CONNECTED 2010 – 2ND INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON DESIGN EDUCATION
28 JUNE - 1 JULY 2010, UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
Epistemological Positions in Design Research: A Brief Review of the
Luke Feast, Gavin Melles
Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Victoria, 3181, Australia
Pedagogy; Epistemology; Design research
Design research is not simply concerned with speculations
regarding the relationship of theory and practice. Design
research also brings out significant questions regarding the
nature of research and the position occupied by the doctorate
in university education. This paper reviews the major
epistemological positions informing theories of design
research. Analyses of examples from subjectivist,
constructivist and objectivist epistemologies are presented.
The paper concludes by considering the pedagogical
implications of the role of disciplinarity in discourses of
design research. The paper does not aim to seek statistical
generalization but rather to explore the complexity of the
In recent years, tertiary design education has had to change
significantly as it has made the transition from the vocational
training characteristic of the polytechnic to the academic
tradition of the university. The transition to the university and
the establishment of doctoral programs specific to design has
brought the issue of the relationship of scholarly research and
creative practice to the forefront in design education’s
academic community (Candlin 2000; Hockey & Allen-
Collinson 2000). However there is considerable variation,
disagreement and misunderstanding across universities
internationally regarding the nature of practice-based
research and in particular how it relates to doctoral education
in design (Archer 1995; Durling 2002; Frayling 1993;
Pedgley & Wormald 2007). Consequently the rigor and
robustness of practice-based doctorates has become the
subject of significant debate and an important topic of major
international conferences and publications.
Untangling the complexity of the issue of creative practice
and research requires significant time and effort, though to
put it very simply, there are three main positions which in
turn build on theories of designing as either, direct making,
reflective practice or rational problem-solving and which
broadly correspond with subjectivist, constructionist and
objectivist epistemologies. The subjectivist position is shown
for example by those within the community of art and design
researchers who argue that all practice is research and that a
thesis (written text) is unnecessary as knowledge produced
through the research may be read in the artifact (Frayling
1993; Candlin 2000; Prentice 2000). The constructionist
position holds that designing in itself is not research unless it
is also accompanied by reflection upon the process of making
(Cross 2001; Dorst 2008). The objectivist position
emphasizes the logical construction of theories based on
discrete empirical facts (Friedman 2003; Owen 1998; Biggs
& Büchler 2007). This caricature necessarily hides much of
the complexity of the issue and in order to address this
complexity more adequately, a closer examination of the
relationship between epistemology and the research process
I. A KNOWLEDGE FRAMEWORK
A large number of different terms have been used to refer
to creative practice in research in art and design, and these
terms are often used synonymously as ‘methodologies’,
‘approaches’, ‘perspectives’, and ‘philosophies’ as if they are
all comparable (Niedderer & Roworth-Stokes 2007:7).
However in order to make meaningful distinctions between
the different positions and make their respective
epistemological assumptions explicit a more structured
knowledge framework is needed. Michael Crotty (1998) in
his book The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and
Perspective in the Research Process, frames the research
process as composed of four basic elements: epistemology,
theoretical perspective, methodology and methods. These
elements provide a structure to understanding the research
process and give a ground from which to identify the
assumptions about the human world and social life within
that world, which are necessarily embedded within the
methods utilised to undertake a particular research task.
Crotty defines the meaning of each element as follows:
• Epistemology: the theory of knowledge that defines what
kind of knowledge is possible and legitimate.
• Theoretical perspective: the philosophical stance
informing the methodology and thus providing a context
for the process and grounding its logic and criteria.
• Methodology: the strategy, plan of action, process or
design lying behind the choice and use of particular
methods and linking the choice and use of methods to the
• Methods: the techniques or procedures used to gather
and analyse data related to some research question or
According to Crotty (1998:5) the hierarchical nature of the
structure determines that the assumptions embedded in the
primary element inform each subsequent element. For
example research conducted using the data collection method
of participant observation is one of many embedded within
the methodology of ethnography, which itself has been
adapted by symbolic interactionism which is one of many
theoretical perspectives which exemplify a constructionist
epistemology. It follows then that in this case, the
assumptions about how we know what we know which are
embodied by the theory of knowledge within constructionist
epistemology, are also embodied within the findings
collected through the method of participant observation.
Fig. 1. Examples within Crotty’s knowledge framework.
While Crotty’s knowledge framework appears to suggest
clearly defined distinctions between the three epistemological
positions identified, it is important to recognize that within
each position there are strong and weak versions. For
instance phenomenological research is categorized as
constructivist however it is a broad term that can encompass
approaches that range from thoroughly objectivist to
thoroughly subjectivist. Consequently it is important to note
that each epistemology represents a spectrum of similar
approaches rather than a discrete, homogenous class.
There are of course a large number of research methods
and corresponding epistemological commitments available to
researchers in art and design, and many of the most
significant articles in the literature seek to outline various
models for the different possibilities for undertaking design
research. Some try to present total pictures of the breadth of
design research – all take particular epistemological stances.
II. PERSPECTIVES ON DESIGING IN DESIGN RESEARCH
The items included in the review were selected from a
bibliography of approximately 300 journal articles,
conference papers, book chapters and state of the art reviews
which was developed from database searches, existing design
research bibliographies sourced from the world wide web,
and through previous knowledge of the significant articles
relating to the topic developed from research and teaching
experience. The citations of the items listed in this initial
bibliography were then verified and their ability to be
accessed checked. The remaining 150 articles were then
ranked by relevance according to key words and then by the
number of times each article had been cited in
www.google.scholar.com. A final selection of 28 articles was
reviewed in depth with the aim to explore the complexity of
the issue rather than seek statistical generalization. Examples
representing the subjectivist, constructionist and objectivist
perspectives are given below.
A. Subjectivist oriented example: Frayling, C. (1993).
Research in art and design. Royal College of Art Research
Papers, 1(1), 1-5.
Following the philosophy and sociology of science of Paul
Feyerbend and Harry Collins, Frayling defends the criticism
of the stereotype of scientific research as only positivist or
critical rationalist (1993:3). Instead, he maintains that the
practice of doing science does not resemble its white coated
laboratory stereotype and in fact “involves irrationality,
craftman’s knowledge rather than propositional knowledge”
and a “significant measure of subjectivity” (Frayling 1993:3).
Consequently, he argues that there is a lot of common ground
between scientific research and the work of artists,
craftspeople and designers which, drawing on Herbert Reed’s
broadly existential or phenomenological book Education
through Art, he categorizes in three types:
• Research into art and design: Historical research,
aesthetic or perceptual research, and research into social,
economic, political etc. theoretical perspectives on art
• Research through art and design: Materials research,
development research and action research.
• Research for art and design: “Research where the end
product is an artifact - where the thinking is, so to speak,
embodied in the artifact, where the goal is not primarily
communicable knowledge in the sense of verbal
communication, but in the sense of visual or iconic or
imagistic communication.” (Frayling 1993:5 emphasis in
Frayling describes research for art and design as part of a
“cognitive” tradition of art as a form of research with a
“small r” and “a tradition out of which much future research
can grow… [A tradition as] much about autobiography and
personal development as communicative knowledge”
(1993:5). Frayling defines research with a small r, from the
Oxford English Dictionary as “the act of searching, closely or
carefully, for or after a specified thing or person” and
elaborates, “it isn’t about professionalism, or rules, or
guidelines, or laboratories” (1993:1). In contrast, he
associates research with a “big R” with the
professionalization of research in the university sector and
chemistry industry. He maintains that examples of the
cognitive tradition of research with a small r can be found in
the last four hundred years of art practice and gives the
examples of Leonardo’s drawings of anatomy, George
Stubbs’ paintings of animal anatomy, John Constable’s
painting of cloud formations, Picasso’s use of reference
materials and memories in the painting Les Demoiselles
d’Avignon, op artists’ explorations of perception, “computer
artists” and “artists as semiologists”.
There are a number of aspects of Frayling’s description of
research for art and design that warrants positioning this
theory of research towards the subjectivist end of the
epistemological spectrum. For instance, by associating
research for art and design with personal, tacit, non-verbal,
embodied, craftsman’s knowledge and certain works of fine
art, Frayling clearly rejects objectivity and defends the place
of personal, practice-based, subjective knowledge within
postgraduate art and design research
B. Constructionist oriented example: Cross, N. (1999).
Design Research: A Disciplined Conversation. Design issues,
Cross builds on Archer’s definition of research as
“systematic inquiry the goal of which is knowledge” in order
to define design research as the “development, articulation
and communication of design knowledge” (1999:5).
According to Cross, design knowledge is found in people,
processes and products, which in turn correspond to three
design knowledge domains:
• Design epistemology: The study of designerly ways of
knowing. Cross maintains that design is a natural human
ability that includes both vernacular design as well as
professional design. Design knowledge of how people
design can include both empirical studies of design
behavior and theoretical deliberation on how people
learn and develop design ability, and also how to teach it.
• Design praxiology: The study of practices and processes
of design. Cross defines design processes as tactics or
strategies, commonly referred to as design methodology.
Design knowledge in this area involves the process of
design, development, and application of techniques.
• Design phenomenology: The study of the form and
configuration of artifacts. This domain studies the
implicit knowledge embodied in precedents and
exemplars of profession and vernacular design. This
form of design knowledge also concerns relation
between products and context in terms of semantics,
ergonomics, and environment.
Cross maintains that the domain of design knowledge that
will be most helpful to design practice and design education
is the study of designerly ways of knowing. Cross (2001:54)
defines this knowledge domain within the constructivist
“epistemology of practice” developed by Schön (1983) under
the term “reflective practice”. According to Cross design
knowledge in this sense is gained through making and
reflecting upon the making of artifacts, and through using and
reflecting upon the use of those artifacts. Cross argues that
design practice on its own does not constitute research unless
it also involves reflection on the work and communication of
results. The emphasis on the designer’s intellectual reflection
upon their activities as the process through which knowledge
is produced, and the explicit reference to Schön, places
Cross’s study of “designerly ways of knowing” within the
constructionist epistemological paradigm.
C. Objectivist oriented example: Friedman, K. (2003).
Theory construction in design research: criteria: approaches,
and methods. Design Studies, 24(6), 507-522.
Friedman, like Cross, takes knowledge to be the core of
research. However, while Cross defends reflective practice,
for Friedman, knowledge is articulated through systematic
inquiry organized in theory and research is the collection of
methods that allows us to construct theories. Friedman states,
“Critical thinking and systemic inquiry form the foundation
of theory. Research offers us the tools that allow critical
thinking and systemic inquiry to bring answers out of the
field of action. It is theory and the models that theory
provides through which we link what we know to what we
A theory is an ordered set of assertions that describes a
generic behavior or structure in a valid and verifiable way
that holds throughout a significantly broad range of specific
instances (Friedman 2003:516). According to Friedman
(2003:513), a theory in its most basic form is a model that
describes how something works by showing the relationship
between its elements. Theories develop in a pattern of
increasing sophistication in terms of their degree of
systematization and level of generalization. Drawing on
Parsons and Shils (1962), Friedman outlines a hierarchy of
theoretical types that moves from “ad hoc classification
systems (in which categories are used to summarize empirical
observations), to taxonomies (in which the relationships
between the categories can be described), to conceptual
frameworks (in which propositions summarize explanations
and predictions), to theoretical systems (in which laws are
contained within axiomatic or formal theories)” (2003:518).
Friedman (2003:520) argues that the bases of theory
construction in all disciplines are empirical facts and explicit
articulate statements. According to Friedman this is because
those who cannot observe facts cannot theorize them and
explicit articulation allows us to contrast, test, consider,
share, and reflect on the theories we develop. Friedman states
that comprehensive and parsimonious theory allows us to
frame and organize our observations in order to develop
generalisable answers that can be used by human beings in
other times and places. He maintains that theory is a tool that
allows us to question what we see and do, in order to discern
desirable goals and to create predictable changes to reach
them (2003: 521). Friedman’s rejection of both tacit
knowledge and reflective practice, and method of reduction
to empirical facts and construction of theoretical models with
the aim of prediction and explanation, positions his general
theory of design research towards the objectivist end of the
While an exhaustive discussion of the differences and
implications of each of these three epistemological stances is
beyond the scope of this paper, it is useful for our purpose to
outline the salient aspects. Following Crotty (1998:7)
• Subjectivist epistemology maintains that meaning is
imposed by people’s minds without the contribution of
the object. This implies that what is perceived is what is
real, and that there is no underlying true reality that
exists independently of perception.
• Constructivism also rejects the view that there is an
objective truth waiting to be discovered. Rather truth and
meaning is constructed out of the engagement of our
minds with the world. The constructionist stance
maintains that different people may construct meaning in
different ways, even in relation to the same phenomenon,
such as between those in different eras or cultures.
• Objectivist epistemology holds that a meaningful reality
exists independently of consciousness and experience,
that entities carry intrinsic meaning within them as
objects and that we can discover this ‘objective truth’ if
we carefully go about it in right way.
The significance of acknowledging the differences between
the aspects of these epistemologies is twofold; first it
connects the theory of research to the practice of research and
reveals the limits of truth claims in terms of objectivity,
validity and generalisability. Second, Crotty’s model
emphasizes the necessity of remaining epistemologically
consistent. Objectivist research must distinguish scientifically
established objective facts from people’s everyday subjective
meanings. In turn, consistently constructionist research must
place all meanings, scientific and non-scientific on an equal
basis – they are all constructions, and none is truly objective
or generalisable. The further one moves towards
subjectivism, the greater the limits of the objectivity, validity
and generalisablity of one’s truth claims (Seale 1999). Being
epistemologically aware requires that at each point in the
research process we recognize that we make a variety of
assumptions about human knowledge, the realities
encountered in the human world and the interpretability of
Arguably, it is a limited understanding of the nature of
research coupled with a tradition of professional practice and
lack of doctoral level education has seen an attempt to elevate
the designed artifact to the status of research and accentuate
the practice-based nature of design as the distinguishing
characteristic of the discipline. The problem with the rush to
legitimize practice-based research as the defining trait of the
academic field of design is that it may appeal to students (and
academic staff) who may not only have limited exposure to
academic scholarship but also an impoverished view of
research methodology. This desire for disciplinarity through
the emphasis on professional practice can in fact introduce a
vicious cycle that undermines the legitimization of design
through producing poor research and under-theorizing design.
In addition, these moves have not yet proved sufficient to
achieve either disciplinary consensus or legitimate academic
design research (Melles 2008, unpaged).
The debate concerning designing in design research and its
implications for discourses of disciplinarity, is compounded
by the fact that interdisciplinarity can be considered as one of
the most significant traits of design (Friedman 2003; Cazeaux
2008; Cross 1999). According to Barnes and Melles (2007:2)
a greater focus on design’s applied nature and inherent
interdisciplinarity could profitably overtake the quest for
disciplinary clarity. This account suggests that focusing
purely on design research methods from within the
‘discipline’ misses many of the sociological, historical,
organizational and political issues concerning design
research. The problem of doctoral education in design and the
role that practical explorations play with research should
therefore be considered as an interdisciplinary problem
because its complexity requires taking into account different
disciplinary perspectives in order to develop a comprehensive
Archer, B. (1995) The nature of research. Co-Design Journal, 1, 6-
Barnes, C. & Melles, G. (2007) Managing interdisciplinarity: a
discussion of the contextual review in design research.
International Association of Societies of Design Research
(IASDR) Conference. Hong Kong, School of Design Hong
Kong Polytechnic University.
Biggs, M. A. R. & Büchler, D. (2007) Rigor and practice-based
research. Design issues, 23, 62-69.
Candlin, F. (2000) Practice-based doctorates and questions of
academic legitimacy. International Journal of Art & Design
Cazeaux, C. (2008) Inherently interdisciplinary: four perspectives
on practice-based research. Journal of Visual Art Practice, 7,
Cross, N. (1999) Design research: a disciplined conversation.
Design issues, 15, 5.
Cross, N. (2001) Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline
versus design science. Design issues, 17, 49-55.
Crotty, M. (1998) The foundations of social science research:
meaning and perspective in the research process, New South
Wales, Allen and Uwin.
Dorst, K. (2008) Design research: a revolution-waiting-to-happen.
Design Studies, 29, 4-11.
Durling, D. (2002) Discourses on research and the PhD in design.
Quality Assurance in Education, 10, 79-85.
Frayling, C. (1993) Research in art and design. Royal College of Art
Research Papers, 1, 1-5.
Friedman, K. (2003) Theory construction in design research:
criteria: approaches, and methods. Design Studies, 24, 507-522.
Hockey, J. & Allen-Collinson, J. (2000) The Supervision of
Practice-based Research Degrees in Art and Design.
International Journal of Art & Design Education, 19.
Melles, G. (2008) Re: Academisation of design research was Design
as Research?, PHD-DESIGN discussion list on doctoral
education in design hosted at JISCMAIL.
Niedderer, K. & Roworth-Stokes, S. (2007) The role and use of
creative practice in research and its contribution to knowledge.
IASDR International Conference 2007. Hong Kong
Polytechnic University, Hong Kong.
Owen, C. L. (1998) Design research: building the knowledge base.
Design Studies, 19, 9-20.
Parsons, T. & Shils, E. A. (1962) Toward a General Theory of
Action, New York, Harper & Row.
Pedgley, O. & Wormald, P. (2007) Integration of Design Projects
within a Ph.D. Design issues, 23, 70-85.
Prentice, R. (2000) The place of practical knowledge in research in
art and design education. Teaching in Higher Education, 5,
Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals
Think in Action, New York, Basic Books.
Seale, C. (1999) Quality in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry,