Peter Gall Krogh
Ways of Drifting – 5 Methods of Experimentation in
Research through Design
Peter Gall Kroghͣ, Thomas Markussenb, Anne Louise Bangb,
aPlatform REform, Aarhus School of Architecture, Aarhus, Denmark
bDesign School Kolding, Kolding, Denmark
Abstract: Design experiments are claimed to be a core means of inquiry in the research tradition of
research-through-design. However, it is rarely articulated how the experiments were carried out in
order to test a hypothesis, to begin a fruitful journey into unexplored design terrain or just gradually
build knowledge. On the basis of the analysis of ten PhD theses we provide a typology comprised
of five forms of design experiments in research-through-design. This provides a general outline of
the characteristics which point to the methodological roles that design experiments and design
work may acquire in research-through-design.
Our typology of design experiments in research-through-design accounts both for relations between
major cases and iterations embodied in detailed sketches and prototypes. The purpose of the
typology is to provide an overview that respects and account for the less-than-ideal way design
research actually happens: process-loops where hypothesis, experiments, and insights concurrently
affect one another and result in a drift of research focus and continued adjustment of experiments
to stabilize the research endeavour.
Keywords: Research-through-design, Methods, Experiments
Research-through-Design (RtD) is increasingly practiced across engineering-informed
and artistic-based design research. Classical processes of research regard “drifting” as a
failure since measures and grounds of evaluation can be said to be in flux. In design,
however, “drifting” is a quality measure as it tells the story of a designer capable of
continuous learning from findings and of adjusting causes of action. Design Research
that does not account for this professional hallmark will fail to gain respect from or build
a better basis for design practice. Tolerance of “drifting”, however, points to a built-in
dilemma of Design Research and, in particular, RtD when sharing knowledge across
research disciplines: to what degree can one trust the results of RtD?
Based on 10 exemplary and well-cited PhD theses developed in environments
emphasizing artistic quality we describe continued design experimentation in processes
Peter Gall Krogh, Thomas Markussen, Anne Louise Bang
of research, and how such chains of experimentation and sketching follow a
methodological rigor and how it can be modelled. The selected theses have been
developed and written in the Dutch-Scandinavian-Anglo-Saxon tradition and submitted
for evaluation in art schools, universities and academies exemplifying the heterogeneity
of design research in this tradition. The theses represent the full spectrum of the “Lab,
Field, Showroom” taxonomy described by Koskinen et al. Thus the selected theses also
exhibit the full spectrum of classical research traditions though they are committed to
aesthetic and artistic assessments in design and design research.
Maturation of the theoretical foundation of RtD provide grounds for better-designed
research projects and programs. Such work will also help declare the qualities, strengths
and weaknesses of RtD in the general landscape of research approaches facilitating
interfaces to other research disciplines without adopting a whole set of theories
developed in classical research areas and enable design researchers’ participation in the
language game of research across other disciplines.
This paper is intended in particular to help PhD candidates and applicants, assessors
of applications and PhD supervisors in RtD. Although not complete, the typology we
present offers a perspective on how case design, actual design work and exploratory
sketching as knowledge-building activities can be better substantiated, declared and
delimited in the early phases of research work and descriptions. The typology we present
is comprised of five forms of design methodologies that we have labelled accumulative,
comparative, serial, expansive and probing.
In this paper we are concerned with the actual internal work activities of RtD
processes – designing stuff. We are concerned with how the work itself can be said to
exhibit the essential transparency of research, rather than how described knowledge
flows in communities and is used to substantiate a research contribution. Thus we are
dealing with building and sustaining the trustworthiness of results developed by the
single design researcher adopting the RtD methodology, and not how others build upon
the generated knowledge.
2 Related work
RtD is coming of age and numerous researchers have made great and valuable efforts in
describing and establishing the foundational theories, methods and approaches of the
research area [e.g. 1, 7, 13, 18, 22, 33, 33, 34].
Although many of the fundamentals of the research area are well described they also
impact different research communities with limited overlap, and yet lack the
pervasiveness that research fundamentals need in order to work on equal grounds with
other research disciplines and traditions. In recent times there have also been suggestions
of using endless and inconsistent prepositions in order to distinguish the methodological
role of design experiments from other more established research methodologies .
Thus, research through design has been defined as different from “research on design”,
“research into design”, “research in design”, “research for design” and “research by
design” . As the expanded use of prepositions has only led to obscuring the
understanding of RtD, Koskinen et al.  has recently argued for settling on the term
“constructive design research” as the fundamental epistemology. However we will, for
the sake of clarity in tradition, stick to the use of “Research-through-Design” (RtD) as
conceptualizing research done by means of the skilful practice of design activity
revealing research insights.
2.1 On the details of working in RtD
In RtD and the definition of its foundations there appear to be two major strands: one that
defends the specificity and, compared to other research disciplines, capacity to deliver
results that one does not find in other fields e.g. Cross , Gaver , Seago & Dunne
 and, to some extent, Zimmerman & Forlizzi . The second strand models the
foundations of design research upon already identified research traditions, notably the
natural sciences, social sciences and art e.g. Koskinen et al.  and Steffen .
By the work we present here, we argue that a proper account of the fundamentals of
RtD must begin with a close scrutiny of design experiments. In so doing, we agree on the
one hand with Gaver and others that this is a prerequisite for acknowledging the
specificity of RtD. But, on the other hand, we agree with Koskinen et al., insofar as we
argue that we should be careful not to put so much emphasis on its specificity that its
possible cross-disciplinary connections and exchanges with other forms of research are
lost. This can be avoided if we use the classical vocabulary of research (hypothesis,
motivation, research question, experiment), in the development of a methodological
explanation of design experiments.
When examining the existing research literature, one is left empty handed when
searching for detailed accounts of the process and basic constituents of design
experiments. Zimmerman and Forlizzi (2008) attempt to develop a formal account of
methods used in RtD and suggest that a foundational distinction should be made between
two different methodological approaches: (i) a philosophical approach, where researchers
wish to “investigate a previously articulated theory through a process of making” (e.g.
‘ludic interaction’, ‘rich interaction’, ‘aesthetics of interaction’, etc.); and (ii) a grounded
approach, where researchers focus “on real-world problems by making things that force a
concrete framing of the problem”. However, such a meta-level classification is too
abstract, and it does not provide insight into how design practice and experiments are
used in either of these approaches.
In order to align the methodological foundation of RtD with the practices of
professional design Brandt and Binder  suggested that design experiments in design
research can be better understood as being framed by a “program” and a “research
question”. In so doing Brandt and Binder assume that RtD can be modelled on the same
conditions as a design project where a program or brief is typically used by a client to
formulate an assignment for a professional designer. While Brandt and Binder expend
Peter Gall Krogh, Thomas Markussen, Anne Louise Bang
much effort in defining the notion of the program and research question, they end up
saying surprisingly little about the design experiments themselves.
In the 2012 paper by Bang et al.  it is argued that it is counterproductive to the
development of RtD to use concepts from outside research to define its foundations and it
is more beneficial to provide an account of the knowledge production of the field based
on established concepts e.g. hypothesis, experiment, evaluation while declaring how and
to what extent design work is similar to and different from more classical scientific
disciplines. Such differences are also dealt with in Redström’s paper “Some notes on
program/ experiment dialectics”  in which he discusses how design research has a
nature of “drifting” that in other research disciplines would be regarded as watering down
the research contribution. Traditionally, in science literature, drifting is regarded as
bearing the touch of randomness, the uncontrolled, illogical and inconsistent. However,
in design research and in particular the professional practice of design, drifting or
pursuing alternative opportunities in the vicinity of one’s work is an embedded way of
arriving at relevant and high quality work. The work we present in this paper is very
much in line with these concerns. However, we argue for maintaining the use of classical
terms, as they are sufficiently spacious to accommodate the way RtD develops
Furthermore there is a slight tendency in design research to also be mostly interested
in the final product of a design case. However, in line with Bowers and Gaver  we
believe it can be of even more importance to declare how one got there – how the design
project drifted through and gained insights unintended by its original pursuit – and what
knowledge one developed doing so. In line with [16, 18] it is our point of departure that
knowledge production in design and RtD can be characterized as fallibalistic. As such
any sketch is a question examining parts or the whole of a provisional hypothesis, not in
a Popperian sense where a hypothesis is substantiated or falsified, but in a Piercean
manner qualitatively informed or questioned through “abductive reasoning”  or “bold
suggestions” which design experiments and sketches can be characterized as. According
to Brandt and Binder  experiments in research-through-design are examinations of
questions residing in research programs. As such Brandt and Binder do not relate their
framework to hypothesizing and accept design research is also a way of describing the
urge to explore an interesting concept without a well-defined hypothesis. Bang et al. 
formulate the act of hypothesizing as a fruitful and “direction-providing” activity in
design. Whereas the work of Zimmerman  articulates design research as being
theoretically, technically or empirically inspired, Bang et al.  follows the line of
Brandt and Binder  and Zimmerman et al.  in voicing the need to include
aesthetically and artistically inclined research interests.
As stated in the beginning of the paper, the purpose here is to provide design researchers
an extended footing when participating in the language games of research in general. At
the same time the intention is to avoid losing the specificity and unique quality thay
design research has to offer in research in general and society as a whole.
Building on the work of Bang et al.  we present a typology depicting how discreet
but linked experimental activities in RtD can be described in terms of how they facilitate
building knowledge by acting in combination. The classical foundational activity of
design is “sketching”. It is the dominant means by which ideas are described and
evaluated for their quality and appropriateness in responses to a design challenge.
Sketches are a (materialized) means for dialogue between the designer and her design
challenge. Sketches also act as boundary objects for the designer and stakeholders in a
design process [8, 20, 28]. Sketches can be temporal materializations of ideas subject to
rapid changes, incremental as well as radical changes; sketches can also be
materializations of ideas of parts of a whole. As this indicates, experimentation in design
research is often intimately linked to evaluation – not necessarily formal and thorough
evaluation but at the level of sanity checking. There is no second sketch without even the
most rudimentary, theoretical, experiential or aesthetically inclined evaluation of the first.
It is, however, beyond the scope of this paper to go deeper into discussing evaluation in
Processes of development through design and its constituent parts can be likened to
babushka dolls, onion layers, ontologies of ideas, free streams of associations, arguments
of logic etc. Although such descriptions carry a lot of experiential power when teaching
design students the practice of design, it provides little help in enabling research peers
from different scientific backgrounds understand the benefits and possibilities for co-
research. Along these lines, Gaver  argues for annotated portfolios as tool for
connecting design artefacts to theoretical concerns and design values across the domain
and use of artefacts.
Bang et al.  describe a model of how experimentation is the cogwheel of RtD in
dialogue with research activities such as hypothesizing, theorizing etc. We build on this
model and provide a typology of experimentation in RtD. The model is derived from the
analysis of ten theses (Dindler, Busch, Niedderer, Worbin, Trotto, Ross, Fogtmann,
Frens, Borup, Bang) and in particular their reporting on design experimentation. The
selected theses have a cultural bias towards the Dutch-Anglo-Saxon-Scandinavian
approach, thus other traditions might challenge and extend the typology.
The typology describes five distinct methods of knowledge production through
design experimentation: Accumulative, Comparative, Serial, Expansive and Probing
(Table 1). Furthermore, Table 1 includes a graphical representation of each of the
methods by characteristic keywords, a graphical model and author names of PhD theses
that exemplify the methodology. All the presented methods allow for “drifting” –
Peter Gall Krogh, Thomas Markussen, Anne Louise Bang
although to a varying degree. The first category “accumulative” is the least forgiving and
“probing” allows for the largest degree of “drifting”.
Table 1 Table of typology
Systematising local knowledge
Illogical, artistic, impact
This method of experimentation can be found in the work of Frens . His design
experiments study how tangible interaction might enhance the experience of using a
The design sketches and models are focused on testing specific parts and wholes and
are carried out in closed lab settings where the design experiments are evaluated for their
cognitive qualities, rather than contextual appropriateness. The work shares many
learning and experimental similarities with what happens in technical lab settings where
one particular thing is studied, and potentially disturbing elements are excluded for the
sake of clarity and rigor in the study. What the study loses in relevance it gains in depth
of knowledge on the particular. We use characterizing keywords “depth” and “stacking”
to describe the design and experimental interest; the increasing depth of knowing derived
from every experiment is iteratively build (layered, stacked) into the next generation of
the same version of the camera, a way of stacking knowledge where the final artefact
embodies the total knowledge accumulated through the RtD process.
The method of comparative experimentation can be found in the work of Fogtmann 
and Ross . They both explore their subject by means of a number of design cases –
working from or towards a shared platform of comparison. Whereas Ross is interested in
ethical and aesthetic aspects of interactive products (in particular lamps) Fogtmann
describes the concept Kinaestetic Empathy Interaction (KEI) through a series of design
cases each highlighting distinct and overlapping qualities of KEI. The reason for using
the experimental method is in both theses to do case- relevant explorations, which cover
areas and aspects not yet dealt with in other experiments and to incorporate knowledge
from previous experiments. The method may comprise one central design case tried out
in a range of contexts or a set of different design cases tried on both identical and
different contexts. It may also comprise iterative versions of the same concept changed
according to context. The basic approach is that each design experiment should reveal as-
yet undocumented additional qualities of a concept and confirm some previously found
qualities. In totality, the comparative experiments ideally describe a novel concept,
qualify phenomena or add a theoretical distinction to known theory. A characterizing
keyword in this model is “acknowledging complexity”, which expresses the idea that the
design experiments explore the concept by pointing to how it is embedded in a
Peter Gall Krogh, Thomas Markussen, Anne Louise Bang
multiplicity of situations. Furthermore the method reveals that a lot of experimental
design work done will not necessarily find its way into knowledge production.
The method of serial design experimentation denotes how design experiments are being
carried out in a certain order or logic of locality determined by how neighbouring
experiments in a sequence influence one another.
Complementing the comparative method, knowledge production in the serial method
is achieved on the basis of insights gained into the relationships between design
experiments that proceed chronologically. In the work of Lynggaard  we find each
successive experiment is framed on the basis of its predecessor. Each stage generates
insights or raises questions that lead the work onward. These pointers provide large and
small contributions to the overarching interest in “homing tactics”. More specifically, on
the basis of ethno-methodological studies, Lynggaard identifies a set of tactics for
“making home” – or “homing” as she denotes it. Rather than following a strategic
approach, Lynggaard adopts an opportunistic and pragmatic approach where the
identified tactics are further explored in concrete design experiments based on equal
measures of pragmatic concerns (time, technical request, budget, company interests etc.)
and the experiments’ capacity to yield additional contributions to the overall research
interest. Likewise in the work of Bang  we find a series of experiments, where each
experiment continually builds on the previous one. In this case, the main interest is an
exploration of emotional value of applied textiles from various perspectives, i.e. ‘textiles
as material’, ‘textiles as part of an object’, and textiles as part of an object in an
environment’. Inviting stakeholders to participate in this exploration the objective with
the experiments was twofold. On the one hand they resulted in the development of an in-
depth knowledge of emotional aspects of textile design and, on the other hand, they were
stepping stones in developing a structured approach to inviting stakeholders to participate
in the industrial textile design process. A key characteristic of this method is:
“systematizing local knowledge”.
This method articulates the identification of an area as-yet uncovered with the ambition
to reveal its qualities, a mode of investigation resembling the work of geographers or
biologists mapping new areas. The work of Dindler  and Trotto  are exemplars of
this. Unlike serial experimentation there are no strict successive or linear orders or
directions to follow. Experiments and learning from this will contribute new knowledge,
as the area is explored. The characterizing keyword for this method is “broadening” and
“extending”. Rather than deepening our knowledge of a domain, this method widens our
perspective and extends the concerns we, as designers, should include in our praxis.
Trotto does this through a set of experiments, primarily workshops, that continuously
explore new aspects, approaches and techniques for teaching design students to
acknowledge that human rights can be enhanced or suppressed in acts of designing and
making. Dindler expands our idea of what “engagement” might mean in interaction
design through three diverse experiments including designing engaging artefacts and
developing methods for participatory design centred on engagement.
Exploiting opportunities and exploring design ideas as they emerge through design work
is also what characterizes the final method described here: probing.
The approach is widely used in design research and well documented in Worbin 
and Busch , for example. Yet, it is only when we examine probing in relation to the
other four methods that its methodological value for design research can be fully grasped.
What often characterizes this methodological approach is a personal motivation and
engagement in the research pursuit, where the research activities are points of impact in a
research field larger than what a single research project can be expected to cover. The
choice of experiments in [6, 33] can be characterized as “illogical”, “artistic” and “impact
oriented”. Worbin is interested in the merging of IT and textiles in the very broad sense.
Through a number of experiments she highlights recurring and important aspects of this
mirage of material and experiential properties and qualities. Busch is interested in
hacktivism as part of democratizing fashion production. Both the theses and, presumably,
their doctoral studies are logically structured endeavours exploring the qualities of a
field. However, theses two are characterized by selecting in an almost eclectic manner
wicked, ir-reductive and self-contradictive design settings derived from pursuing
opportunities in the environment (as a professional designer would do). From both a
practice and research point of view this strongly test their subjects. On the basis of such
experiments they make contributions valuable to design research and foster curiosity for
the field itself and its neighbouring areas.
4 Reflections on the typology – and future work
Compared to previous discussions and theorizing on RtD our typology contributes to the
existing body of knowledge in at least three respects.
First, the five diagrams of the models can serve as an explanatory visual tool for
clarifying what form(s) of experimentation will be most relevant for the research
question one wants to address. We deliberately allow for the plurality of forms. Even
though we have managed here to identify a number of PhD theses that are representative
of one form of experimentation, it is possible in one design research project to switch
between different experimental modus operandi. Thus, the five forms are not mutually
exclusive as can be seen in Kinch . But their use demands careful consideration of
what kind of knowledge interest one has and which form is deemed most appropriate for
Secondly, our typology allows for a concise description of different knowledge
outcomes that may result from design experimentation: depth or stacking of knowledge,
acknowledging complexity, extending knowledge of a certain area, and so on. Typically,
Peter Gall Krogh, Thomas Markussen, Anne Louise Bang
in the research literature we have consulted such descriptions are not given. Rather
knowledge outcomes are classified generally in terms of, for instance, “nascent theory”,
“conceptual frameworks”, “guiding philosophies” or “design implications” .
However, it is not irrelevant to ask whether a conceptual framework is “broad” or
“systematic”. For instance, Forlizzi and Battarbee’s  framework for understanding
user experience in interactive systems is broad as it conceptualizes user experience in
terms of basic psychological categories (fluent, cognitive and expressive), while
Desmet’s  framework for emotional design is meticulously worked out as a fine-
grained system of emotions defined according to a varied set of distinctive traits and thus
systematic. Our typology can help to clarify the nature and generality of knowledge
outcomes and eventually to set up valid evaluation criteria for assessing this knowledge.
Third, beyond providing a means to distinguish methods of experimentation in design
research, the above typology also to a varying degree depicts a spectrum of methods that
have a heavy or light foothold in classical research and science. Accumulative
experimentation and serial experimentation have a strong foothold within natural
sciences, where controlled experiments are carried out in order to gain deep knowledge
of a phenomenon, while expansive experimentation and comparative experimentation are
typically represented within social sciences. However, a more elaborated account of how
our typology aligns with methods from other research traditions cannot be dealt with
here, but is postponed for future work. This future work is aligned with previous work on
hypothesizing in RtD  and includes a paper in preparation dealing with evaluation in
RtD. The three papers are all intended for conferences and will form the basis of a book
including a wider study of theses expanding and adjusting the grounds of the claims in
In this paper, we have demonstrated that methodological foundations of RtD can be
derived from a careful analysis of how design experiments are used during an inquiry.
More specifically we offer a typology for understanding the way in which an experiment
may drift throughout a research process. Obviously, since our typology is made up
inductively from the analysis of only 10 PhD theses it is not in any way meant to be
exhaustive, but merely indicative. It makes visible a potential route for developing a
firmer epistemological ground for research practices, which exploit artistically inclined
activities and aesthetic practices as their primary vehicle for knowledge production. Our
hope is that this can be of help to doctoral students, their supervisors, evaluation
committees and research peers who share an interest in grasping the specificity of RtD
while also wanting to know how it relates to research traditions outside design research.
We would like to thank all the international PhD students who participated in the series
of three doctoral courses focusing on research-through-design that we organized from
2012-2014 and who helped us critically access the various forms of experimentation in
design research. Furthermore we’d like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their
valuable and insightful comments and Richard Herriott for helping with editing.
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