Reflections on Design and Worldmaking

Three Eras of Design Research


What is the short history of this method? And why has it emerged as a means to think, plan, and make in this digital age? Tracing its path from the early 1990s through periods that include the Internet Bubble, New Economy, Web 2.0, Design Thinking, and Social Entrepreneurship we find three significant eras of Design Research. Each one reveals a change in attitude about the role that human conditions play in increasingly networked and global lifestyles and a restructuring of “experience” using new design methods. The cumulative effect and growth of deep design throughout these movements has made a significant impression on how current and future generations of business leaders are educated ­— an emphasis on empathy for “users”, more lateral thinking and prototyping with the intent to birth a transformative product, change the course of an organization’s culture, make measurable social impact, or achieve all three.

Era 1: Becoming Digital, The 1990s

Shortly after intermediary technologies (such as voicemail and computers) found roles in the common office the internet switched on, and email changed interpersonal communication locally and globally. A swift digital world shifted our behaviors and expectations, while inspiring new tools for life and work. Designing these tools required new methods for understanding how they would be used and exerted pressure on traditional design disciplines that lacked foundational theory and examples. These new methods, such as ethnographic research, were considered exotic, but compelling by designers — and industry alike.

Era 2: Building Systems, Early-to-Mid 2000s

As the “New Economy” took shape, the first comprehensive layer of digital infrastructure to support global communications and commerce was installed. “Platforms” and “ecosystems” became integral to product and service strategy and included technologies, partners, competitors, complementors, customers and users working together to form experiences with tangible value. New design disciplines were formalized and included information architecture, interaction design, design research, design planning, and experience design. Qualitative, experiential metrics played a formal role in evaluating user experience — is something useful, usable, and desirable? To what extent? Designers began to document and publish theories about how to make sense of qualitative data that was collected, using methods borrowed from the social sciences, which were becoming widely accepted.

Era 3: Being Designerly, Late 2000s – 2010s

Innovation characterized the intent of most projects during the great recession of the late 2000s as companies tried to creatively dig their way out of a hole. Most of the solutions were deeply systemic and organizations that began implementing them required a new design-oriented skill set. Business schools took notice, building curriculums around innovation, and opened up to lateral thinking while loosening their dependency on analytics. Big companies revived or created design divisions and major strategic consultancies bought design firms to round out their services. Executives and management realized they needed to learn to use design to create differentiated products and services in short order. At this time, Design Thinking is established as a new theory and toolkit for innovation in contemporary business. It gained strong support through the design and business media channels. Signature firms and business schools with design programs — such as Stanford, Harvard, and Northwestern – began to educate business leadership and set the expectation that design is a legitimate way towards inspired, original products and services.


Looking ahead, we see the next era of design research playing out in:

  • Established and emerging markets that are using technologies and design practices learned in the previous half decade
  • A significant aging world population, especially in powerful countries such as the U.S. and China
  • Organizations that include newly educated business managers and leaders who are schooled in design, speak its language, are more comfortable with ambiguity than their predecessors
  • Problems defined and solved through a union of observation, instrumentation, prototyping, and learning that leverage the push and pull of our sensed data trail and emotional experiences; such techniques enable us to see parts of lives that may otherwise be too hard to detect.
  • Longer tails of fast, agile, and iterative research that anticipate/enable design and strategic decision-making as well as…“reframe the prototype process by moving a product into a perpetual state of design improvement.”
  • A new generation of designer with an advanced mix of technical, analytical, interpretative, and visual skills to inform and inspire design

Taken together, these techniques will need to compliment strategic planning and engagement models that push design methods deeper into organizational mind sets and processes. Attaining legitimacy, wherein design research, thinking and doing become believable and useful, is a challenging, but reachable milestone. “The introduction of a new concept creates ambiguity and uncertainty…which stems from a lack of understanding and fear of negative consequences (for the individual and the firm)”[1]. With over 20 years of tooling and an eye towards the future, Design Research is poised to tackle the next generation of wicked problems.

[This essay was first published on frog’s design mind.]


(1) Rauth, Carlgren, and Elmquist, “Making It Happen: Legitimizing Design Thinking in Large Organizations”, DMI Journal Volume 9, Number 1, 2014, p47-60.

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