Design Thinking and the Research Application Problem

The field of environmental design research has long struggled with how to integrate research into the practice of design. Yet the roadblock may be in how researchers and designers frame the question of research and design.

In the following whitepaper, designer Susan Foong and researcher Amin Mojtahedi of HGA and architecture professor Brian Schermer of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, identify three obstacles to integrating environmental design research with practice:

  • Utilizing traditional positivist approaches to science—focused on uncovering empirical truth—are not always useful in explaining and generalizing complex social phenomena.
  • Viewing research and practice as separate activities within the behavioral sciences.
  • Incorrectly assuming research results are a compilation of facts that can simply be applied by practitioners.
A Three-Tiered Solution

To address this trio of obstacles, a three-tiered alternative framework is proposed.

At the foundational level, positivist approaches to knowledge are replaced by pragmatism. In the positivist world view, the focus is on uncovering empirical truth in a predetermined sequential order, while pragmatists are curious about application and seek solutions to the problems before them.

The middle tier addresses the duality between research and application by suggesting that action research—a set of participatory processes, tools, and methods focused on producing practical knowledge—can successfully blur the lines between research and application.

Finally, design thinking is offered as an alternative to practitioners’ view of research and practice, and as a means of complementing and augmenting action research. Design thinking distinguishes itself from action research by its emphasis on iteration, ideation, and innovation in creating solutions, and argues for a social and situated view of the nature of design. That is, it uses certain tools and techniques to situate and embed the design work in the social setting in which it lives.

Design Thinking Applied

The design thinking process entails four complementary facets:

  • Empathy
  • Insight Generation
  • Ideation
  • Co-creation and Iteration

Any of the four planes can be considered as the starting point for examining a design problem or acting to solve it, and there is no established sequence of activities or primacy of one plane over the others. Instead, corresponding tools and techniques are deployed in the field based on their utility for users and relevance to the design challenges and opportunities, at hand.

Case Studies

Examples from three HGA projects illustrate the context, challenges, methods, and outcomes of design thinking:

  • Empathy—A manufacturing company asked the design team to strategize a human-centered workplace for their headquarters. How might we make employees’ mornings relaxing and delightful as opposed to rushed and stressful?
  • Ideation—A healthcare clinic was interested in reviving the idea of the trusted family doctor by opening primary care clinics to improve health and lower costs with a focus on inner cities. How might we rethink all components of a clinic space to provide a dramatically different way of delivering care?
  • Co-creation and iteration—A growing design company plans to renovate its workplace. How might we increase cross-pollination between different departments in the organization?

To read the complete whitepaper, download Design Thinking and the Research Application Problem.