Science Rules: Why Design Research Needs Scientific Research Classifications

Dennis Cheatham
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design
Graduate Director, Experience Design MFA
Miami University

The multifaceted nature of design means that research activities related to it are difficult to define. For design researchers, educators, students, and practitioners, new knowledge production can look more like creative or scholarly activity than fact-finding research. In order to more effectively categorize these research activities to be shared inside and outside design, I propose that categorizations of “basic, applied, and clinical” research, common in the sciences, could be valuable for clarifying design research activities and outcomes.

In this presentation, I will specifically focus on the value of basic, applied, and clinical categorizations for framing student and faculty members’ research in design. I will address how these three categorizations can frame designing activities whose “creative” or “scholarly” formats don’t always align with popularly held research definitions, though they produce new knowledge. For design educators and students, the basic, applied, and clinical categorizations can effectively frame research efforts to review boards, promotion and tenure committees, and potential employers.

I will also address how the basic, applied, and clinical categorizations enable designers to more clearly communicate their work outside of design disciplines. The popularity of the design thinking movement has involved designers in social initiatives—concerned with stakeholder experiences as well as the design of products. As design expands and is associated with words like leading, planning, making, thinking, and researching, clearly communicating impacts of various design practices to uninitiated audiences can be challenging. I will share how these science-based categorizations can help improve clarity because they are established, yet they still remain flexible enough to represent design as it continues to be applied in new ways.