Research By Design: a very brief literature review

Can you do research by designing? I think it depends on what you mean by “research” and by “designing”. It might even depend on what you mean by “by”.

Friedman (2008) doesn’t think practice is research:

The notion of ‘research by design’ is [an ill-considered] idea, conflating practice and research in ways that make explicit theory development difficult.

Friedman doesn’t mince words. A key paragraph:

The phrase ‘research by design’ is widely used, but it has not yet been defined. Instead, those who use the phrase have not bothered to read either Frayling’s paper (1993) or Read’s book (1944, 1974). Instead, they adopt a misunderstood term for its sound-bite quality, linking it to an ill-defined series of notions that equate tacit knowledge with design knowledge, proposing tacit knowledge and design practice as a new form of theorizing.

and this:

Only explicit articulation allows us to test, consider or reflect on the theories we develop. For this reason, the misguided effort to link the reflective practice of design to design knowledge, and the misguided effort to propose tacit knowledge or direct making as a method of theory con- struction are dead ends.

Friedman is arguing the conservative position that an activity isn’t research unless you offer up your method and reasoning for other people to view.

Sless (2007) argues that designers, through their practice, sometimes develop rules which inform future practice. He says this rule development is research and that the rule development can only take place through designing. Sless counts as “designing” the activities of making, reflecting on designing, and testing designs with users.

Undoubtedly the claims about the superiority of science and technology over art and craft will continue. But we should resist them; the undervalue the importance of rules as discussed here to which the arts and crafts have made, and continue to make, significant contributions. (p121)

I have suggested that we cannot use either logic or science to legitimize our practices; we therefore have to offer our own types of evidence, based on our practices, systematic methods and, of course, results. (p122)

It’s not clear where Sless’s “rules” are stored. If they’re written down, then I think Sless and Friedman hold mostly the same position.

Mäkelä and Nimkulrat (2011) argue that “documentation in practice-led research context can function as conscious reflection on and in action” and give several rich examples of doctoral research in art and design which used reflection in and on action. They argue that the documentation of making and reflection on the finished product and process is research.

The exploration of knowledge partly through making artefacts has brought a new dimension to design research as the practitioner-researcher not only creates an artefact but also documents, contextualises and interprets the artefacts as well as the process of making them. (p1)

They argue (referencing Koskinen 2009) that all research has practice as its basis. What is new about art and design research-through-practice is the location of the artist in a university system that values research. This has led to a claim from artists situated in universities that artistic practice, just as much as scientific practice, is research. Mäkelä and Nimkulrat then say:

a new actor that has appeared on the stage – a practitioner who reflects upon her/his own practice.

They further say:

this does not mean that documentation is the foundation of research or theory construction (Friedman 2008, p157) [reference in original]

(Friedman (2008) doesn’t use the word “documentation” but “articulation”.)

Mäkelä and Nimkulrat, again:

documentation can assist in capturing the experiential knowledge in creative process, so that what the practitioner learns from within his/her practice becomes explicit, accessible and communicable.

And what do I think? I think that just making an artefact isn’t research, however difficult or creative it is. But, I also think that creative work doesn’t need to be explained so that a lay person can follow the explanation of why the work produces new knowledge — we don’t hold a proteogenomics thesis to that standard so we shouldn’t hold a thesis in design to that standard. Is an artefact a complete explanation? I’m learning towards no. Could an artefact be part of an explanation about why a piece of work produces new knowledge. I think it can.


Friedman, K. (2008). Research into, by and for design. Journal of Visual Art Practice. doi:10.1386/jvap.7.2.153 (pdf)

Mäkelä, A. M., & Nimkulrat, N. (2011). Reflection and documentation in practice-led design research. In Proceedings of NORDES, 2014. Retrieved from Google Scholar

Sless, D. (2007). Designing philosophy. Visible Language, 41(2), 101. (doesn’t seem to have a non-paywalled version available)


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