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The value of research
As a designer, I have no doubts about the value of design. Not just because it is the career path I chose for myself, but because designers have the ultimate goal of creating solutions that are relevant for the user or target audience. Design can also help companies communicate better what sets them apart. And even from an economic standpoint, companies whose strategy leverages design (inherently tied to proper research) have historically had better financial performance than those that do not, according to a study by McKinsey.
But just as I might say that I don't like heavy metal or that I disregard abstract art, my work, especially visual design work, has been confronted countless times with judgments like 'I don't like.' My guess is that the reason why our work is often judged on aesthetics is that designer choices are perceived by non-designers as being subjective in nature.
Then where does the value of design come from? Grounding decisions solely on subjectivity would make any design solution a hit or miss. Aesthetics matter, but taste or intuition is not what makes design valuable. The ability to inform design decisions with research insights plays a much larger role in that.
A research led process
I began studying Visual Design in 2002, but it wasn't until 2006, four years into my degree, that I developed a deep passion for design. I must say that the first few years of studying geometry, color theory, and physics were brutally boring. However, it was in 2006, during an assignment to create a branding program for a historical shopping center in the center of Lisbon, that I discovered how much I like to do research. Not only as a source of inspiration, but also as a way of finding meaning. Back then, I ordered history books, visited museums, went through old fashion catalogues and interviews. I devoured anything and everything that could provide valuable insights for the creative process.
Later, as I transitioned to my career as a designer, I quickly found that the amount of time I had for assignments during design school was not the time I had for assignments now. Research slowly got pushed to the side, and I began to question its importance. Even though that’s not what I had been taught, I started believing that it was ok to simply try things until I stumbled on something that felt right. After all, we‘re labeled as the creatives (not the thinkers).
I know that’s not how it’s supposed to be, but this happens because designers are often managed by people who view design simply as a deliverable in a transactional relationship between service provider and client. It is seen as something that must be pretty, look modern, follow a pre-determined briefing, respect timings, and often ignore everything else. It doesn’t really matter how ideas materialise, as long as they do. And in the end, everything is presented alongside a strategic argumentation, which is many times put together almost as an afterthought. Additional bias on top of subjectivity. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
We need to understand Design as a methodology, not the outcome. A research-led process where information and insights are creatively transformed into value and meaning. Research provides the information we need to tackle problems with a deep understanding, and also the ability to better predict outcomes. By grounding decisions on research, we can remove subjectivity from the table and have discussions about our work with less personal taste in the mix. Doing and presenting research properly is how we can make sure that our design choices are not only valued, but that they can hold true value.
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