Carrying on Design Driven Doctoral research

Author: Roberto Cavallo, Dr. ir., TU Delft

Category: Intro

Design is de facto a core matter in architecture, and the question of whether it can be considered a scientific activity is a persistent concern in our discipline. In the past decades, various scholars elaborated on this matter, providing several interpretations, definitions, and diverse denominations. However, even though numerous publications, projects, examples, and initiatives support the necessity and values of design in research, including the CA2RE+ project itself, it is evident that conducting design driven research remains an adventurous endeavor, particularly within the context of academic studies like doctoral research degree. This is nowadays the situation in many institutions, where promoting design as a pivotal part of scientific research is still met with skepticism. Therefore, starting from some personal observations and findings, the purpose of this contribution is to raise awareness about some of the ‘bears on the road’ and outline options for turning these challenges into vantage points to enhance and encourage Design Driven Doctoral research (DDDr) while also addressing a few complications and dilemmas related to design within the framework of scientific research.

Approaching design
driven research

Most probably because I’m trained as a designer, I’m used to playing multiple roles simultaneously, and thinking and reasoning from multiple perspectives characterize the way I operate. Reasoning as a designer also serves as the link between many of my activities. However, I don't think this is always happening linearly. As conditions, triggers, inputs, impulses, and a myriad of other factors fluctuate constantly, one of my recurring challenges is to keep focusing on the relevant issue, the most significant aspect, attempting to make it visible, and directing it toward the desired outcome according to the particular case or circumstance. Despite being dependent on a variety of intentions, implications, moments in time, deriving choices, and other factors, the key aspect and the particular case or situation are related to one another. The fact that the primary issue has numerous facets, some of which are more obvious than others, is another recurring fact. Additionally, it depends also on the people involved, their intentions, plans, actions, and other contextual factors. Using images, drawings, diagrams, and other visuals in addition to a rational verbal explanation is a good way to proceed, though, as long as you keep your focus on the central issue. Keeping this preamble in mind, in design driven research, a reflection should begin with the core matter, the project proposition, and the role of design in relation to research. Thereby, embarking on design driven research to reflect on oneself as a designer may be also an effective approach. While the relationship with research ought to ultimately lead to the discovery of the knowledge and its adaptation for transferability, the design driven components may also be personal, motivated by intuition or implicit knowledge. Drawings are also tangible indicators of the creative process. They play a crucial role in a design inquiry, and like writing, drawings serve as essential connections between thoughts, their interpretations, and direct translations into acts.

Academic research environments and the understanding of design in scientific research

The context wherein research is taking place is a key factor. In this respect, some challenges may seem obvious when looking at universities as the places where the majority of doctoral research programs are held. These are institutions where academic knowledge, research traditions, and scientific conventions are rooted. At the same time, universities should encourage experimentation, new ideas, and cutting-edge research. I don’t want to begin here a conversation on the regulatory intricacy of universities, however, while discussing doctorates, it appears evident to me that some of their mechanisms and guidelines can frequently be seen as cumbersome, especially if looking at creative and experimental research projects involving non-customary approaches and requiring new pathways of supervision and evaluation.

This is indeed the case of design driven research. It is undeniable that design plays a significant role in architecture. However, design often develops in non-linear ways, and frequently incorporates a variety of aspects as well as subjective viewpoints. Hence, considering design as a legitimate scientific endeavor will, to a certain extent, continue to be contentious for several reasons. Design generally does not adhere to a predetermined and widely accepted set of rules that typically form the foundation of scientific research procedures. On top of that, the dual identity syndrome that is typical of architecture—on the one hand, the practice-oriented design and, on the other, the academic discursive discipline—in some way exacerbates these concerns. Most people think of design as an activity that aims to solve problems and produce a specific product for a project and how it is put into action, which is close to the usual goals of design in professional practice. Nevertheless, it can be also slippery or counterproductive to view design primarily as a means of reaching a specific product and to focus too much on solving problems.

Knowledge must take center stage if design accounts for a research activity. Therefore, engaging in design driven research should entail committing to an inquisitive use of design, in which problem-solving does not take the foreground. The inquiry process should allow more experimentation, and each step should be intended to aid in the development of thinking. Consequently, the inquiry's objective is knowledge discovery, which can be transferred and applied to subsequent activities. An inquisitive use of design enhances design as a knowledge-oriented activity by linking various subjects into synergic interconnections and encouraging creative processes that lead to the emergence of new knowledge.

The wider academic community in creative fields is constantly concerned about many of these issues, especially when this variety of questions is challenging the validation and evaluation of doctoral research. To enhance design driven research, particularly at the doctoral level, it is essential to establish and maintain constructive interactions between all research perspectives in architecture and its flanking disciplines, including every form of design or practice in the built environment.

Hints on employing design in scientific research and communications modes in Design Driven Doctoral research

Motivation, research questions, relevance, approach and methodology, along with novelty, and transferability are some of the most important general requirements to consider when conducting research, particularly doctoral research. Even though these terms usually correspond to typical steps in research, they should be carefully considered in the context of Design Driven Doctoral research. Design driven research cannot be characterized by univocal and objectified methods of inquiry because design has numerous facets and connotations. Instead, it must be characterized by singularity, own position, situatedness, context-dependency, and the application of specific research strategies and techniques. Additionally, because doctoral research is generally an individual endeavor, all considerations for DDDr must be extended to it as well. Therefore, it is fundamental for DDDr that each doctoral researcher develops his position concerning the aforementioned peculiarities, elucidating its distinct individual range of ways to pursue research. How and where is the researcher positioned? In which context is the research located and in relation to which interlocutors and/or framework? Where the inquiry at stake would have an impact and be relevant? This is also if the research is very specific and with a high degree of singularity. If one follows this path, it should be possible to identify the peculiar aspects that are distinctive for the research at stake within the specific field of inquiry. Following this line of thought, the focus can be on specific design research questions, adopting more open research approaches rather than methodically predetermined ones.

In other words, to define and clarify their positions, DDDr candidates need to first be aware of the things they intend to do or are doing, as well as the context in which they are doing them. For instance, what exactly is the individual researcher's research and/or practice laboratory? Where and when does the researcher or designer formulate his own findings regarding specific parts of the work? In addition, researchers should consider the advantages and disadvantages of presenting and communicating their findings strategically, with a focus on the design driven aspects of their investigations. All forms of communication—verbal, nonverbal, written, and visual—play an important and distinct role depending on the audience, just as they do when presenting a design proposal to peers or clients. The glossary should include specific terms that should be clearly explained, expressing and articulating the various steps involved in these research pathways. As in other types of doctoral research, also for DDDr, the contribution to knowledge and its transferability are the most important aspects. Therefore, in DDDr, some matters can become crucial, including personal ones like one's position, motivation, context, and individual triggers, as well as more external ones like sharing, testing, external transformational input, or the research context.


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