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News > Advancing Architecture and Design > What is Design Research?

What is Design Research?

Image from a recent Community Charrette
Image from a recent Community Charrette


Over the past 30 years, as buildings and the roles they play in our lives and the environment have become more intricate, our focus as architects and designers has slowly shifted to a more research-oriented design practice (David Wang & Dana E Vaux, 2020; Wang & Groat, 2013). Due to the complexity of practice, especially in the healthcare space, these human-centered approaches to design are increasingly necessary, and are often called Design Research (Chong et al., 2010). All design disciplines practice some form of design research, and it often lives in three overlapping main categories. The first category is “research for design” (Frayling, 1994, p. 5); including evidence-based design, where we consider how a solution will work based on the humans and communities who have to use it and live with it. That information directly drives iterative design decisions and both the research and the development are iterative. Second, design research can also be a type of historic and market-driven research: who will buy or use the design? This can include research into past, or historic, design (Bang et al., 2012; Frayling, 1994). The third area of design research is more experimental and asks questions such as what does this design look like in the future? How can we use new narratives, technologies, or materials to solve problems of both humans and the environment (Anderson, 2014; Bang et al., 2012; Donaldson & Smith, 2017; Frayling, 1994; Sanders & Stappers, 2013)?  

In practice and historically, for architects, design research and evidence-based design practice have taken the form of post-occupancy studies, precedent research, and short community charrettes. Costly and time consuming, post-occupancy holds many risks for design practitioners in the built environment, and iterative research possibilities are limited because of these burdens. There is much work underway to undertake physical, virtual, and augmented reality simulations to study spaces before they are built. These design research practices can give architects and designers the ability to prototype complex physical spaces before the major investment of building at full scale occurs, and to involve community in that process more deeply. One instance that I am particularly excited about: as a recent visiting researcher, I was able to observe and engage with the Swiss Center for Design and Health (SCDH): Living Lab. I was at the SCDH as an invited speaker and researcher. This facility exists to help architects and designers engage in an iterative evidence-based process – research that can drive design. The space has both digital and physical simulation capability and is focused on health spaces and teams. This includes simulation of medical practices to find the best configurations for health care spaces, and processes with doctors, architects, and professional, or real, patients as participants in those simulations. 

Every discipline approaches design research a bit differently. Product designers have been the most successful at packaging this set of practices as “design thinking” (Cross, 2001; Kelley & Kelley, 2013). As built environment design researchers, we also seek an evidence-based focus on human use, and outcomes (Benson & Dresdow, 2015; Donaldson & Smith, 2017; Ed. Lupton, 2011). Last summer I was part of a team funded to study play spaces in and around Philadelphia to extract some lessons for success that can applied in the future. My current funding focuses on aging in place, health, and housing with the Second Story Collective. As a researcher and an architect, my design research lab, Design + Care 4Health focuses on health, equity, and space.


Anderson, N. M. (2014). Public Interest Design as Praxis. Journal of Architectural Education, 68(1), 16–27. 

Bang, A. L., Krogh, P., Ludvigsen, M., & Markussen, T. (2012). The Role of Hypothesis in Constructive Design Research. Proceedings of The Art of Research IV. 

Benson, J., & Dresdow, S. (2015). Design for Thinking: Engagement in an Innovation Project. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 13(3), 377–410. 

Chong, G. H., Brandt, R., & Martin, W. M. (2010). Design Informed: Driving Innovation with Evidence-Based Design (1 edition). Wiley. 

Cross, N. (2001). Designerly ways of knowing: Design discipline versus design science. Design Issues, 17(3), 49–55. 

David Wang & Dana E Vaux. (2020). Research Methods for Interior Design: Applying Interiority. Taylor and Francis. 

Donaldson, J. P., & Smith, B. K. (2017). Design Thinking, Designerly Ways of Knowing, and Engaged Learning. In Learning, Design, and Technology (pp. 1–24). Springer, Cham. 

Ed. Lupton, E. (2011). Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming (1st edition). PRINCETON ARCHITECTURAL PRESS. 

Frayling, C. (1994). Research in Art and Design. Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1(1). 

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All (NO-VALUE edition). Currency. 

Sanders, L., & Stappers, P. (2013). Convivial toolbox: Generative research for the front end of design. BIS Publishers. 

Wang, D., & Groat, L. N. (2013). Architectural Research Methods (2). John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. 



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