Research Vs Practice…the ugly truth

There is something almost forbidden when you mention research and experience in the same sentence. It is usually towards the end of our undergraduate that we make a choice on whether we should continue studying or dive into the pool of professional practice. Today, our society (at least in Australia) is largely driven by industry experience. Depending on what field you come from, research is either the instigator of innovation or a back-seat observer. With exception of industries whose practice is based and relied upon on ongoing research (sciences/medicine) no side of the research vs experience argument is-in reality- any more valid than the other. But considering this is a blog about design, i am going to focus solely on the (un)importance of design research in design practice.

You can’t innovate in a vacuum

I am a big believer in not doing any type of work in a vacuum. I dont believe anything insightful or innovative can be created without knowing what exists, how it exists and comparing creations to others insights, work and suggestions. When i was studying to become a graphic designer, my tutors drilled it into our heads that research was imperative towards making better designs. So it makes sense a field that is grounded on an iterative and reflective process, would reflect through research to better its craft. Logically speaking, this field would also adopt and respect research.

This is far from the case.

Towards the end of my degree when students were excitedly planning their future, i suggested continuing with study towards a masters. The room divided. Half of my classmates cried, “More study?! What a waste of time! It does nothing for your career or the industry!” and the other half mumbled, “perhaps it will make me a better designer?” When i graduated from my masters, the same discussions were in motion- this time with most of the students feeling prepared enough to go into the workforce, the large majority ‘burned out’ by uni, and a handful considering the long haul into a PhD.

Intellectual war

I already had it set in my mind that i wanted to continue studying. This is because i love to learn and i love to discover and analyse findings i have made. But when i began asking industry professionals their opinion on my chosen career path (the people who i was certain would respect my decision) i received an overwhelmingly negative and unsupportive response, more so than what i had received from my peers.

So why the turf war? To me, it all can be summarized in three simple sentences:

1. Industry professionals don’t like their years of experience being undermined by a few years of study conducted by a researcher.

2. Research is usually too abstract or detached, detailed or impractical for industry professionals to adopt and employ in practice.

3. Research isn’t classified as experience, largely due to number 2 and 1.

Now im not blog bashing industry professionals. I too would take the same attitude as most exhibit. But even those who have clocked years of experience and returned to uni to complete a PhD are met with the same bemused expression from colleagues. The reasons for this i believe comes down to:

1. Ego

2. Misunderstanding

Ego works on both ends. Both researchers and professionals like to believe they know better about their practice. More importantly, misunderstanding on the nature and the value of outcomes from research is the greatest issue students face when justifying doctoral study. Too many times have I heard fellow classmates question the ‘point’ of doing a PhD, observing friends climbing corporate ladders (whilst shaking their heads in pity at all of the students below), and receiving criticism that researchers do ‘no real work’ and simply ‘bum around uni’.

The reality of our field today

The reality is that the design field is cutting its nose to spite its face.

There are not many cases where i can say that a practitioner and a researcher have met with mutual respect for one another, with an equal understanding of the value behind their chosen mode of acquiring knowledge they both have of the field.

Right now, the design industry wants to evolve. It wants to be better, a more serious practice. But like individual development, design as an industry cannot evolve in a vacuum. When professionals and researchers decide to acknowledge both modes of knowledge generation as valuable experience, the question of whether to study or practice will no longer be an indication of right or wrong/poor or successful paths- but needs that are chosen in order to advance the industry. We need professional and research experience to better inform and shape the path of our design industry. This will not be achieved alone- either in a studio or in an office.

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