November 3, 2023

How to bridge the gap between design and research

How can projects where researchers and designers collaborate generate knowledge that design professionals can use in their practice? Researcher Marieke Zielhuis shares some knowledge.

Picture: designers learning from each other in the context of the 'Touchpoints project', source: Marieke Zielhuis

Imagine: Emma, a passionate designer with a lot of knowledge and experience in designing advanced medical equipment. She is currently working on designing a new hospital bed. At the same time, researchers are diligently developing new theories and models to assist design professionals like Emma. Although Emma finds the theories and models interesting, they are often not directly applicable. This is an example of a research-practice gap.

In this example, both the designer and the researcher have valuable input for each other, but it remains untapped. Creativity and scientific research might seem like two different worlds at times, but they complement each other. It’s important because in a rapidly changing world, it is crucial for designers to keep evolving. Therefore, it is essential that research knowledge about designing becomes applicable in their practice.

Marieke Zielhuis shares her knowledge

Marieke Zielhuis is a researcher who dedicated her PhD thesis to this topic. Her PhD is titled 'Considering design practice - The underutilized opportunities in collaborative design research projects for learning by design professionals'. We spoke with her about the intention and goals of her research. Marieke Zielhuis told us:  ''It starts with the need to make what you investigate usable for practice. I want my research to matter and contribute something to the world. The question I investigated arose in practice during my role as a project leader. In other research, the focus is on creating methods and theories. This was often seen as boxes of knowledge being handed over to practice. In this research, the focus was more on how designers learn rather than transferring knowledge. Thus, this research shows where value is created for designers.''

The goal of the research was to answer the question: ‘How can projects where researchers and designers collaborate generate knowledge that design professionals can use in their practice?’ Marieke Zielhuis concludes that these four ways can ensure that collaborative research projects can contribute to the learning process of design professionals for the benefit of their practice:

1. Approach of the project leader: Throughout the entire research project, the project leader addresses design professionals as a potential learning audience. This is done while considering the needs and interests of those involved.

2. Consideration of three learning zones: The project leader first considers the learning potential of the designer in three different learning zones in a research project: 1) learning through active participation, 2) knowledge sharing through interaction with project stakeholders, 3) interaction with the resulting knowledge products. Decisions and actions can then be taken based on the identified learning potential.

3. Support for explicit reflections: Within the three learning zones, design professionals are supported through interpersonal exchanges and explicit reflections. This reflection process helps researchers integrate new findings into knowledge that is applicable in practice.

4. Support through three types of knowledge: Design professionals are supported in their work through three types of knowledge. The first type of knowledge is knowledge about design, such as design methods. Additionally, designers are supported in their work through knowledge about the application area, such as the systems within the hospital where a designer works. Finally, it is valuable to have knowledge about project organization. Much research focuses on the first type of knowledge about design, although the other types of knowledge are also essential for a designer.

Picture: How designers learn from research projects, model by Marieke Zielhuis

When scientists and project leaders apply these four elements in collaborative projects, they will contribute to the learning process of designers, such as Emma. This strengthens the relationship between design and science, with the benefits of research directly benefiting design professionals, thus creating a fertile ground for further innovation and growth in the field.

Also interesting to check out:

Read the full thesis 'Considering design practice' by Marieke Zielhuis. Click here to open it.

Take a look at the Collaboration for Impact website. Here, you will find projects that have been created in collaboration with various sectors. These are excellent examples of designers making an impact. Click here to visit the website.

What can Fundamentals do for you?

Do you also believe in the power of the combination of design and research? At Fundamentals we believe in connecting these worlds.

If you'd like to discuss this topic and the possibilities, don't hesitate to reach out.

Text: Sira Bongers


Zielhuis, M. (2023). Considering design practice.

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