Professor Brian Allison.
Director, ARIAD Associates, UK.

Research, Academia and the Profession.

Electronic mail:

Click here for audio statement.Speaker
ICON AIFF (137k)

Professor Brian Allison.

Emeritus Professor of Education,

De Montfort University, Leicester.


This paper discusses the role of the new technologies as contributors to design activity as informed practice, with particular reference to research. The potential of a research culture in design is described and emphasis is given to its role as an interface between research in higher education and design activity in industry and professional practice. The nature and importance of developing professional attitudes to research are considered and the national databases of research in design are described.

Design is increasingly being recognised as a multidisciplinary field. This multidisciplinarity is not simply a broadening of the range of subject areas included within the design portfolio, although these cover a wide range of designing and design related activities including information design, fashion, textiles, industrial design and engineering design. It also includes many other aspects of technology as well as embracing architecture, environmental design and conservation. Design is now intrinsically concerned with a wide range of other fields, such as business administration and management, education, ergonomics, telematics and information technology. It also draws upon and is supported by developments in the social science fields including psychology, sociology and philosophy. The extent to which any design activity can capitalise upon and realise the potential of multidisciplinarity is dependent upon the ways in which it can relate to, have access to and draw upon these various fields, both within and across the design disciplines and with other disciplines. The concept of design as a multidisciplinary activity has wide implications for the education of designers at degree and postgraduate levels, as it does for designers in industry and professional practice.

It is a truism, and probably an overused cliché, that 'information is becoming the world's most valuable and marketable product'. The internet, CD-ROM and, to a lesser extent, multimedia vehicles including laser discs are increasingly accessible to larger and larger numbers of users. It is an interesting statistic that half of the world's modems linking computers to the internet were installed in the last twelve months. Extensive work is currently underway to link computers by the internet to allow interactive and concurrent work to be carried out. Networks enable individuals to participate, collaborate and cooperate in real time on active projects and, at the same time, to have access to almost an infinite amount of relevant and hitherto inaccessible information. The volume of information is exponentially increasing and, with the availability of low cost technology, information is becoming so readily available that there is the likelihood of information overload.

Informed practice

In any field or discipline, there is no doubt that the best practice is informed practice, provided, of course, that the information underpinning the practice is sound, valid and reliable. Although this applies to the best practice in all fields, clearly, the form and kind of information relevant to different fields varies. Some fields embody information or knowledge in terms of text or language, others in numerical or statistical data, and yet others in visual form such as graphics, animation or as objects. Most often, information relevant to almost all fields is carried in all these forms to varying degrees. Practice or practical experience is also a form of knowledge or information which, if communicable, can be of value to other than the practitioner, himself or herself. Consequently, reports about successful practice or the products of successful practice, including manufactured products are also valuable forms of information. The outcomes of research constitute a body of information which, it is argued here, represents the leading edge of knowledge in any field and is a major element in the informing of practice.

There is no doubt that fields vary in the value they attach to having access to information but, it can be argued, such access is, or should be, vitally important to any field. In some fields such as those concerned with life or safety, having access to information is critical. The recognition of the value of information is, to a large degree, attitudinal and the extent to which information is valued is a reflection of the attitudes of not only the individuals constituting the field but also of the field itself.

Until relatively recently the major forms of information storage and dissemination for almost all fields were related to print technology - textbooks, guides, manuals, catalogues, standards, journals, newsheets. A corollary to this was the dissemination of information through conference presentations and reports. Keeping abreast of information and new knowledge, if only disseminated in the latter way, makes considerable demands on individual practitioners.

In some fields, such as chemistry or clinical psychology, keeping up with the latest information about developments is inseparable from practising in those fields - and the need to ensure that up-to-date information underpins every-day practice is instilled as part of the training in, and induction into, those fields. In a very real sense, the acquisition of such an attitude towards the necessity of accessing information is characteristic of the professional practice of those fields. An essential corollary of such an attitude, however, is that such fields have developed the means and strategies whereby information necessary to the fields is conveyed, and is accessible in appropriate forms, to their members. In the most developed professions, there is a holism in which the bodies of knowledge, the providers of new knowledge (whether they are theoreticians, researchers, product innovators or reflective or innovative practitioners), the disseminators of new knowledge (professional bodies' media) and the practitioners, both novice and experienced, are all interactively responsible to each other. With regard to research in particular, as a contributor to new knowledge from the forefront of enquiry, I have described such interaction as being characteristic of a 'professional attitude to research'.

Fields exhibiting a 'professional attitude to research' can be shown to have the necessary infrastructure to support a professional attitude which includes having appropriate vehicles for reporting research such as journals; conferences for presenting research papers; research databases; and experienced researchers who, as research supervisors, not only provide advice and guidance in research methods but also inculcate responsible attitudes in the initiates to the field. Even so, it is interesting to note that in the expectedly professional field of medicine, the Minister for Health recently chastised medical practitioners for prescribing outdated treatments and exhorted the medical profession to ensure that general practitioners in particular were kept informed of new practices and research findings.

For many fields, the new technologies have enriched the existing infrastructure by making the information more readily accessible. The availability of, for example, on-line databases and networked link systems as well as disk based and CD-ROM resources has given new dimensions to the ways professional fields are able to inform their practices. But, it must be emphasised, when this has been the case, the demand for access to such information systems was already embedded in the professional attitudes of the fields.

Design, information and knowledge.

In the past, Design has not been a field which has venerated knowledge in the same ways as some other disciplines. There are many reasons for this, not least because of long-held, somewhat questionable notions of individual originality and creativity, which have been seen to be isomorphic with design. These notions have not encouraged designers to seek out what others are doing or to communicate the outcomes of their own enquiries or research to others. Not surprisingly, the field of design has been slow to recognise the value of research and the dissemination of its outcomes through, for example, journals and other forms of literature. Design has also been ambivalent about the nature of research as, on the one hand, there has been a long-held view that any design activity is, by its very nature, research and, on the other, the belief that intuitive activity does not need to be funded by the kind of systematic enquiry characteristic of research.

As almost every dimension of economic, political and social life has been and is being affected by the new technologies, it is an inevitability that the electronic age has imposed new ways in which designers think about their practices. With remarkable speed, the computer has become as ubiquitous in design studios as it has become an essential tool of designing and production. The terms Computer-aided Design (CAD) and Computer-aided Manufacture (CAM) , for example, are now almost as much a part of the vocabulary of design as, say, line drawing and perspective. It is interesting to note and of relevance to an important point being made in this paper, however, that, for the most part, the computer has been used almost solely as an aid to production - mainly as an extension of previous drawing board practice although, clearly, such as in the case of animation and multimedia, it has provided new ways of visualising. It is also true that, to some degree, the computer has provided new and more effective ways of communicating between designers and their clients, including manufacturers, not only in terms of the articulation and multiplicity of images able to be produced by computer but also in terms of the ways designs can be transmitted. However, because designers have tended not to communicate with each other to any substantial degree, the new technologies have yet to be exploited both as a form of communication between designers and as a means of access to information which, it can be argued, is of clear relevance to designers.

The latter point is of seminal importance to the matter of the development of professional attitudes in the field of design. If, as has been argued, the best practice is informed practice, the question, as far as design is concerned, is what kind of information is necessary in order for the practice of design to be informed? There is no doubt that there is much information, such as technical data, specifications relating to materials and so on, which is either provided or has to be acquired from appropriate sources in order to meet the demands of particular projects or briefs. But the idea of informed practice suggests something more than this and that other kinds of information, such as that describing new developments and innovatory practices, particularly as outcomes of research activity, might be seen as being able to make a valuable contribution to the development of designers' practices.

Design and Research

Research in design is becoming more clearly established as an important aspect of design activity as far as higher education in the United Kingdom is concerned. Over the last five years there has been an increasing emphasis on research in UK higher education generally and this has been due, to a large extent, to the institutional funding levels attached to research in relation to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). In what is an increasingly competitive market as far as funding is concerned, disciplines such as design, which have not had a tradition of research, are not only having to reassess their priorities to embrace research more clearly as a visible element of their academic activities but are also struggling to identify aspects within their practices generally which might appropriately be termed as research. There is compelling evidence that design in higher education is meeting the challenge of the research imperative and moving to a level of professionalism matching that in other disciplines.

The volume of completed research in the design fields has grown dramatically in recent years.

The second edition of the Allison Research Index of Art and Design (ARIAD), the national database of research in art and design, details over 3000 research projects, of which over 1100 entries have been added since the first 1992 edition. A substantial number of the new entries are directly in the fields of design, including engineering design and architecture. Many of the research projects in the second edition of the ARIAD, which is to be published in the near future on CD-ROM, are supported by illustrations. Although the volume of design research which has been carried out is impressive by any standard, the national status now attached to the ARIAD indicates on two further counts that a professional attitude is becoming a characteristic of research in design. Firstly, that responsibility is now being widely accepted for reporting information on completed research projects to the field is shown by the volume of that information submitted for inclusion in the Index . Secondly, that information on completed research projects is now being used as a working tool to support and inform current research and other academic activity is shown by the fact that the vast majority of educational institutions in this country hosting research in art and design hold copies of the ARIAD. These are clear signs that the practice of design in higher education is becoming informed practice. It is also evident from the projects submitted to the Index that multidisciplinarity is becoming more frequent in design research.

The Education and Industry Interface.

When the ARIAD was first launched, in addition to the aim for it to make a particular contribution to the development of an informed profession, it was a major intention that the Index would serve as an interface between design in education and design in industry and professional practice. It was anticipated that such an interface would, on the one hand, enable designers in professional practice to be informed by the outcomes of research carried out in academic institutions and, on the other, would enlighten and inform the educational provision for design by exposure to the practicalities of research in the commercial and industrial world. It was because of the potential of such an interface that the Department of Trade and Industry gave strong encouragement and financial support to the endeavour. However, despite the support given by the DTI and the active involvement of the Design Council and the Chartered Society of Designers as founding ARIAD Editorial Associates, it must be admitted that this educationally and professionally worthwhile intention does not appear to have been realised. Despite information about the role and purposes of the Index having been widely disseminated, it does not seem to have generated much interest within the design profession outside of education. As a consequence, almost all the design research project entries in the ARIAD have been submitted by academic institutions - very few have been submitted by designers working in industry or professional practice. One result of this lack of information about research carried out in industry is the limitation on the potential student designers have to benefit and learn from the experience and expertise of professional design practice across the country. Similarly, it does not present the student designers with a role model of the practising designer as researcher.

As far as design research informing the design profession is concerned, no professional design practices, as far as is known, hold copies of the ARIAD. Consequently, it would seem that designers in industry and professional practice do not have access to the very substantial volume of valuable design research carried out in higher education or the moves towards interdisciplinarity which characterises much of it. It is difficult to know the reasons for this but it might be inferred that designers in industry and professional practice either do not consider that information about research in higher education is relevant to their concerns or that they do not have information about the content and availability of research data sources. If it is the former, it is perhaps an appropriate time to question the extent to which research is actually a part of professional design practice or even if designers have a professional interest in research relevant to design. If it is the latter, greater efforts will be needed to be made to disseminate information through, for example, the professional bodies and literature. For example, both the Design Council and the CSD have copies of the ARIAD in their offices, which are accessible to members and others. It may also be appropriate to ask if research or other enquiries undertaken by designers and the processes leading to new designs are able to be shared with others in the field, or if it is felt, perhaps, that vested and other commercial interests preclude such exchanges. It may also be that research which is carried out is not reported in a form which is readily communicable to others. A similar question may be asked about the extent to which there is a concern for the development of design as a profession and if practising designers, like practitioners in other professions, see such sharing and collaboration as being important to that development.

Technology and Information

It was noted earlier that established professions exhibit a strong interactive relationship between practitioners in the field, the professional organisations and professional education in which the research literature plays a crucial role. The new technologies referred to earlier provide unparalleled opportunities for professions to upgrade communications and relationships between practitioners and the different levels with those professions. If the practice of design is to be informed practice and if professional attitudes to design research are to be promoted, there would seem to be a need to develop further similar interactive relationships at all levels within the design disciplines and with related disciplines. The information systems now available have unprecedented potential for the development of these inter-relationships, not only within the United Kingdom but also throughout the world via the internet and World Wide Web. The Design-Research mailbase developed in Birmingham, for example, is an e-mail mailbase which is an immediate and dedicated communication system for designers interested in research in its widest sense. The Design-Research mailbase, which is provided in collaboration with the Design Research Society, also carries information about research in progress which invites participation and collaboration. However, although the mailbase offers enormous potential for communications between designers in industry and education, subscribers to the mailbaseso far have been almost entirely in higher education, as is the case with the ARIAD. The DRS recently set up a working party to explore the possibilities offered by information technology to develop the research culture in design.

The facilities for information exchange offered by developments in technology are continually being extended. It would seem appropriate for design to be in the forefront of such developments in terms of both the form of communication and, as a professional subject field, the content. The CD-ROM, for example, is a particularly appropriate vehicle for communicating design research matters and has been chosen as the form of publication for the second edition of the ARIAD. Taking up the point made earlier about the internet, consideration is being given to the development of a European art and design framework on the internet which would enable information sources, such as the ARIAD, to be accessed on-line.

Given the increase in postgraduate education in design, which includes an increasing volume of research, and the extent to which there is wider recognition in higher education of the need for design practice to inform and be informed, there is the potential for the design profession to be one of informed practice with a realised interface between design in education and industry. Much needs to be done to encourage such professional development and to draw upon the new technologies in order to realise this potential. It may be that research in design could be the catalyst in this endeavour but it will need the active participation and collaboration between design researchers in educational institutions, the professional bodies in design and design practitioners in industry to achieve this goal.


UK Design Research Databases

Allison, B (1992) Allison Research Index of Art and Design. ISBN 0 94899 783 4 Leicester: ARIAD Associates

ARIAD Print copy. Soft Cover. A4. 344 pages

ARIAD Hypercard Manual. Soft Cover. A4. Tape binding. 29 pages

ARIAD Hypercard. 2 HD discs.

ARIAD MS DOS Manual. Soft Cover. A4. Tape binding. 10 pages


Allison, B (1995) ARIAD Research Supervisors and Examiners 1995

ISBN 0 9524507 2 0 Leicester: ARIAD Associates

Allison, B, Hammond, G and Reade, G (1992) Allison Research Index of the Arts and Design: :Australia ISBN 0 9524507 4 7. Leicester: ARIAD Associates

Allison, B (in press) Allison Research Index of Art and Design. Second edition

to be published on CD-ROM by ARIAD Associates



or contact Dr Martin Woolley: DAFA3601G@UK.AC.UNIVERSITY-CENTRAL-ENGLAND

(c) Allison 1995

Click for other GUEST SPEAKERS


Click for return to Cyberbridge Gateway KEY