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PHD-DESIGN  March 2013

PHD-DESIGN March 2013


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Writing Research Requires Words


Ken Friedman <[log in to unmask]>


PhD-Design - This list is for discussion of PhD studies and related research in Design <[log in to unmask]>


Fri, 8 Mar 2013 00:06:39 +0000





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Dear All,

This past weekend, two posts to the list caught my eye. These short notes exemplified several problems and misconceptions of research in the design field.

In this post, I explain why research communications require words. Research communications include articles, papers, reports, or theses. Research communications that involve design research are different to design communications. They communicate research outcomes that answer research questions rather than communicating design outcomes that report on designed artifacts. A research outcome that involves a design artifact may require showing the design artifact just as medical research may require showing an instrument or a surgical procedure. Nevertheless, the issue here is communicating research to the research field, not communicating design artifacts to clients or to other designers.

This note addresses some misconceptions around the issue of why research communications requirewords.

On Friday, Mattias Arvola posted the link to the metaphrase of an article by Roy Levin and David Redell (1983) about publishing research in systems science. The metaphrase substituted the word design for the word systems, and made a few further changes.

The Levin and Redell article is not about systems science. It is an article about publishing research papers. The core issues in publishing research papers are the same across most fields. When we allow for differences in method and objects of inquiry, most of what is not the same is similar. Any active researcher can read and understand Levin and Redell: the concepts and issues are simple and comprehensible.

The goal of the Levin and Redell article is helping people to write and publish better. Anyone with a PhD can understand it. Anyone responsible for research training and PhD supervision certainly does – if not, they’re in the wrong business. People now earning a PhD ought to read Levin and Redell in the original. The point of research training is learning to understand concepts from different sources, adapting them and applying them to our own work.

Rewriting Levin and Redell creates misunderstanding through subtle shifts of meaning. The metaphrase also introduced errors in grammar and language that were correct in the original. The original is better. It is available at URL:


Karen Fu responded to Mattias with a note praising the metaphrase while adding a newlayer of misconception: “Perhaps one of the main reasons why designers don’t give fine or even acceptable papers is the medium of expression itself. If words were the preferred craft, then designers won’t choose visuals and (2D / 3D) objects as some of the main means of communication. Not many designers are strong in languages. Perhaps this age old debate on how presentation of ideas be set for research will never find its true path as long as certain rules on research remains intact.”

There is a simple mistake in this statement and a deeper misconception.

The simple mistake is that this is not an age-old debate. This debate is less than two decades old. It began when former polytechnics and independent art and design schools were merged into universities or re-designated as universities. This is a recentdebate dating back only a few years.

The debate began when people with no research background and no publications found themselves required to deal with research issues. Those people did not understand the kinds of questions involved in research. Rather than learn about research, some decided to assert what research meant based on personal preferences or sheer ignorance. In that context, a significant number of people did not know the difference between communicating design outcomes and communicating research outcomes.

The misconception here involves the difference between two kinds of communication. One is research communication, and the other is design communication. Research communication is explicit, and it must meet specific criteria of the kinds that Levin and Redell (1983) describe. Design communication takes multiple forms. It is ambiguous but practical. Design communication is generally lodged in the pragmatic context of a specific project, or it models a specific kind of project.

Researchers use words to communicate research ideas. Research is a mental activity. Writing research requires words because words communicate the meta-narrative of research: the meta-narrative of research tells readers what we did, how we did it, what choices we made, why we made them, and what we came to think at the conclusion of the process. Words may be communicated in other media than print. These include presentations, talks, seminars, or multimedia presentations. Whatever the medium, to communicate research ideas, researchers must use words to communicate the meta-narrative of research.

Designers use two-dimensional and three-dimensional artifacts to communicate design ideas. Design ideas are often best exemplified or explained by a working model of a specific project, so communicating design ideas often works best by using two-dimensional and three-dimensional artifacts. Even then, however, designers use words – they almost always use words in presenting two-dimensional or three-dimensional models, words that explain their intention and build a bridge from the design idea in the model and the client for whom the model represents a potential product or service. In other cases, they use words to explain to an audience what they did in creating the product or service. Design also has a meta-narrative. It is simply less formal than the meta-narrative of research, and it is nearly always located in the pragmatics of a specific project rather than the inquiry of a broader fit within which it fits.

Models and objects also play a role in research communication. Depending on what we research, and how we do it, communicating research involves such objects as numbers, images, artifacts, figures, charts, chemical drawings, or words. Research often requires these to exemplify or illustrate aspects of the research problem. Nevertheless, the act of research takes place in the human mind. We use words to communicate research from one human mind to another.

This is not only true of research. We generally use words to communicate what we think aboutanything from one human mind to another. For some kinds of thinking, we have explicit and unambiguous symbolic languages to communicate specific kinds of thoughts. This is the case of numbers and discipline specific symbols for functions or operations in mathematics, engineering, or physics. This is the case of numbers and discipline specific symbols for functions or operations in statistics for any field that uses quantitative research. It is also the case for symbols used in logic. Even in these fields, however, we use words.

We use words to explain how and why we came to focus on a problem. We use words to describeearlier attempts by other researchers to work on iterations of the same problem or predecessor problems. We use words to describe the work others have done on our problem.

We use words to share states of mind, both abstract thought and emotional feeling. We use words to communicate how our thinking evolved, and to share the considerations we may have on any topic.

Two-dimensional and three-dimensional artifacts can support communication by making the objects of inquiry clear or by helping to clarify ideas. When we engage in practice-based research, two-dimensional or three-dimensional artifacts maythemselves be part of the research process, Just as images of a surgical procedure or the computer simulation of a bridge under wind stress supports the narrative of medical research or engineering.

But images and objects alone cannot communicate the mental acts of research because they cannot describe the metanarrative of research. Two-dimensional and three-dimensional artifacts cannot explicitly represent the complex range of events and issues involved in attempting to solve problems. Neither can they raise or address the wide range of issues involved in any project, including other potential solutions, the reasons for specific choices, and the warnings or caveats that may accompany one solution as contrasted with another.

Many research reports require images and illustrations. All research reports require narrative. This is because we need words to narrate the research metanarrative. The immediate narrative tells us about the project at hand. The metanarrative tells us how the project at hand functions within the larger frame of research in the field.

Any research report – article, paper, thesis – requires at least nine distinct elements.

These nine elements are:

1. An explicit statement of the research problem,

2. A discussion of knowledge in the field to date,

3. A discussion of past attempts to examine or solve the problem,

4. A discussion of the methods and approach used to solve the problem in the paper, article, or thesis at hand,

5. A methodological comparison of possible alterative methods,

6. A discussion of problems encountered in the research,

7. A discussion of how the researcher addresses those problems,

8. An explicit statement of how the research paper, article, or thesis at hand contributes to the body of knowledge within the field,

9. A discussion of implications for future research.

Many reports require more distinctions, and some projects require further articulation among these nine elements. This is particularly the case for item 8, the explicitstatement of how the research paper, article, or thesis at hand contributes to the body of knowledge within the field. Describing a contribution to the knowledge of a field may involve many steps.

These nine elements also permit us to examine the major areas of metanarrative in which one must distinguish between methods and methodology.

The need to narrate the research on a metanarrative level is why neither three-dimensional artifacts nor two-dimensional visual presentations other than words can serve as full research reports. They may be part of what the research is about. They may constitute part of the research result. The research itself takes place in the human mind, and reporting the research must therefore involve reporting thoughts and experiences.

We’re not the only group that faces this kind of challenge. Chemist and Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman once wrote an article explaining how people report the research involved in designing chemicals. Hoffman (2002: 30) states “it is impossible to write chemistry without drawing molecules.” Hoffman’s elegant discussion shows how words, equations, and images come together to describe original scientific contributions to his field. Hoffman’s clear, neatly argued lessons can help our field in developing its research traditions, too. For that matter, the collection in which this article appears contains nine articles that are all useful in understanding how people “write their disciplines,” and why (Monroe 2002).

A good research report shows - and tells - enough for the reader to understand the methods and value of the work. It is clear. It is as simple as possible while being as full as it must be. It describes the subject or object of inquiry, the research methods, and the research process so clearly that the reader understands the project and process fully. It demonstrates the qualities of process that help each reader to judge the work properly as research.

This last quality is a particular distinction between writing research reports and reporting about research. A research report is transparent, and it permits us to know more than the fact that something is supposedly so. It allows us to ask for ourselves whether something is so, it allows us to ask how and sometimes why. Most important, a research report permits each reader to analyze the background, the facts, and the issues to reach an individual conclusion based on the evidence and the argument in the article.

Reporting on research is the work of science journalists. The article I posted here a week or so back is an example of reporting on research about addictive foods. That was a science article reporting about research (Moss 2013). So is a similararticle (Bittman 2013). In contrast, the article that Bittman describes is a research report (Basu, Yoffe, Hills, and Lustig 2013), “The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Data.” The difference between the two kinds of article is simple: a journalist explains. We may find the explanation credible or not, but journalists rarely give us enough information to permit us to draw an appropriate scientific or scholarly conclusion. A researcher explains while presenting enough information about the research to allow us to work our way through to a scientific or scholarly conclusion on our own if we have the appropriate range of skill, knowledge, information, and experience in the field of the article. This is the principle of replication in science. Replication is impossible in some fields, especially fields where context-dependent situations or contingency make each iteration of the problem different in some dimension. Nevertheless, a full research narrative with an appropriate meta-narrative allows us to learn enough to understand and apply the research for an appropriate conclusion, even with respect to changes and transformations.

Complex graphic artifacts such as exhibits, posters, or multimedia projects serve as research reports specifically because they can convey the research metanarrative that reports the research process as well as the design outcomes.

Because research is a mental activity, human, individual, social, and cultural in nature, the mental and cultural process of research is invisible. It cannot be embodied in an artifact unless the artifact is also a medium for narrative communication. The idea of an artifact that conveys or explains research results without using alphanumeric symbols or words is a contradiction in terms. Words may be conveyed without being written: a person can report research without paper, but a person is not an artifact.

Robert R. H. Anholt (2005) wrote an excellent book on the subject of presenting research. While his focus is spoken conference presentations and poster presentations, his discussion of key issues focuses on the elements of a good research report. It has the added advantage of helping a researcher learn to prepare effective presentations for conferences and seminars.

Whatever describes the research process requires two forms of information. One is a description of the thing or process that constitutes the object of inquiry. The other is a description of what we have done, thought, and learned.

To report research, an author must describe the subject or object of inquiry, the research methods, and the research process so clearly that the reader understands the project and process fully. This process narrative is the metanarrative of research. These are the artifacts of evidence in research of any kind. Describing the first artifact of evidence involves articulate narrative description as well as any necessary models, figures, diagrams, illustrations, drawings, or images. The model may be the thing itself – toasters, teapots, cups, cars.

Words also play a role. Only narration transmits the metanarrative of research to place research in context. This permits us to inquire into the process and research activity as well as into the subjects or objects of investigation. Since the research process takes place in the mind of the researcher, reporting research requires the narration of a mental process in addition to a report of what we learn.

There are some arguments to be made for new kinds of communication in the work of Robert Horn (1998; see also Horn’s web site: http://www.stanford.edu/~rhorn/ ). Horn attempts to describe new ways of communicating through what he calls visual language. Horn’s theories
of visual language are important for many kinds of communication. One of Horn’s articles describes new ways of communicating that he believes will and should supplant the older style of normative, grammatical narrative. He labels this new kind of writing “visual

Horn (2001: 1) discusses the challenges involved in visual language. “(A) what to put in and what to leave out (there are some kinds of writing where you leave out the most important information!); (B) how thoughts stick together (and how to organize this stickiness); (C) what writing should be linear and what should not; (D) when to tightly integrate words and images into visual language; and (E) what in the future may be called metawriting.” Then he goes on to discuss the new rules and the old, considering when and how to apply each.

One of Horn’s most interesting points is that visual language requires the tightly coupled, appropriate use of both words and images. Neither words nor images alone constitute visual language. The frequent wish seen in design presentations to find a way of communicating research without words or alphanumeric symbols is impossible. Only the tight and appropriate integrated use of words and images will do for many kinds of research report. For some discussions, narrative alone will do, particularly for describing internal processes, thought processes, and the metanarrative of research.

To sum things up, the need to narrate research on a metanarrative level is why neither artifacts nor visual presentations alone can serve as full research reports. They are part of what the research is about and they may constitute part of the research result, but the research itself takes place in the human mind, andreporting the research must therefore involve reporting thoughts and experiences.

Designers who want to communicate design may not need to write. Designers who want to communicate research must learn to write. Researchers in many fields struggle with writing – so does nearly anyone who writes well. I suppose there are mathematicians who prefer to use numbers only and chemists who wish only towork with chemicals in a lab. Those who have productive research careers learn to use words. Designers must do so as well.



Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | University Distinguished Professor | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia | [log in to unmask] | Mobile +61 404 830 462 | Home Page http://www.swinburne.edu.au/design/people/Professor-Ken-Friedman-ID22.html<http://www.swinburne.edu.au/design> Academia Page http://swinburne.academia.edu/KenFriedman About Me Page http://about.me/ken_friedman

Guest Professor | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China



Anholt, Robert R.H. 2005. Dazzle ‘Em with Style. The Art of Oral Scientific Presentation. Second Edition. Burlington, Massachusetts: Elsevier Academic Press.

Basu, Sanjay, Paula Yoffe, Nancy Hills, and Robert H. Lustig. 2013. “The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Data.” PLoS ONE. URL: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0057873  Date accessed: 2013 March 4.

Bittman, Mark. 2013. “It’s the Sugar, Folks.” New York Times. February 27, 2013. URL: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/its-the-sugar-folks/ Date accessed: 2013 March 4.

Hoffman, Roald. 2002. “Writing and Drawing Chemistry.” Writing and Revising the Disciplines. Jonathan Monroe, ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 28-53.

Horn, Robert E. 1998. Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century. Bainbridge Island, Washington: MacroVU, Inc.

Horn, Robert E. 2001. What Kinds of Writing Have a Future? Speech prepared in connection with receiving Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association of Computing Machinery. SIGDOC, October 22, 2001.

Levin, Roy, and David D. Redell. 1983. An Evaluation of the Ninth SOSP Submissions or How (and How Not) to Write a Good Systems Paper. ACM SIGOPS Operating Systems Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (July, 1983), pp. 35-40. URL: http://static.usenix.org/publications/library/proceedings/dsl97/good_paper.html Date accessed 2013 March 2.

Monroe, Jonathan, ed. 2002. Writing and Revising the Disciplines. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Moss, Michael. 2013. “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” New York Times. February 20, 2013. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?ref=michaelmoss&_r=0 Date accessed: 2013 March 4.

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