Why design needs a critical reality check

I havent had much time to think about blogging lately, especially since i have burrowed into a methodological ditch for the past few months. I wasnt sure if this post would be practical for professionals, but it will be of interest to researchers or maybe even educators in the design field. For my thesis I have to dedicate a large portion of writing towards my epistemological and methodological position- that is, what theoretical justification of knowledge i choose to take which kind of dictates the path towards obtaining data. Its more or less a lense or theory which you believe adequately justifies truth and knowledge. Wikipedia probably does a better job at explaining it than i have, but this handy Euler diagram sums it up:

different epist’s have differing beliefs on what is true which = knowledge

I spent months torturing myself over what episte i was going to take. Despite my supervisor claiming its not really a big deal, i felt that choosing the right theory of knowledge was imperative, especially for the credibility of my data. The importance of choosing the right episte became apparent to me more so when i realised that i was entering unknown territories in research- especially design research- because the kind of topic i am undertaking is not conventional.

A little bit about research in design…

Design research has *generally* borrowed methodologies from the social sciences. Borrowing a methodology from another field comes with epistemological positions that underpin its pathway. A PhD colleague, Luke Feast, published a paper with Gavin Melles on common epistemological positions in doctoral design research. Four main positions were highlighted in this paper and placed in order from most subjective to least. They are: subjectivism, constructivism (i will add here pragmatism) and objectivism/positivism. The prevailing episte that has been most widely supported by the big guns in design (Cross, Schon) is constructivism and currently dominates doctoral design research (Feast & Melles 2010, p. 3)

The kind of epistemology you choose to guide your research largely depends on the question asked. Different fields of research assume common epistemological and methodological procedures due to the nature of the work. For example, in the field of anthropology where majority of research questions surround cultural investigations on semiotics and constructions of meaning, a constructivist or even subjectivist approach is assumed and appropriate. In the field of psychology and behavioural research, questions seek quantitative data and often follow a more scientific (positivist) approach. Thus, scientific research assumes a positivist position and can also be termed ‘reductionist’. You will have to excuse my rather crude explanations- there are indeed more epistemological ‘-isms’ used in each field of research but i am just covering the most common.

But most of these ‘isms’ dont quite fit…

I am not claiming to be an expert on the topic of doctoral research in design, but ive read enough about design research to form an opinion that makes me believe design research hasn’t found its own episte yet- especially for higher orders of design. To me, borrowing epistemologies from other fields is not allowing for the scope of complexity that is required in this field. The slippers dont quite fit. As a relatively new industry, design research has been stuck in an awkward teen phase- trying out different epistemological trends to see what works.

In the process of finding the right shoe, the design industry has evolved (and technically returned to) a new scope of practice- thats is the (re)focus on design thinking in highly complex issues such as systemic design and social innovation. This has thrown up all of our most common methodological approaches previously used in design research.  I need to now highlight why, in context of our new design sphere, the epistemological positions we have been using thus far are falling short.

So what epistemology fits with this new scale of design? On the one hand, this area of design deals with social constructions of meaning and culture, with the artefacts and results that are produced to improve on what society values. On the other, it interacts with complex systems that depend on ‘objective’ (technological and environmental) forces that operate independently from what we construct of it. It’s not enough to research design from a purely subjectivist lens; one that favors intrepretations on human constructions of meaning and intent. Its not enough to research design from a purely objective lens; one that favors a quantifiable view of social process and ignores cultural meaning and values. Design largely is the combination of  both these extremes so it makes sense that to perform adequate research in design- especially complex design practice- that we find a middle ground for our theoretical stance, one that acknowledges the importance of both socially constructed meaning and external forces. This middle ground can be found from using a critical realist perspective.

What is Critical Realism?

This is where i get into the nitty gritties of the most commonly used epist’s in design research and compare these with a critical realist approach. Below is a table taken from Luke & Melles paper but originally found in Michael Crotty’s book, The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. The following table is a nice concise outline of the main epistemologies in design research, along with the related methodology and methods of investigation.

Now I’ve edited this table to insert critical realism:

I should note that debates over whether critical realism is an epistemological or an ontological theory are still performed today. The general consensus is that it is an ontological theory, but ive placed it under epistemology for simplicity. The theoretical perspectives listed here for critical realism are also epistemologies but ive placed the information in this way to show that critical realism is a combination of pragmatic and realist theories.


The following contains jargon. If you feel you dont need to brush up on the details behind critical realism (though i highly recommend it, even just for fun. Yes, i said fun) you can safely scroll down to the more practical explanation of the theory.


Critical Realism was first proposed by Roy Bhaskar in the 1970’s as an alternative theory aimed to bridge perspectives from the arts and sciences. I dont really recommend you read Bhaskar, as his texts are infamous for being convoluted to the point where you think he himself doesnt quite understand what he is saying. So thankfully a whole group of smart academics such as Sayer, Danermark, Eckstrom and Dickens published a range of books and papers clarifying and expanding on the theory, saving us mortals from Bhaskar’s intense philosophies.

The interpretations from our saviours differ a little. Some prefer to take a more subjective interpretation whereas others prefer a more positivist approach. Some described CR as an epistemology, where as most acknowledge it as an ontological theory (a theory on what can be said to ‘exist’ rather than justification of knowledge). Sayer is perhaps the leading contemporary writer on critical realism, with Dickens a key theorist in context of eco and sustainable practice. Both of these writers have outlined the key elements behind critical realism. Below is a comparison of their accounts:

Dickens on “The 4 Key Elements of Critical Realism”

1. Knowledge is a product of society, but knowledge is not only a product of society. It can refer to real processes and mechanisms in the world.

2. Science is about establishing the causes underlying phenomena of interest. Real, relatively enduring structures and causal mechanisms in the physical, biological and social worlds underlie what we observe and experience. They do so in combination with one another and often in combination with contingent circumstance. ‘Closed systems’ are created artificially to develop understandings of causal mechanisms, but these are rare in society and nature.

3. The world is envisaged as heirarchically stratified. At the most general level are physical mechanisms (e.g. Gravity). At ‘higher’ level are chemical structures and mechanisms. Higher still are biological mechanisms (e.g those generating an organisms growth). Finaly, there are physchological and social mechanisms. Mechanisms at each level of reality are rooted in- but not reducible to- those operating at lower levels.

4. The nature of these structures and mechanisms is subject to constant critique and scientific development. This critique and development can also stem from practical, everyday experience (Dickens 2003, p. 20)

Dickens’s account on critical realism is much easier to digest, but Sayer dives a little deeper into the specifics behind the theory:

Sayer’s 8 key assumptions of CR:

1.The world exists independently of our knowledge of it.

2. Our knowledge of the world is fallible and theory-laden. Concepts of truth and falsity fail to provide a coherent view of the relationship between knowledge and its object. Nevertheless knowledge is not immune to empirical check and its effectiveness in informing and explaining successful material practice is not mere accident.

3. Knowledge develops neither wholly continuously, as the steady accumulation of facts within a stable conceptual framework, nor discontinuously, through simultaneous and universal changes in concepts.

4. There is necessity in theworld; objects—whether natural or social— necessarily have particular powers or ways of acting and particular susceptibilities.

5. The world is differentiated and stratified, consisting not only of events, but objects, including structures, which have powers and liabilities capable of generating events. These structures may be present even where, as in the social world and much of the natural world, they do not generate regular patterns of events.

6. Social phenomena such as actions, texts and institutions are concept dependent.We not only have to explain their production and material effects but to understand, read or interpret what they mean. Although they have to be interpreted by starting from the researcher’s own frames of meaning, by and large they exist regardless of researchers’ interpretation of them. A qualified version of 1 therefore applies to the social world. In view of 4–6, the methods of social science and natural science have both differences and similarities.

7. Science or the production of any kind of knowledge is a social practice. For better or worse (not just worse) the conditions and social relations of the production of knowledge influence its content. Knowledge is also largely—though not exclusively— linguistic, and the nature of language and the way we communi- cate are not incidental to what is known and communicated. Awareness of these relationships is vital in evaluating knowledge.

8. Social science must be critical of its object. In order to be able to explain and understand social phenomena we have to evaluate them critically (Sayer 1992, p.5)

So as you can see, critical realism acknowledges that there is both an external reality where natural processes operate (nature), but that also this reality can include social processes that operate independently of our observation and interpretation of them. The critical realist perspective still lies in constructivist reasoning (as oppose to scientific experimentation/testing), but unlike most subjective epistemologies that deny an external ‘truth’ , critical realism understands that a mind independent reality exists. I was going to briefly get into descriptions of how critical realism operates but felt that researchers can familiarise themselves with the texts and that practitioners may not need to know the nitty gritty philosophical descriptions for practice.  This brings me to the next point: how critical realism can be used in practice.

 “Most sciences have in the past tended to develop an understanding of physical, chemical, and other mechanisms in isolation. They have done this through creating artifically ‘closed systems’ as a means of understanding the basic mechanisms of the physical and social world.”  (Dickens 2003, p.100)

Enough with the blah blah, get to the point!

What critical realism can teach practitioners is to understand when a system is closed and tame or open and complex (wicked).  Essentially most complex designs deal with ‘open’ social systems that are forever in a state of ‘flux’. Most designers working in this area will already know that this is the case, however, many struggle to formulate flexible and adaptable solutions. In order to do this, research and analysis needs to unify information from both specific social values as well as wider objective forces. Easier said than done, right? But critical realism can offer a guiding methodology on how to investigate and analyse complex data to design better informed solutions. It opens the scope of research and provides a methodology that can guide practitioners through the messy process of sense-making, particularly when it needs to harmoniously unify data on specific social needs and external impacts.

“In practice, then, open system predictive methods are neither completely non explanatory nor fully explanatory but a compromise usually taking the form of a model in which some of the main processes are summarily represented by variables. These empirical models are fitted to existing data and extrapolated forward. They involve curve fitting but the curves are fitted to relationships which might be interpereted as causal; they do not attempt to model actual processes closely.” (Sayer 2010, p. 90)

Critical realism can form generalisations of external cause and effects, usually through triangulation of data. But it does not attempt to scientifically ‘prove’ that data as a direct representation. At best we can create descriptions that satisfy general truths:

“Another appraoch to concrete research but one which cannot easily be represented in our diagram is the method of ‘ideal types’. Given the complexity of the world, it is argued that any research must be selective and that consequently researchers specify objects in terms of ideal types which isolate phenomena according to their interests and values” (Sayer 2010, p. 159)

Sound familiar? That is because it echo’s Simon’s theory of ‘satisficing’ in the face of complex systems that are constantly evolving.

Critical realism is fundamentally about dealing with and making sense of complex, evolving problems. It is especially  useful when applied in sustainable practice. If we are going to march forward in the pursuit of a sustainable future, we CANNOT distinguish ourselves or our ‘being’ in this world as completely separate from the ‘other’ (the environment). I know this sounds a bit heideggarian, and it is, but this general attitude has largely dominated the last century. I know this also sounds like a grand generalisation, but how many of you consciously consider how you are connected to your environment? or even your wider social community? Didnt think so.

…Cue environmental rant

Our earth has for too long been a commodity. We dont consider ourselves as an extension of our natural environment and many of us barely consider the environment in connection with our daily actions.  Many might question what exactly is ‘natural’, but i find in the face of climate change and increasing social and cultural unrest, these philosophical questions deviate from action so i am going to leave the dirty questions on hermeneutics and ontology to the philosophers. The basic fact is, we have become completely disconnected from our ecosystem- both social and environmental. If individuals are not going to consider this fact and designers consider themselves the key to social change, then designers must start approaching problems with a connected mindset that acknowledges our intimate relationship with our social and natural environments.

In context of the above, you can see why a critical realist perspective in design is so important. For research like my own where we begin to look back to natural structures and apply these learnings to design more sustainable social systems, a theory that acknowledges both the social and natural realities is fundamental. This perspective is equally important in practice, as more designers attempt to bridge social and environmental problems. No longer should the social and the scientific be at war and our sense of self be separate from our external reality, as critical realism is paving the way towards unification through transdisciplinary research.

Reference list for nerds:

Crotty, 1998, The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process

Feast & Melles, 2010, Epistemological Positions in Design Research: a brief review of the literature

Dickens, P 2003,  Society and Nature

Sayer, A 2010, Method in Social Science

Journal of Critical Realism

Website for critical realism, containing many papers and articles

12 thoughts on “Why design needs a critical reality check

  1. janemills2 says:

    Reblogged this on Jane Mills and commented:
    On critical realism, a useful post to read.

  2. cameron tonkinwise says:

    Time for some Latourian Compositionism? http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/140

    • stefdr says:

      I feel that this paper reflects the same contentions as the documentary, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’. If i have understood correctly Latour too believes there is a loss of agency, and as a result of this, a fatalistic future- a lack of sustainable progression.

      Funny. I dont normally agree with his writing although i am no expert on his work

  3. Are you completely sure you grasp the subtle difference between “reality” and “truth”? Your quotes always talk about the former, but your interps are always about the latter.

    • stefdr says:

      That’s a very loaded question. Does anyone truly grasp truth and reality? At best we can approach. Hard to answer that question without going into deep philosophical debates

  4. Tuesday says:

    I can’t hear anthiyng over the sound of how awesome this article is.

  5. Lexi says:

    What is the true meaning of constructive criticism?

  6. […] The main reasons I’m grappling with committing to an epistemology is mainly when discussions about ontology are brought into the discussion. Again these terms seem to be used synonymously with each other, however from an ontological perspective my own personal raison d’etre would be one of Objectivism, simply because a tree is a tree in it’s own right independent of people’s perceptions of it…. I can see the strengths of this ontological view when it comes to our planet and how people have wrecked it. I think I need to just stop over thinking this and let the argument for my thesis stop at an epistemological level – as the main concern of doing a thesis is to position myself within a particular knowledge paradigm. It’s difficult to not think deeper, as there are so many complex health and environmental problems to be addressed. Stephanie Di Russo, brings up some interesting insights on why design needs a new knowledge paradigm: https://ithinkidesign.wordpress.com/201 … ity-check/ […]

  7. Hi, I just wanted to say I appreciate the article and like your writing style, and I hope you continue sharing your views and informing practitioners. One way to do this is getting involved in innovation through sites such as the discussions at core77.com. It is an interesting discussion as designers are looking to not only understand but also create a reality, and this process is one of continuous evolution and refinement with turning points.

    • stefdr says:

      hi ralph! thank you so much for stopping and reading. Writing for core77 would be fantastic, if they ever asked me to submit! until then, ill keep posting and hope that people like yourself return and continue the discussion and evolution of design practice

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