Some notes on design research, September 2011


Research is the key word of the Masters education. A Masters degree signifies that you are not only capable of designing significant products, systems or services. It also signifies that you are capable of investigating specific themes in a thorough way and can draw sensible conclusions from your research. Research starts in the first year, but the main research will take place in the second year. We advice both first and second year students to read this text carefully.


The second year of the Masters programme is dedicated to a ‘research based designprocess’, which contains both a physical and an academic component. Usually this is a textual report of the researchprocess and designproposals, which are closely linked to the research. However, in some cases alternative options might be investigated. We envision a wide range of possible relationships between report of the research and the design. You can for instance investigate an abstract theme that demands foremost a theoretical research before your conclusions can be translated into designproposals. It can also be a practical research, for instance of a specific technique, a material, colors, patterns, which you will learn to analyse on a theoretical level as well. Research is the key word.



It usually starts with finding a good personal theme. Then you start to assemble and analyse information about the theme, leaving behind first assumptions and prejudices: by reading relevant texts, seeing significant exhibitions, conduct experiments, interviews, etcetera. Once you have a lot of information you start to analyse you findings and structure your research. The report of the research is usually a combination of text and visual material. However, if the project and your specific talents demand a different medium, alternatives are possible, such as a film, a coherent visual report and analyses of experiments, …….. Note: the report needs to meet the criteria of systematic research, regardless of the medium.



The design can be a conclusion of the preliminary research. It can also be a starting point for the research. Both are intertwined.Like the research also the design can take many forms. The most obvious form would be a product, a strategy or a service. You started this education as a designer, it’s only logical you conclude it as a designer, who has improved his and her analytical skills. However, during the masters studies you will discover your specific strengths and also your weaknesses. If you succeed in writing a very good thesis, whereas your designproposals don’t reach that same level, you might end your studies with a theoretical project. If on the other hand your designtalent exceeds your writing skills, you might end your studies with a research and design, of which the main ingredients are visual. Together with your mentors you search for the best options.


Choice of a good theme: personal fascinations

What may help in choosing a good theme: open your window and look outside. What’s happening in today’s world? Which role can you play in that world? Another approach might be: go back in time, think of a project you worked on with great joy and/or good results, either recently or a long time ago. You don’t have to invent something totally new, just choose something that will work for you personally.


Be aware of the subjects that interest you deeply, intuitively or because they trigger your imagination or challenge your intelligence most. Is your main interest the cultural and historical meanings of products, materials and techniques, choose a subject that is closely related to them. Is technological innovation your ‘thing’, choose accordingly. Is your main interest social relevance, environmental concerns or political care, choose carefully a subject that meets your interest, while it can be handled within the field of design. You can also search for fascinations somewhat more distant from the designfield. If you for instance are a passionate cook or a musician in your leisure time, consider taking those fascinations to combine them with design. Any theme may work, but one important question has to be dealt with always: does this specific theme afford significant space for a designer? Or to put in another way: which role can you take on as a designer within this field of interest?


Ambitions should fly high, but naturally you also need to take care of the possibilities. Consider the context in which your designs will function. Are your fascinations related to current developments in the (design)world and is it important that they are? What are your talents? Your skills? What are your weak points? Which of them might be overcome within a limited time frame? On the other hand: dare to take bigger steps than you might usually do.


Once you have a theme, you make a plan to investigate it. Which questions should be asked, which process should be followed? Possible questions to answer:

  • What is my research question?
  • What is my design interest?
  • Why is this question and/or this interest relevant within a designcontext? 
  • How will I research this theme?
  • What will be the foreseen result?
  • Why is that result relevant? 


Below you find a text, Research & Thesis Guidelines, written by Koen Kleijn (research and thesis mentor of Contextual Design). The guidelines offer advice how to conduct a research and write a thesis text. As mentioned above, whenever ‘thesis’ is mentioned, in some cases alternative media are possible (film, coherent visual report and analyses of experiments,….), provided that the research has been conducted in a systematic way, consistent with the academic criteria we set for a master’s proof.


This text was written by Louise Schouwenberg, head of the masters research programme Contextual Design, in close consultation with Gijs Bakker, head of the masters department, Jan Boelen and Joost Grootens, heads of the masters research programmes Social Design and Information Design.



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