Building Better Relationships between Design Research, Design Research Education, Government, Industry and the Design Professions

Dr. T. Love

Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia


Governments and major industrial players regard successful innovation as one of the most significant factors in improving economic and social outcomes. Designing is the process by which new knowledge is transformed into innovative products, systems and services.  Research into designing provides the foundation for improving designing and improving how innovation processes are managed.

Stakeholders in design activities have relatively neglected design research. This paper focuses on the role of concepts and terminology in multidisciplinary design fields in supporting or inhibiting relationships between design professionals, designs researchers, design research educators, government and industry organisations.


Most developed national governments such as Australia, the UK and the US, regard innovation, the generation of new knowledge and its transformation into real products, services and systems as a key element of their policies for economic and social development (see, for example, Canadian Agri-Food Research Council, 1997; Commonwealth of Australia, 2001; Dept of Industry Science and Resources, 1999, pp. 3, 9-10; Innovation Summit Implementation Group, 2000; National Science Foundation, 2001, 2001, 1998; Sara, 2000; The British Council, 2001; The Chief Scientist, 2000; Whitney, n.d.) . It is designers that transform the new knowledge from basic research and convert it into these real world products, systems and services that are the physical manifestations of the widely sought after innovative outcomes (Langrish, 1987) .

Many Western nations have neglected the roles that designers play in transforming knowledge into economic and social benefits. This neglect is evidenced by, for example:

There are many reasons for this neglect, some of which lie with government, some of which are political, and some of which lie with design practitioners and the sub-fields of design research. These include:

Taken together, the above factors point to many situations in which the relationships between stakeholders in design research are problematic. Developments in the disciplines and sub-disciplines of design have not yet led to a satisfactory level of mutually beneficial interrelationships between design researchers and those organisations and professions who would be expected to gain most benefit from the findings of design research.  This is in spite of the multidisciplinary field of Design Research having: strong international networks of academics, researchers and practitioners that span the very broad range of disciplines in which designing is undertaken; a broad range of international and national peer reviewed journals, conferences and other means of knowledge dissemination; and having been established for several decades.

In most countries, design research and the education of design researchers, is on the periphery of awareness of most government funding agencies, industry bodies and businesses, neglected by many design professions and professionals, and its outcomes are underutilised by individuals, organisations and governments.

This paper focuses on the ways that terminology, and concepts of design research contributes to these problems, especially through the lack of alignment between:

The problems of these mismatches can be seen in, for example, the factors that result in large-scale funding and higher levels of government and industry awareness of the 'engineering' aspects of Engineering Design, and the much smaller funding and government and industry awareness of the 'designing' aspects.  This paper argues that many of the problems lie in the lack of ease of   communication between individuals in different disciplines, and that these problems are exacerbated where design disciplines do not maximise their use of concepts, theories and terminologies that span disciplines.

The paper takes a pragmatic instrumentalist position: in most cases, the outputs of designers are functionally defined.  That is, in most cases, designers produce output according to instructions from others (e.g. project sponsors, managers, clients).  They are rarely 'totally free artistic agents', nor in most cases would it be helpful for them to be so. From this position, theories about designing and designs are conceptually tied in two directions:

Tying the terminology and concepts of design research in all sub-fields of design practice to the already established languages of symbolic representation and theory is important to enabling and supporting cross-disciplinary research and the education of designers who will later work in multi and cross-disciplinary design teams. This by itself will help address the problems of terminological confusion and conflation in the design literature. Resolving the problems of terminology are central to resoling many issues of improving the way that the design field can more effectively contribute to national economic and social development.

Occasional need for localised 'designer' concepts and languages may arise when designing pushes the bounds of what is known and hence, it is possible that existing concepts, terminology and theory may be insufficient.  Of concern, however, is when this occurs where designers or design researchers have insufficient understanding and knowledge of already existing terminology, concepts, and theories, and are terminologically and conceptually ‘reinventing the wheel'.

Constituent Orientation Relationships

Constituent market orientation theories provide an effective tool for understanding relationships between stakeholders in design research, identifying improvements to the efficiency and effectiveness of individual and organisational processes important to design research, and identifying key situations in which terminological problems impact adversely on relationships between constituents. Extensive research by Tellefsen and others (Tellefsen, 2001, 1999, 1995) has indicated that orientation of members of an organisation towards other constituents (stakeholders) is a major factor in achieving satisfactory outcomes. Tellefsen’s research was based on a wide variety of organisations  (235 CEOs, 244 market managers, 188 purchasing managers, 163 personnel managers, 179 union representatives, 154 PR managers, and 175 lobbying managers) and indicated that CMO findings are applicable independent of organisational type, size or discipline area and hence are well suited to proving insight into the situation of design research and its stakeholders.

Human beings cannot hold all and everything in mind, and whatever lies outside their orientation is ignored or neglected. There is strong evidence that where managers’ constituent market orientations are aligned with those constituents that have primary influence in the organisation’s value chain, this maximises efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation’s business processes and maximises quality of outcomes.

Tellefsen’s findings point clearly to significant advantages being gained where organisations involve multidisciplinary teams in which high levels of communication and learning are found. The organisation and teams benefit by teams being composed of heterogenous individuals with a wide range of expertise in different discipline areas, and where high levels of communication and learning activities exist between team members.

Constituents in relation to design research are:

·        Sponsors of design work

·        Organisations in which designing is undertaken

·        Organisations that use outsourced design services

·        Industry associations

·        Managers and leadership of organisations

·        Government organisations

·        Governments

·        Research Funding agencies

·        Other design researchers

There is anecdotal evidence that design researchers, like designers, have not adequately addressed constituent market orientation issues, and research and practice seems to have primarily focused on design problems, solutions and artefacts. There is some evidence, particularly from the graphic design field, that market orientation is either inadequately considered or faultily conceived with respect to some constituents. This is evident in survey findings indicating poor relationships with users, sponsors/clients, and managers in the same and other organisations (see, for example, IcoGrada, 2002, 2002, 2002; IcoGrada, 2002) .

The constituent market orientation of designers and design research managers towards research funding agencies is obviously very important and is problematic. In theory, design research is funded under the aegis of Arts and Humanities research funding bodies. Many design researchers, however, undertake research that is highly technical and the lack of fit with the Arts and Humanities research funding bodies means that, in practice, many design research projects submit their funding applications to more technical research funding bodies. This means that they are inappropriately competing against the sorts of research projects for which the technical research funding bodies were originally established. This is a consequence of confusion about what designing and design research involves and at root a problem of terminology. The problems are due to difficulties with terminological and conceptual confusion about whether the term ‘design’ (and hence, design research) refers to an artistic or scientific pursuit, when in reality it involves both. The consequences are serious in two ways: inadequate scientific exploration of the activity of designing; and faulty reconceptualisation of the activity of designing in terms of object properties or information flows in which design research is inappropriately viewed as either engineering research or information systems research.

Another dimenstion of the constitiuent market orientation of design research is the problematic relations between design researchers. Design theories have been developed in different disciplines almost independently of each other. This has resulted in limited and parochial definitions of key terms such as ‘design’ that are directly tied to design practices in these disciplines (Love, 2000) . Most general definitions are limited in scope: either because they include too much, or they exclude aspects of designing that other disciplines would include.  Anecdotally, there remains political tension between the engineering design fields and the design fields whose origins lie in the art/craft traditions (graphic design, typography, industrial design, fashion etc):  members of each regard the work and research of the other as  ‘not really design’. At present, newer design fields (e.g. policy design, social program design, mathematical representation design, experience design, learning systems design futures design, ethical environment designing) are neglected and relatively isolated from the more established design fields.  The nature of contemporary multi-disciplinary design work and design research means that these are deep and serious problems. They not only reduce the inefficiency and effectiveness of research and practice, they result in contradictions in upstream and downstream constituents’ views of designing and design research, effectively seriously reducing the effectiveness of constituent market orientations. By compromising the ‘brand and image integrity’ of the design field, it weakens the definition of designing being distinct from other disciplines and compromises requests for research funding on those grounds. Again this is a problematic issue that increased conceptual and terminological integrity would help resolve.

Constituent market orientation issues with regard to management have been defined by a neglect of managerial issues in design research and by a lack of attempts to integrate theories about designing with theories of business function, management and marketing. Again this is at root closely tied to the definitions of key terms such as ‘design’. Few definitions of ‘designing’ locate the activity within commercial contexts involving management issues whilst at the same time defining designing as distinct from other commercial activities. A notable exception is Galle’s definition that defines ‘design’ in a manner that is dependent on a commercial sponsor (Galle, 1999) .

The constituent market orientation of design research as a field towards government and its agencies is perhaps the one of greatest significance because to a large extent it defines the prominence or otherwise of design research in the research funding community and in the general academic research community. Currently, the constituent market orientation of the design research community to governments has been relatively ineffective. There has been limited government funding by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for Centres of Excellence and funding by National Science Foundation in the USA mainly delivered under the rubrics of engineering research and small business innovation research. In Australia, the research discourse is in place by the ARC (Sara, 2000) but this has not yet emerged as strong contribution to design research as distinct from science, engineering and business process research. In each of these countries, it appears that government-funding agencies believe they are funding design research. Again, this points to terminological and conceptual confusion in which major upstream constituents with engineering, art, entrepreneurship and business management conflate ‘designing’

Constituent market orientation relationships with other constituents are similar to those described above. In each case, the confusion in design research relating to its key terms and concepts emerges in weakened constituent relations and is compounded and compounds constituent relationship problems between others, for example, between designers, users, sponsors and managers of design projects.

Role of Terminology in Relationship Problems

This section draws attention to terminologically problematic situations potentially implicated in relationship problems between stakeholders in design research.

  1. The design research field is split because different disciplines regard what they do as ‘design’ and try to own the term.
  2. The art-craft high profile ownership of ‘design’ has meant that other disciplines such as engineering give precedence to ‘engineering’ as a ‘mathematical modelling’ over ‘design’, which is assumed to be easy and potentially automated by engineering processes.
  3. Lack of an adequate definition of the role of designing in business processes
  4. Lack of an adequate definition of the designing in software production.
  5. Lack of an adequate definition of the designing in education processes
  6. Lack of an adequate definition of the designing in leadership and entrepreneurial activity
  7. Lack of an adequate definition of the role of designing in investment practices
  8. Lack of an adequate definition of the role of designing in architecture and planning (conflicts with structural ‘design’ and civil engineering)
  9. Lack of an adequate definition of the role of designing in ‘sketching’, thinking and other associated activities
  10. Conflict between concept of designing as a special ‘different’ activity/skill and concept that designing is similar or identical to sketching or producing artefacts. The contradiction becomes more evident where designing is assumed to take into account stakeholder attitudes, needs etc
  11. Confusion as to whether designing is an internal or external human activity.
  12. Confusion as to whether designing is a human activity or one that can be automated and hence be ‘not-human’.
  13. Lack of clarity about differences between designing and other closely associated activities such as calculating, information gathering or drawing.
  14. Lack of clarity about the definition of a ‘design’
  15. Lack of clarity about the difference between design research and other research disciplines
  16. The identification of specific value addition due to designing is not evident in the terminology of design research.
  17. Lack of clarity about the differences between designing and creativity
  18. Lack of clarity about the differences between creating a design and creating a product, system, service, theoretical construct, or an experience.

Some issues are specific to problems between particular sub disciplines of designing, and as a result are implicated in inhibiting interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary designing. Some cause problems between designers and users, designers and sponsors/clients, design researchers and research funding bodies, and with potential research sponsors. Together they allow government policymakers to believe that if they fund business, technical disciplines and art organisations then they will by default have funded designing and design research.

Conclusions and Implications

The previous sections point to a direct connection between terminological problems and problematic relationships between stakeholders (constituents) in design research. This is particularly evident in relation to the international status of design research and the funding of design research projects. Poor terminological and conceptual foundations are strongly implicated in systemic difficulties in design research and design practice.

Much of the terminological and conceptual confusion is a result of design disciplines’ conceptual isolationism and parochialism, and a neglect of epistemological issues (see, for example, Coyne, 1997; Love, 2001, 1998; Tovey, 1997) . Resolving these issues may be possible by identifying conceptual common ground and redefining key terms and concepts to reflect the underlying similarities in the physiological basis of human activities in designing.

Ways forward include addressing this problem formally through a cross-disciplinary association such as the Design Research Society. Other alternatives include continuing pressure in the design research journals by individual researchers whose work is adversely affected by the lack of coherent conceptual and terminological foundations and by adverse comment by professionals in other fields (including government) about the problems involved in relationships with design researchers and designers.


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