Icons 1423864915 next graphic journey designresearch icon Design Research

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Design thinking and design process both involve design research. Design research is the active practice of developing successful investigative tools, resources and methods to support design thinking and making. Design research develops investigative tools. The letters I,D,E,S,I,G,N of the IDesign Model help us to remember the seven ways of thinking involved in design research:

intending: establishing wants and goals
defining: naming, listing and describing what is involved
exploring: imagining, organizing and analyzing possibilities
innovating: improving potential of possibilities
goal getting: judging, measuring, and evaluating success
knowing: remembering, integrating and applying is learned
Let’s start investigating!

Activity 1 – People

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Design is for people. It is everyday and everywhere people live, work, play and learn. Observing, listening to and interviewing people are all good research techniques.

sketch, photograph, video, diagram
ask questions, analyze answers
take measurements of all ages of users
diagram where (time of day or season) and when people move
list all of the activities that currently take place
do a color coded bar chart of how long activities last
record people’s expectations of products, places, experiences
Most research looks at a wide range of information gathering before making decisions. Doing this research is a good warm up to the design process and helps to generate ideas for your projects. Record your information and then organize it in a coherent way in a paper, a poster and a prezi presentation! People power!

Activity 2 – Places

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Places have history, presence and potential. A visit to the site begins your journey. Collect facts, data, observations and information. Take a place investigation kit. Pack gloves, a collection bag for materials, a video camera, a digital camera, your sketchbook, and a notebook.

Start by taking a walk around your site to better understand its boundaries and context (what surrounds the place). Record Measurements in strides. Look at details and make a few detail sketches. Next take a video pan of the place. This will be good to look at back at the studio. Make at least three perspective sketches before taking key panoramic photographs. These will help you remember details. If acceptable, use gloves to pick up natural and man-made materials that represent the condition, texture and color of the place. Take notes describing the quality of your experience; record physical make up. Record activities that take place in the space. Next, stop in at a local library. Research your place’s history to better understand its past uses and livelihoods. Then put on your climate hat and look up temperature ranges, precipitation, wind patterns, and native vegetation and animal habitats. You are ready to take all of this information, organize it, analyze it and try a SWOT approach. SWOT analyzes and interprets your information.
threats to the site.

Activity 3 – Things

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People make, invent, and use things in everyday life. We create things we need. We make objects we enjoy. We invent systems and tools to use to improve the way we interact in the world. Researching what objects different cultures use and acquire to invest content, culture, memory, functionality, or fun reveals what people find important, humorous, useful, and meaningful. Researching objects means looking at the object itself very closely as animate and inanimate. It involves observing how people interact, use, and place value on the object. Design research inquires into the nature of an object’s origin- its material extraction, production, transportation, and life cycle. Design research also evaluates users’ preferences in color, form, function, and meaning through interviews, assessment, and trial and error testing. Select two things you use daily (maybe a pen and some scissors) and chart their cradle to grave journeys. Which one is more functional in the long run than the other?

Activity 4 – Activities

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Designed objects dominate our lives and serve to ease or enhance our daily activities. Take for example a simple workout: The shoes you wore while on the run? They were stylish, and modeled to look slick and fast. They were comfortable, and shaped to match the contours of the human foot. They are durable, and take advantage of newer, stronger materials. Running shoes don’t work well by accident; they work because a team of designers wanted to make a common activity—running—more pleasant.

What other activities are influenced by design? Laundry? Sweeping? Driving? Learning? Make a bubble diagram outlining your daily routine, and brainstorm designed objects that influence your common activities. Are there any designs that you take for granted? What is missing? What could be improved?

Activity 5 – Quantitative + Qualitative Research

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Designers observe and listen. They gather and analyze. They make connections and structure strategies. They work to reveal and create something that does not exist.They do all of this through tacit (or personal) observation and thinking and through study of data and information form other sources. Direct research is known as primary research and research using other people’s information is considered secondary research. Both types are important. There are many methods that one can apply to do research. The intention is to observe people, understand places and negotiate purpose. Designers gather information using different methods. The information and methods are commonly known as qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative research is about understanding the ‘quality of the experience, place, interaction, or function of something or someplace. Quantitative Research looks at data and information and studies to reveal new understandings and information. Pick a topic, any topic, and outline which methods you would use for each type of research.

Activity 6 – Case Studies

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Has anyone ever attempted to do what you are trying to accomplish? What fields have studied the same conditions or situations? Designers often study “case studies” or best practices to learn from other people trying to solve the same problem. Collect as much information about case studies, or precedents, on your topic.

Don’t reinvent the wheel…(unless it is a better wheel!).

Activity 7 – Design Challenge

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Creating a Design Challenge can help you organize your research. Like the activities above, it connects people with places with propositions. Design begins with ideas that lead to research. Research inturn shapes design responses. Your process or methodology of investigation informs your decision making. Constructing Ideas is a complex creative undertaking! Watch 29 Ways to Be Creative.

Get inspired! Get organized! Start your journey today!


  • Design research investigates how people interact, but also how people use and make objects they enjoy.
  • Design research investigates how people interact, but also how people use and make objects they enjoy.
  • Quantitative research examines:
  • What are some items that would be useful in your investigation kit?
  • What does the “n” in IDESIGN stand for?
  • Case studies allow designers to learn from other people trying to solve the same problem.
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