Meta-levels in design research: resolving some confusions

Pieter Jan Stappers, ID-StudioLab, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft
University of Technology
Froukje Sleeswijk Visser, ID-StudioLab, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft
University of Technology



Abstract

Doing design and doing research are related activities. When doing design in a (PhD) research project, a number of confusions pop up. These confusions stem from the fact that most of the basic terms, such as 'designer', 'research', and 'product', have many connotations but not a shared definition. Because design research often happens in a multi-disciplinary context, the confusions can be even larger, as each discipline brings its own connotations and associations to the discussion without making them explicit. Especially when the researchers build on design skills themselves, and conduct research-through-design, it can be difficult to distinguish where and how activities are done to create new particular solutions for users or new generalizable knowledge for discourse. We present a visualization that has helped to clarify a number of these issues by separating out the different goals, roles, and activities in which we engage when we do design research. It takes the form of a diagram of six meta-levels, where at each level an actor works to develop both a theoretical insight as well as a practical application to be used at the next level. We discuss how the diagram helps to separate roles and persons, different levels of (academic and practical) discourse, and to clarify competing tensions within a research project, for instance when defending a design decision in a research prototype as serving the research goals at the cost of practical utility or vice versa.

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