You are in Oslo, Norway
This page is a part of Jan Michl's website

The following text is a polemical review
of a recent Danish publication about design research
Designforskning: en international oversigt
by Thomas Dickson
published by Arkitektskolens Forlag, Aarhus [Denmark], 2002, 205 pp.
The review was published in Scandinavian Journal of Design History 14, 2004:82-88.


Reviewed by JAN MICHL

You are in for a disappointment if you happen to believe that this book (whose title in English would be Design Research: An International Overview) is about the content of design research - that it provides an outline of foreign design research in the sense of presenting and discussing the most common positions and disagreements, various types of problem formulations, new insights and fresh approaches, or that it at least supplies references to the most remarkable and most widely discussed books and articles written by the most interesting researchers active today. Contrary to its auspicious but largely misleading title, the publication refers only marginally to design research content. It is mainly, and loosely, about what can be called design research frameworks, in Denmark and six other countries, and seems to be addressed to the Danish design research administrators and planners rather than to aspiring design researchers. But if you hope to locate for example a chapter (or a subchapter or a paragraph) discussing doctoral education in design research or listing current design-related doctoral programmes - a key element of any research structure - you will be disappointed, too, as such a theme is nowhere to be found. The overview is international but only if one is willing to accept that the term international stands mainly for Great Britain and USA plus other Scandinavian countries in addition to Denmark, and that it leaves out most of continental Europe. The publication deserves to be called a book largely because it is a well-designed and well-printed product, not because it is a publication consciously addressing the public sphere. So in spite of its rather pleasant exterior, it is more of an in-house report replete with characteristic report idiosyncrasies. In addition to giving the text a visually satisfying appearance the only other effort expended on turning the report into a full-fledged book consisted, it appears, in giving it its inflated title. Had the report been distributed under a matter-of-fact name to relevant research institutions and libraries in Denmark and Scandinavia, preferably free of charge (it was after all the taxpayers' money that financed the project) and in addition been made accessible online, the balance between what it appears to promise and what it in fact delivers would have been better.

The report is an end result of a project developed by the Danish Centre for Integrated Design (Center for Intergreret Design /CID) concerning the state of design research in Denmark and abroad. According to the report's introduction, CID itself was established in 1999 for a three year period as a consequence of the Danish governmental design initiative, and with a budget of DKR 8.1 million, as one of three extramural research centres with a total budget of DKR 15 million. It was based on cooperation between the Aarhus School of Architecture (Arkitektskolen i Aarhus) and Aalborg University (no further specification of what the cooperation entailed is provided). There is a repeated reference to a description of the project of which the present publication is the result, but the description, interesting as it would be for the reader, is not included in the report. The language of the report is Danish, apart from a short concluding English summary.

As a whole the report is a one-man product. The entire project was conducted and written by Thomas Dickson, who describes himself in the Introduction as an industrial designer, a graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture (Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole), with subsequent practice in product design, design promotion [designformidling] and design teaching. In addition, he is presented on the book cover as the editor of a design and architecture magazine and a senior researcher at the CID (though without specification of his research credentials). Mr. Dickson's editorial experience does show: he writes well and in a reader-friendly manner, taking commendable care to avoid specialist cant. The content of the report is informative, and has a clear and purposeful structure. On closer look, however, in addition to the flaws mentioned above the report is marred by various other problems, some of them rather serious. Most of these seem to boil down, I am sorry to say, to the fact that the author appears not himself to be a trained design researcher, or any other kind of researcher for that matter. Neither his obvious intelligence, nor his fluent pen makes up for what seems like a deficiency in his research experience and/or training. Whether the Centre for Integrated Design did or did not see this as a problem, I do not know. At any rate, its decision to produce an international overview of design research without employing a trained researcher to do the job, suggests a deplorable lack of respect for the fact that research in any field is a professional activity requiring a specific training and presupposing the accumulation of knowledge and skill, and that, consequently, to report meaningfully about design research it is imperative for the reporter to have a research education - in addition to design expertise.

But even though the publication turns out not to be quite what its title promises, and in spite of the problems to be discussed below, it does provide a usable general overview of the varied current design research scenes in the selected countries, and supplies interesting information and some good overall characteristics of the design research status of the countries under discussion. It is as a state-of-the-art report that this publication is valuable. According to the author, the information it provides is based mainly on personal visits to some 40 different institutions in Europe and the USA in which design research is practised in one form or another, on questionnaire-based responses from individual researchers, and on the author's exploration of recent design research literature.

The publication is divided into three distinct sections. In the first the author describes various design research environments [designforskningsmiljøer] in different countries, starting with Denmark, and going on to include other Scandinavian countries, Great Britain and the USA, plus elements of the Italian and Dutch research scenes. The presentation is in the form of short reviews of various institutions engaged in design research. All this is put forward as a kind of verbal travelogue, with concise summaries characterising the status of design research in the country in question. The third section of the report, referred to by the author as interviews, is assigned to the report's Appendix and constitutes fully half of the publication (i. e. some 100 pages). It consists of replies by 38 design researchers or administrators in various countries to a 26-point questionnaire. Sandwiched in between the institutional descriptions and the answers to the questionnaire is the report's middle, theoretical section of some 25 pages, divided into three chapters devoted to a discussion of design definitions and various aspects of the nature, and future, of design research.


In the following I am going to comment on problems relating to the report-like character of the publication, on instances of neglect of research standards, and on the report's preoccupation with the question of the proper definition of design. This preoccupation is, I believe, ill-conceived as it promotes a too discipline-dependent, and ultimately bureaucratic, understanding of design research, while underrating the true driving forces behind all good research, that is to say wonder, curiosity, and an eagerness to better understand reality around us.

The publication starts in the way in which internal reports tend to start: in medias res. It opens with the discussion of recent governmental design policies, and design research initiatives. This is a reasonable thing to do as the initial impulse, and money, for this project, came from the government. Unfortunately, this is all the reader gets by way of introduction: after a brief pause in order to comment on his methods of inquiry, the author goes straight to the results of his research into design research environments, first in Denmark and then the other countries. There is no introductory paragraph explaining, or at least suggesting, why, in the eyes of the author, this thing called design is at all important. No introductory explanation of why he considers design research so vital. Not even a sentence referring to the emergence or history of the design profession, not a single remark commenting on the fact that the term design, ubiquitous in the author's Danish text, is in fact an English word imported into Danish (and other European languages) only some 50 years ago. The historical scope of the publication (apart from a couple of questionnaire responses) is extraordinarily shallow - approximately 10-15 years: whatever lies beyond the 1990s is beyond the author's attention. As a result the author's discussions of design hover in a strange timeless, history-less limbo. Are we to understand this as a telltale sign that practising designers still have difficulty in understanding that all design research, as well as all design practice, has an intrinsic historical dimension? Or are we to see it only as an indication that there was not enough space, and time, explicitly to introduce this dimension into the report? At any rate, the author's failure even to remind the reader of the historical dimension of design (in whatever sense of the term) may well be tolerable in an internal report, but it is less so in a public book. The same can be said about the author's decision to leave out such important European countries as Germany and France from the overview. English is the second language of virtually every educated Dane (as well as all other Scandinavians) while command of both German and French is in general far less widespread. Consequently, information about what takes place in Germany and France - compared with our knowledge of the design world of the English-speaking countries - is generally speaking highly inadequate. To say, as the report does, that design research in France or Germany (or other missing countries) is too fragmented to obtain a synoptic view or that these countries' researchers only seldom participate in the large international conferences with papers of their own is simply not a suitably persuasive reason for leaving such countries out in a publication advertised as an international overview. True, no report can cover everything. But had this one been called something like Design research frameworks in Scandinavia, Great Britain and the USA, the title would have been admittedly less grand but also less misinforming the reader.

While these problems are in principle related to the report-like character of the publication, other kinds of problems seem to disclose an odd negligence of established research standards. Let me comment first on the book's bibliography and then on the status of the questionnaire answers.

The minimal attention devoted to the research bibliography is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the whole publication. Among the 26 written questions submitted to every of the 38 respondents, question no.16 asked explicitly for a list of five recent publications. This was an excellent idea. However, only three out of the 38 respondents complied, although most of them did mention, without specifying, that they, or members of the institution they represented, had published both academic books and articles. Incomprehensibly, the author let the respondents get away with not providing him with the list of the five publications he asked for. Here he could have assembled perhaps up to 150 fresh research references, which would have given real substance to the publication - but he ended up with some fifteen titles, which, furthermore, remain buried somewhere in the interview texts. Was the author unaware that an extensive research bibliography would have constituted a central asset of the publication? Obviously, he was. Mr. Dickson did compile a bibliography at the end of the report numbering some 40 items, but this includes more or less well known books that he obviously used to orient himself in the design research landscape. The fifteen new research references acquired through the questionnaire are nowhere listed.

Another problem, also relating to the questionnaire section is the knowledge status of the questionnaire answers. To put it more concretely: to what extent are we to trust that the content of the replies is really the one the respondents stand for? The author says in his introduction, that he chose a 'journalist approach' (7) to his research presentation both in the first and last sections of the report. This does not create any problem in the first section, but it becomes a liability in the last, questionnaire section. The problem is the level of precision. In contrast to journalists, we expect researchers at all times to inform the reader about the sources and status of the knowledge they communicate. Here the author simply leaves us in the dark. The only hint the reader receives is two rather uninformative introductory sentences: 'Most of the interviews were conducted in person at the institution in question. In some cases the questionnaire was answered in writing after a previous conversation.' (15) But how were the personal interviews carried out? Did the respondents simply read and answer the questionnaire, while the author recorded the answers? Is this what he means by 'interviews' or did he meant something more interactive? And how were the answers recorded? Were they perhaps taken down in shorthand? Were they taped and transcribed word for word? Are the answers we read reconstructed from the author's hand-written notes taken during the interviews? Were the Danish questionnaire answers authorized by the respondents? The author does not tell us. Some interviews are introduced by the note 'Visit [& date]' while others are introduced by 'Conversation [& date]'. Are the terms 'Visit' and 'Conversation' interchangeable, or is there perhaps a reason why the author sometime uses the first and sometime the second term? He does not say. Other interviews are introduced by statements such as 'Questions answered in writing after a previous conversation [& date]'. Does this mean that the texts we read are simply verbatim transcriptions of the respondents' very own texts? If so, why does the author find it necessary to inform us about the previous conversation? Is this a working note which made sense while he conducted the interviews but which he forgot to delete in the final text? All this vagueness seriously undermines the research value of the published answers. Just as it is not advisable to quote from, or argue with, a newspaper or magazine interview, unless it is explicitly stated that the interview formulations were authorized by the interviewee, a prudent researcher would avoid quoting from the present report's questionnaire answers in the absence of the author's clarification of their status as evidence. To say the least, this is a great pity given the huge amount of time obviously invested into collecting the questionnaire answers.


Lastly I want to comment on the preoccupation in the middle, theoretical section of the report, as well in the last, questionnaire section, with the definition of design and the definition of design research, i.e. with the alleged 'cores' of these two activities. (Admittedly, many other things are discussed in the middle section apart from the definition problem, but the definition question seems to be the section's central and recurrent concern.) Although I do believe there is a sensible aspect to this concern - we had better know what we are talking about when we use the word design - I am afraid that on the whole the focus on definition is seriously misguided. The main problem, as I see it, is that as a consequence of the preoccupation with the definition of design the idea of research is all the time linked to the idea of a discipline, so much so that the two tend to merge. However, since a discipline is an organizational and administrative unit or category, while the heart of research is the effort to understand our world better in order to fool ourselves less, the whole idea of research is converted almost entirely into organisational and administrative terms.

'How do you define design?' is the very first question in the report's questionnaire. The problem with this seemingly reasonable question is that it is loaded: it is a question and a declaration rolled into one. The author's question actually says: 'There is of course only one proper, right and objectively valid meaning to the word design and it is this proper meaning we are in search of. Now, what is this proper meaning according to you?' In other words, the question makes the respondent take for granted an a priori claim that there in fact is such a thing as one proper, right and objectively valid meaning to the word design - without giving the respondent a chance to reject the claim, because the claim is not obvious in the question. Having accepted the question as legitimate, the respondent is caged: practically any answer will sound like a confirmation of the idea that there really is only one proper meaning of the term design. (The author in fact reports that some respondents tended to shudder at the question. I do not blame them.) Only very few of the respondents attempted to break out of the cage this question put them into. Most of them proceeded meekly to answer it - instead of responding in the only way which would set the respondent free again - namely by posing a counter-question, such as: 'How do I define design? Well, what sense of the word design do you have in mind?' For it is an undisputed fact (one that the author himself widely comments upon) that the word design stands for very many very different things.

The report's preoccupation with the definition question must then be taken as an expression of unwillingness to take the multitude of meanings of the word design for the reality it is. Mr. Dickson obviously sees this plurality of meanings as a deplorable case of 'confusion' (66, 69), i.e. as a kind of falling from grace of some sort of primordial oneness of Design. The counter-question mentioned would show, I think, that the author's definition question makes no sense unless one has embraced some weird kind of belief such as, let us say, that once upon a time the term design came with a manual, which we have unfortunately mislaid, but it must be somewhere, and the task now is to find it, or at least to find a person who still remembers what it was it said. Only this kind of essentialist dream can explain the author's suggestions informing the middle section of the report, that without the true definition of design it would be difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to practise design research proper.

The author's second question in the questionnaire, 'How do you define design research?' gives rise to the same objection as his first. Neither does this question make much sense without your acceptance of the above-mentioned essentialist design metaphysics implanted into the question.

It seems that the ultimate goal of the report's quest for an objective design definition and an objective core of design research is to reinforce the identity and status of the profession. The author writes: 'It is a task for the practising researchers to penetrate to the very core of design research [finde ind til kernen i designforskningen] as well as the frontiers of their professional field in order to be able to establish a better and more conscious cooperation with other specialist research disciplines' (84) I read the sentence as suggesting that only when a unique core of design research is discovered can one proceed to legitimately claim a piece of design territory of one's own - and raise fences distinguishing what is ours from what is theirs, so to speak. Only in this way, so the logic seems to go, can designers claim that they truly differ from engineers, architects, ergonomists, cognitive psychologists, marketing people and other professions perceived as competitors. Of course, the more or less hidden inter-professional struggles going on among neighbouring professions for a place in the sun are all too real. But should design research aim at propping up the organisational status of the profession? Will this result in new insights and new knowledge about design - or in just another form of promotion? At any rate, the report's insistence on associating research with the borders, limits and frontiers of the discipline is very disturbing now that design research is still in its infancy. We can be pretty sure that the one true design definition and the one true core of design research which the report urges be uncovered will never be found, simply because the whole quest is foolish. But the very idea that such a quest is important will, I am afraid, linger on and will certainly be used to pester young researchers to toe the line whenever their chosen problems transcend the turf.

The idea that there is an objective core of design research and that this core ought to belong to designers only, should be seen for what it is: a flight of fancy. I do agree with the author's conclusion, however, that there is a need to focus on what the report loosely describes as design process. By this it means a need for more insight into what designers as designers actually do and how they do it (and I see that such a focus is important also in order to make design history more useful to design students). But this sensible focus must be seen as a matter of research choices, preferences, priorities and decisions - not something that constitutes a given, intrinsic, objective core of design research. Design research, I contend, has no core that exists independently of what a person or a group chooses to see as its core. To argue otherwise smacks of a monopolist, protectionist impulse. And as this impulse will tend to allow only card-carrying members of the profession into whatever will be described as the 'core', it is bound to hinder developments in the direction of a vibrant design research. (The rather sullen and unappreciative remarks found here and there in the report regarding the present journal, the Copenhagen-based Scandinavian Journal of Design History (SJDH), alleging that it is concerned only with aesthetic and stylistic aspects of design, can only be understood in the light of the above ideas: if there somewhere exists an inherent and therefore objectively valid definition of design research, it implies that all design research not covered by this definition, is somehow inferior. Only on the basis of this view can SJDH's considerable contribution - over one hundred sizeable research articles and some fifty detailed design book reviews published in the past 13 years - be either almost entirely ignored in the report or treated almost as an act of trespass. I assume that under more normal circumstances the fact that Denmark has been publishing the only Scandinavian design research journal, and that it is one of five or six such journals worldwide, would be a reason for a Danish design research report to rejoice.) The idea of an objective design research core endorsed by the report seems to entail that what matters in research is being a member of a profession rather that having theoretical, intellectual, scientific ideas about, insights into, and interest in what design is all about. Had the former been the case, design research would have been booming for years. But there is no such thing. Among the practising designers in the English-speaking (or rather English-writing) world there have been some, such as David Pye, Eva Zeisel, Paula Scher or Koen de Winter, (3) who have made true contributions to a better understanding of what designers do by reflecting about what they do themselves. But these designers are exceptions rather than the rule, which perhaps suggests that the idea of finding and reserving a core of design research to designers alone, would hardly help.

That this report tends to embrace an organisational, administrative and ultimately bureaucratic perspective on design research is, I assume, an unintended result of the governmental research initiatives. It is a well-known fact that not very many practising designers read design literature or are interested in the theoretical dimensions of design. Designers, busy as they are, are inclined just like the rest of us to fall back on what we have learned at school rather than to question it. In general, design schools by their very nature tend to perpetuate the status quo. Left to their own devices, neither designers nor design teachers would then probably produce very much research. The report's presentations and discussions confirm that. After all, designers are first and foremost trained to design new things, or, when acting as teachers, to instruct students in ways of designing new things. They are not primarily interested, or trained, to produce new theoretical insights. Nevertheless, it can probably be expected that to develop a discourse and a research culture around that cluster of different things called design would in the long run help both designers and design teachers to do a better job. Commercial research funding tends to keep research securely in pragmatic channels. The government research initiatives on the other hand, devised to promote research at state owned design schools, have created a system of external pressures (research-dependent academic titles, research-dependent tenures) that tend to create a perception that the ultimate aim of research is to secure the school's budget by keeping the budget-controlling government departments happy. Like the Soviet planned economy of the past, government-initiated research pressures, too, may tend towards generating 'conspicuous production.' (1) This report is perhaps an early example of such a tendency. By all administrative standards it is an excellent result. It was concluded in time; it has collected quite a lot of information; it has presented a discussion of problems; its results were made accessible in the form of a book of two hundred pages; the publishers even succeeded in recovering some of its production costs through its sales. The CID did what its project promised, and the department can consider the initiative a great success. That the report also seriously distorts the idea of research by presenting, albeit unwittingly, the organisational and administrative perspectives on design research as if these were the only possible, or the only important ones, is something the governmental departments in charge would probably be the last to notice.

In the situation where administrative and organisational notions of research tend to get the upper hand, seemingly as a by-product of the fact that research requirements are being enforced from the top, it is imperative to find a perspective on research which would be able to counter these inherent dangers. Here I cannot think of any approach more suited to this task than the research philosophy of critical rationalism developed by Karl Popper, the late British philosopher of Austrian origin. Popper, a great demystifier of science, claimed that science is not to be seen as a body of verified knowledge, as the general understanding has it, but as a body of theories, conjectures and hypotheses which are as yet not refuted. In his view all our knowledge is and always will be conjectural. He argued consequently that instead of attempting to verify our theories we should make a serious effort to find faults with them. A theory was in his view scientific if, and only if, it was possible to conceive of circumstances which would amount to its refutation. He did believe in growth of knowledge, however, and saw the possibility of free criticism as the cardinal precondition for such growth. He claimed that neither philosophy nor science has any special method apart from the critical attitude. He argued that problems can only be solved with the help of new ideas, not through arguing about the meaning of words. Popper reminded his students that they were not students of subject matters or of disciplines but students of problems. (2) Of course, research administrators have a need for subject matters and disciplines, and for borders between them, and this need is real. But it should be remembered that such organisational and administrative categories are latter-day by-products of antecedent research activities (and not the other way round) and that the already constituted disciplinary fields more often than not tend to limit the researcher's freedom to pursue the chosen problems, since research problems by their nature not only fail to respect disciplinary boundaries, but invariably cut across the established disciplines and traditional subject matters.

We need to curb our monopolist urges. Instead of searching for an intrinsic core of design research to be set apart for practising designers only, would it not be a much better idea to keep an open house? Why not invite anybody, from any discipline or profession whatsoever, who is interested in contributing to a better understanding of any of the numerous meanings represented by the term design, and the problems relating to these meanings? The present report documents persuasively that the number of various contents imputed to the term design, as well as to the term design research, is indeed great, and that this is a fact. Let that stand for the main finding in the report. Let us therefore wake up from the bureaucratic dream of arriving at one correct definition of design and one correct definition of design research.

After all, research is useful only if it helps us to distinguish between reality and wishful thinking.


Michael Polanyi, Towards a Theory of Conspicuous Production, Soviet Survey, no. 34, October-December (1960): 90-99; see also Paul Craig Roberts, Alienation and the Soviet Economy, Oakland, Ca.: The Independent Institute, 1990 [amazon].

Mark Amadeus Notturno, On Popper. London: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003 [amazon]; Steve Fuller, The Struggle for the Soul of Science: Kuhn vs. Popper. Cambridge: Icon Books, 2003 [amazon]; Mark Amadeus Notturno, Science and the Open Society: The Future of Karl Popper's Philosophy. New York, N.Y.: Central European University Press, 2000 [amazon]; Karl R. Popper, Unended quest: an intellectual autobiography, Fontana/Collins, London 1976 [amazon]; Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974 [amazon]. See also Rafe Champion's texts on Popper as well as the Critical Rationalism Forum.

David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968 [amazon]; David Pye, The Nature and Aesthetics of Design. London: The Herbert Press, 1978 [amazon]; Eva Zeisel, On Being a Designer. In Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry, 73-104. Montreal: Le Chateau Dufresne, 1984 [amazon]; Paula Scher, Make It Bigger. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002 [amazon]; Koen De Winter, Thoughts on Originality published in designaddict 2002.

Online since June 16, 2004

Your critical comments are welcome: michl.nor[at]
You are also welcome
to create a link
to this page
See also the author's related article in Norwegian:
"Bakom ordet design"
Other online reviews in English by Jan Michl:

S. Väkevä, ed. (1990) Product Semantics '89
S. Vihma, ed. (1990) Semantic Visions in Design
P. Lloyd Jones (1991) Taste Today: The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design
G. Widengren, ed. (1994) Tanken och Handen: Konstfack 150 ĺr
M. Aav and N. Stritzler-Levine, eds. (1998) Finnish Modern Design

All online articles IN ENGLISH by Jan Michl
The author's workplace 2017:
NTNU / Norwegian University of Science and Technology / Gjøvik, Norway

Site Meter