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A design inquiry schema

A brief encounter with a group of professionals interested in exploring ‘design research’ caused me to revisit a schema I have been developing recently which tries to show the relationship between scientific inquiry—i.e. ‘research’—and design inquiry—i.e. inquiry for action.

Fig. 1 Design inquiry for action

'Design' inquiry is inclusive of ‘research’ inquiry, but also incorporates ‘assessment' inquiry and ‘search' inquiry. These three subsets of design inquiry are designed to facilitate wise action when integrated systemically. The three forms of inquiry support dramatically different means of learning and dramatically different learning outcomes separately. Both ‘assessment’ and ‘search’ are as demanding and disciplined as ‘research’ in their own unique ways.

Design inquiry is learning what you need to know in order to do what needs to be done in order to secure desired outcomes. It is not only learning about the nature of the world, but also learning about what is thought to be ideal and what ought to be made a new addition to the real world. Design inquiry creates new knowledge and new forms of knowledge in support of this. For example, transforming scientific data and information into aspects of design knowledge results in wiser action—i.e. design action—than would otherwise be possible.

From a design stance, ‘research’ plays a distinct but delimited role in the totality of what inquiry for action requires. Design in this case is taken to be not narrowly limited to the process of making stuff that is functional, novel and sustainable, and injecting it into the real world. This is a limiting view of design that is not connected to the larger issue of human intension. This is not merely a matter of design being unsustainable in an ecological sense, but of not being of service to human potentiality, responsibility and accountability.

In academic settings, design inquiry—learning what sort of change is desirable—is typically given scant if any attention. Inquiry for description and explanation of already existing things—‘research’—is given full attention, resources and status. This is significant for the nascent design tradition because as traditional craft or professional oriented design schools have become more a part of the cafeteria spread of programs and curriculum at universities it has been determined that it is necessary to scientize design—giving rise to the singularity of ‘design research’. Thus any form of design related inquiry whether it is ‘scientific research’ or not, is labeled as ‘research’ in order to maintain a place at the resource and status table of academia and in the hearts and minds of those who depend on academia as an asset.

Of course good design depends on good ‘scientific research’, but the nature of something called ‘design research’ is up for grabs. A leading design scholar—Klause Krippendorf —takes the position that the term ‘design research’ is an oxymoron. Others take an opposite view, that design inquiry can only be saved from its unsound behavior if it transforms itself into a reasonable facsimile of some form of science—i.e. becomes scientized.  ‘Research’ plays an important supporting role in design projects and design scholarship, but it is important to discern between good science and lesser forms of scientized inquiry.

Design inquiry, of which ‘scientific research’ is a subset, is meant to support a process of learning that leads to effective action, which in turn leads to desired change. There needs to be a form of design scholarship that is wide enough and deep enough to support designers and design cohorts in getting better at doing this. The question is who will support and where will this kind of design scholarship be supported. Businesses, governments and other institutions already understand the world is too volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous to not need the support of good design competence building activities—i.e. systemic design scholarship and praxis.


  1. I too like to distinguish the role of scientific research and the context driven and directed search that Design projects and processes bring up and require of its designers and design teams. I call this search "design exploration" - the actions and searches in the real world where designers borrow tools and methods from a number of disciplines, but not strictly followed since the actions are more aimed at garnering insights rather than knowledge for publishing. The second process that is concurrent is called "Design Inploration" - a cognitive and tactual journey that is internal to the designers mind and body where memories and accumulated insights bear on the insights garnered by the explorations


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