and techniques can be made explicit. The meta-theoretical hierarchy provides a starting point for defining which sorts of fundamental issues must be addressed by PhD level design researchers, and which may be omitted by those undertaking Masters level research.

The broad scope and high level of theoretical complexity of design research implies that one of the major issues for researchers is the integrating, coordinating, explicating and clarifying the use of other disciplinary approaches in addressing particular design research problems. This suggests that skillfulness in a wide range of ontological, epistemological, methodological and meta-theoretical analyses should be one of the primary attributes of competence in PhD level design research.

Second, the application  of the meta-theoretical hierarchy to the literature indicates that there are many areas of design research that have been poorly addressed or not addressed. These areas offer many opportunities for new contributions to knowledge for new, junior and senior researchers in the field. Many of the areas relate to clarifying the foundations of design research, and, by implication, the development of well-justified contributions in these areas will enable Masters and PhD level researchers to proceed to addressing other research problems with more confidence. Additional attention to the foundations of design research will also help improve quality of published output, and help define and clarify the discipline.

Third, the more comprehensive treatment of issues of ontology, epistemology and methodology in design research will help resolve many of the controversies currently evident in the discipline, especially in relation to discourse about the idea of research for, by and through designing, and about the differences between research and design practice.

Finally, the description of the ontological, epistemological and methodological basis of each design researcher's work is a part of making it usefully available in the public domain. Such a description of a researchers activitity and outcomes must be based on prior well-argued knowledge in order for other researchers to be able to interpret it with the minimum of ambiguity. This implies that training in design research should include a review of related theories that are well-established and research methods from other disciplines.


This paper has explored some of the factors of theoretical perspective that underpin design research. The paper suggests ways in which additional attention to these issues can contribute to improved outcomes for design research, the training of design researchers, and improvements to the quality of research theses.


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