Research Through Design: A Humanistic Conception

Note #1: This is adapted from a post I submitted to the PhDDesign distribution list’s thread on “Research through design.”

Note #2: This is a preliminary attempt to formulate the perspective I am developing in my sabbatical monograph, Design As Inquiry. If you like what I’m doing, or if you think I’m nuts and want to argue with me, please contact me!

It is well known that in spite of considerable excitement about research through design (and constructive design, speculative design, etc.), that many questions remain about its status as “research,” including whether/how it conforms to our conceptions of research, how its impacts are to assessed, and how to distinguish good from bad design projects aspiring to one of these contribution types. This has major implications, e.g., for funding, publication, tenure, and indeed whether Design can justifiably award Ph.D. degrees.

One reason for the present difficulties is that it seems difficult to ask how design does “research” without becoming bewitched by scientific research norms or foundationalist attempts to find powerful arguments in Frayling that frankly aren’t there to be found. As someone trained in the humanities, I have been wondering–sort of an elaborate thought experiment–what RtD looks like if we imagine it in relation to a more humanistic conception of inquiry.

​One common argument views design inquiry as a form of “exploration.” I think such a view, unless carefully qualified, understates the rigor and knowledge contributions at stake. ​The novels of Henry James do not merely “​explore” moral life–they systematically interrogate it, situated in a complex world of particulars, of events, of emotional ​resonance​, in a way that rivals Kant’s and Rawls’ moral philosophy​ (Nussbaum, 1990). Warhol’s Brillo Box does not merely explore popular culture–it interrogates the ​very ​theories by which we are able to recognize art as art (Danto, 1981). The Aliens films do not merely explore personhood–they interrogate different formulations of it, working through the consequences of diverse positions, and clarify for us what is at stake in these formulations ​in our increasingly biotechnical world of the proximal future ​(Mulhall, 2002). ​The tragedies of Shakespeare do not merely explore skepticism; they interrogate its arguments, work through its psychological motivations and behavioral consequences, and reveal how disowning knowledge leads to the un-acknowledgment of our human relatedness and mutual obligations (Cavell, 1969). ​Is not the systematic consideration and critique of different positions and their consequences knowledge work?

As a humanist I can’t help but notice that mature art traditions are steeped in a deep dialogue with textual expressions: art history and criticism, essays, and theory and philosophy. The textual dimension functions, in my view, as a conduit between art processes / objects and knowledge. Without the essays of people like Nussbaum, Danto, Mulhall, and Cavell (in this case, all philosophers), I am likely to fail to see the potentials of these art works to contribute such knowledge. Similarly, without the great traditions of (literary, art, film) history and criticism, it is unlikely that Warhol, James, and the directors of the Aliens films, etc., would have been able to achieve what they did in the ways that they did. This does not mean that writing stands over the art–most of us, myself included, intuitively perceive just the opposite–but there is nonetheless a deep and intimate relationship between the two.

Now, Gaver and Bowers have proposed annotated portfolios, and one role of the annotations is to provide such a connective role. However, annotated portfolios remain first-person (​i.e., ​in which Gaver annotates Gaver’s work). This is welcome indeed. But it is possible–desirable even–that the community can find knowledge contributions beyond those intended or imagined by the designer.

So I wonder sometimes whether rather than wringing our hands over the correct a priori account of how/whether/in what ways designs can contribute to generalizable knowledge, what it would look like if we devoted some of our efforts to looking at designs, writing critically and thoughtfully about what they in fact propose to us (about design, about how to live, about what can and should change), and how those propositions relate to other propositions–from the arts and sciences–within the same domain of inquiry (however we pragmatically define that at the time of the reading).

In this vein, ​for the past several years I have been developing an approach to design as inquiry with an emphasis on design criticism (e.g., Bardzell, 2011; Bardzell & Bardzell, 2013), and I have had no trouble connecting ​design proposals to relevant thinking in interdisciplinary discourses​, which has implications for design theory and design work in relevant domains​.​ For example, some colleagues and I (Bardzell et al., 2015)​ ​read Sputniko!’s “Menstruation Machine” as a form of inquiry into the constitutive roles of design and gender essentialism in posthumanism​. We framed this work not as cultural studies but as design research, finding in the design concrete implications for design materials, languages, and forms; the plasticity and therefore designability of what it means to be “human”; and how design can be used as a method / force for social activism. Are these not “generalized” forms of knowing, constituting more than mere “explorations”?

I do not pose a humanistic perspective on RtD as a one-size-fits-all solution, of course. But I do believe that an approach that carefully attends to actual designs qua inquiry does help remind us what we already know–that design is, among other things, a knowledge discipline.


Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S., and Hansen, L. K. (2015). Immodest proposals: Research through design and knowledge. Proceedings of CHI’15: World Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM: New York.

Bardzell, J., and Bardzell, S. (2013). What is “critical” about critical design? Proc. of CHI’2013. ACM: New York.

Bardzell, J. Interaction Criticism: An Introduction to the Practice. Interacting With Computers. Volume 23 Issue 6, November, 2011. Pages 604-621

Cavell, S. (1969). Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge UP.

Danto, A. (1981). The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Harvard UP.

Mulhall, S. (2002). On Film. Routledge.

Nussbaum, M. (1990). Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford UP.


  1. wavetwisterguest

    Looking forward to see where this takes you. Very interesting!

    • Erik Stolterman

      Hmm, I wrote this “Looking forward to see where this takes you. Very interesting!” I did not identify myself 🙂


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