Straddling the Contour: Designing Research to Inform Design

by Michael Doyle |

Appeared online: May 11, 2014


The vast landscape of ideas that researchers from architecture and urban planning traverse during their doctoral studies can make many regret the distance they see growing between their everyday research activities and design. This distance can create a fear that the research conducted in the tower of the university will turn out to be irrelevant to practice—that the forays into the foreign territory of related social and natural sciences provide no path of return. Yet, the design process itself is rich with such intellectual meandering. The challenge is perhaps to make research meaningful for the action orientation of praxis. This essay argues that the plurality of knowledge incorporated in the design process challenges research for design to be explicit about the contexts of its problematic, the limits of its normative recommendations for action and the type of evidence it provides. This requires addressing connections between the intuitive nature of the design process, the various scientific worldviews that influence design decision-making and an understanding of the open and complex nature of the structure and evolution of the built environment. Without a clear articulation of these elements, the design process will be unable to identify the degree of its agency and end up looking elsewhere for design solutions.

The heuristic nature of the design process means that the scale of the problem and solution space can take various unpredictable turns. As the design solution evolves, problems are reframed and solutions are introduced that may diverge greatly from the objectives as they were framed from the outset. Colin Rowe, looking at his students’ work in the early 1980s, noticed that there was a tendency to post-justify certain decisions in order to provide a greater narrative coherence to the project . Architectural and urban programming, which stem from the Design Methods Movement of the 1960s, seek to aid the design process by establishing a set of goals, objectives and performance criteria that define the problem and allow the design process to evolve within a relatively precise selection of constraints . Programming draws extensively from empirical research in order to defend design decisions on scientific grounds . Even if the project outcome cannot be known in advance, certain scenarios can be eliminated, making the design phase more effective.

Despite the wealth of knowledge available to environmental designers, few know how to access—much less evaluate the relevance of—scientific evidence and rarely are projects preceded or accompanied by a rigorous programming process. The inability to see the interrelationships between the constraints defined by research results leads to the tendency to abandon certain objectives or to redefine the design problem for the sake of convenience . An additional challenge arises from the fact that relevant evidence may come from at least five different scientific worldviews: traditional science (valid objective knowledge), technical rationality (instrumental knowledge), pragmatism (constructed, useful, knowledge), interpretivism (subjective, persuasive knowledge) or intuitionism (knowledge received through insight) .

The difficulty of clearly defining design problems means that multiple knowledge categories have to be combined in any research project. Diaz Moore and Geboy argue that pragmatism and interpretivism, which address truth as constructed and subjective, are better equipped than traditional science or technical rationality in addressing the systemic, holistic nature of design problems. The designer knows this from experience: the knowledge synthesized during the creative process can lead to many unpredictable outcomes. Research on the evolution of urban form suggests that the reproduction of the built environment is difficult to predict or control. City form does not evolve according to a set of deterministic models, but rather emerges spontaneously out of the decisions of many different human actors whose individual goals may be very different from the global result . Where the designer-researcher can get lost is in the multiple lenses (e.g. social, economic, geological and political) through which the urban form and its evolution can be read, forgetting that environmental designers are trained first and foremost to act upon physical space for use by groups of people whose profiles are not always known in advance.
These different lenses, while disconcerting, are necessary to the progress of any research project that seeks to provide evidence for design decision-making. The challenge is to assure the knowledge transfer between architecture or urban planning and the other social and natural sciences in addition to the communication of the relevance of this knowledge for praxis. This is not to say that all research should be praxis-oriented, but that when it is, it is explicit about its analytical and theoretical underpinnings. Because normative theories in architecture and urban planning outnumber analytical ones , it is much easier to fall into the trap of prescription, without the tools to investigate whether or not the decisions made have an impact that is at least desirable if not precisely what was intended.

Despite a faith in scientific knowledge to shed light on the unknown, there will always be uncertainty. The modus operandi for our generation of researchers may be to address uncertainty as an ontological, rather than epistemological problem: it is here to stay and no amount of knowledge will entirely eliminate it. This means that on the one hand there will always be room for the creative freedom so coveted by designers. On the other, however, researchers will have to be able to identify what evidence is most relevant for acting upon a particular problematic and why. This raises a variety of questions that this journal will need to tackle. How can research that adopts multiple scientific worldviews reconcile the different forms of knowledge within its program? How can its results be communicated both to different scientific communities (that may react to ideas about good evidence different from their own with suspicion) and to practitioners (who may be more or less open to recommendations from research)? How can the design of research projects maintain a conversation with design? Any research program that hopes to speak to a larger community will be unable to avoid these questions. Contour will provide a platform for discussing them on an international scale.


One response to “Straddling the Contour: Designing Research to Inform Design”

  1. Dario Negueruela says:

    I find the content and tone of your editorial very appropriate. The structure and how you build your argumentation are also very well articulated.
    My only relevant comment would be that there is also a constructive dimension of justification that belongs to broader cultural frames, which make it necessary or not to back up one’s assumptions. This refers to notions of accountability and authority which have been changing very fast even within our societies. As part of the construction of justification, science is also subject to such ethical questions on the common good and on the role of the designer and of the scientist. Along these lines runs my reference to the ethical dimension. I say this because I see an ethical claim that is very clearly laid in your editorial.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *