Design Research: Breathing Life into Your Projects

Design Research: Breathing Life into Your Projects

Prior to embarking on any design project, whether the end product is a website, a graphic or visual artwork, a lifestyle item or gadget, the most important and first step any designer should take is to do ample research.

Doing the research is relatively simple; it is the task of trying to understand and apply the research to benefit your project that is not easy. There are numerous methods to go about doing research. However, regardless of the method used to gather the research needed, it is a process that cannot and should not be avoided.

Design Research: Breathing Life into Your Projects

Research can be characterised as purely the flesh and bone of a human body, without the life and soul within that drives it forward or to have a purpose. As Debbie Millman and Mike Bainbridge states in the article Design Meets Research.

…it is not the actual research itself that is the problem It is rather about how research is often misused, what type of design concepts and stimulus are tested, and how data is analyzed that is most often at fault. When used correctly, research shouldn’t stifle creativity but rather offer designers stronger inspiration and focus.

Research is the much need spark that will infuse and breathe added life and meaning into your designs and creative processes. This article will explore the steps you can take to develop a good research habit prior to the start of any design project.

Dissecting the Design Brief

Before you can arrive at a destination, you need to know how to get there and what it takes to reach it. If the destination is a design project, the design brief is the manual or road map to show you what is required to get there.

Design Brief
Image credit: tinky bell

Understand the Brief

Translate the brief into manageable sizes so that you can better understand what it expects. A design brief commonly states the aims, objectives and milestones of the project. Understanding the brief is a very important part of any design process. It is akin to the rule book shared between you and your client; a bridge of sorts that communicates what the clients wants and expects out of the project.

Clarify the Brief

Always read the design brief thoroughly. Clarify any questions you might have before you begin any project so that you can fully understand what is expected. Identify and take note of the objectives and aims of the project stated in the brief. This will help you to stay on track right from the beginning of the project and ensure that you achieve what the client wants. The deliverables and deadline of the project is the most important thing you should take note of in a design brief. Use coloured markers or highlighters to mark out these information. It will help you easily pin point the essentials when you refer back to the brief at a later stage.

Half the Battle Is Won

Once you’ve fully understood the brief; the fun begins. Doing the research for the project may be time consuming and tedious, but it’s definitely more fun than you think. Researching for your project will bring to your attention interesting information and trivia that may surprise you and fascinate you.

Know Your Client

The most obvious place to obtain information is to read about the company on their website. If they do not have a website, try searching for journal articles online or go to your nearest library. Speaking to a branding personal from the company is also one way to gather as much information as possible. This will help you to better understand the core values of the company.

Products And Goods
Image credit: amacedo

Find out what are the main goods the company sells and the services they offer. This will play a part in helping you understand their target audience which will, in turn, help you develop a better end product.

It is not enough just to get to know the company you are working for. In order for you to know what you are up against, you need to research the company’s competitors or companies that offer the same or similar good and services. When you compare the company against others, you will be able to determine its current position in the market and what needs to be done to surpass or at the very least be on par with its competitors.

Providing a Questionnaire

I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew);

Their names are
What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who. – Rudyard Kipling

If you’re stumped or stuck and don’t know how to go about doing your research, fret not, you can’t go wrong with the famous “Five Ws and one H” – Who, What When, Where, Why and How.

5Ws and 1H
Image credit: katicoos

These interrogative words will help start the ball rolling and is a simple technique that can help you quickly get to the root of the design problem. However, bear in mind that if the “Five Ws and one H” doesn’t prompt an intuitive answer, other problem-solving techniques may need to be applied.

Try these Questions

Still not sure what questions to ask? These are some examples of the questions you can ask when applying the “Five Ws and one H”:

  1. Who is this application for? Who might benefit from it?
  2. What do they sell? (if any) What is their current site missing? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
  3. Where can it be applied?
  4. Why is this application introduced? Why is it necessary?
  5. When should it start or stop? When is this idea applicable?
  6. How will this site sell the products? How are users likely to react?

More Questions:

  1. What is their historical, social and economic background?
  2. What is the culture and values they hold strongly to?

Embrace Your Users

Image credit: Sammie618

The research area that is considerably the most important one you need to be aware of is your target audience. Despite the fact that most websites reach out to a general audience, some sites target only a specific audience, like websites for the colour-blind, seniors, and children.

Break down your Users into:

  1. Primary users
  2. Secondary users


Persona, also known as User Profile, is defined in Wikipedia as:

… fictional characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic, attitude and/or behaviour set that might use a site, brand or product in a similar way.

Defining personas is an important part of the research process because the behaviour of different individuals may indicate a specific problem they are facing and your application can help resolve that. Be as comprehensive as you can when drafting out your persona.

You may organise it into the following for analysis:

  1. Age
  2. Gender
  3. Ethnicity
  4. Location
  5. Hobbies and Interest
  6. Education
  7. Social/ Economic status
  8. Spending power
  9. Religion
  10. Media usage (Computer literacy) – This determines the intuitive level of the website.

Connect With Your Users ( Is-Does-Mean Method)

The target audience of your product is your yardstick. Actual interaction with the target audience will greatly help you with your research. Create surveys that they can participate in. You want to know about their experiences, both good and bad.

Connect with your users
Image credit: isayx3

The ideal, social and emotional experience of the user is important because they are the ones you are attempting to reach out to and to help better their quality of life and experience. You cannot connect with them if you do not know what help they need or want. Remember that your target audience are your ultimate judges. They will be the ones to determine if you have done a satisfactory job and whether you have engaged them and given them an outstanding experience.

Keep this in mind when you create the questionnaire and try using the Is-Does-Mean method to help you with the questions.

  1. What is the product about?
  2. What does it do?
  3. What does it mean to you (the user)? Or what does it mean to you when others see you using it?

Using the Is-Does-Mean method gives your users an idealistic status which they empower when they use the product. This results in a powerful psychological effect on the user, especially in today’s rapidly increasing acquisitive nature of consumers.

More readings on Personas and Understanding your users:

  1. Develop Personas , Create Scenarios –
  2. Making Personas More Powerful – Boxes and Arrows
  3. Status Stories – Trendwatching

Mind Map Your Way to Creativity

Image credit: Davesaunders

By this stage, you should be relatively well informed with sufficient background information regarding the project and its parameters. Now it’s time to analyse all the data you’ve collected and start brainstorming ideas and integrating the information and ideas together. If research is the human body, this stage is the part where we try to breathe life and soul into it.

An effective brainstorming method is by mind-mapping. Scribble as many words as possible and circle the key words. Collect images, magazine cut outs, image search through stock photography and attach them to the words on your mind-map to assist you visually during this conceptual stage.

Creativity can hit you anywhere and at anytime. Keep a sketchbook handy so that you can jot ideas down the moment it comes to you. If an object or product sparks your interest and inspires you, quickly snap a picture of it or find an image of it to keep in your handy sketchbook.

The Use of Mood Boards

Image credit: asillymuse

Various fields make use of a mood board as a point of reference for the visual or overall style for a project. A graphic designer’s mood board may consist of pictures, fonts, 2D or 3D graphics, and various layouts put together after much thought and consideration regarding the project. The purpose of a mood board is to help communicate the design intent, as well as the emotional and contextual aspects to clients.

Why Use Them?

A picture paints a thousand words. Rather than spending hours trying to describe the look and feel of your ideas, make use of a mood board to get your ideas and messages across. Show, don’t just tell. With a mood board to help you in your presentation, it will be easier to communicate the overall look and feel of the end product.

The mood board doesn’t just help you communicate your visual ideas to your clients. It also helps as a future reference and guideline to keep you on track. The mood board will help avoid the possibility of you digressing from the initial visual style and concept of the project.

Christina Aguilera

Need another reason why you should invest time in creating a mood board for your project? Because even Christina Aguilera uses mood boards to plan her albums! Imagine that. A famous recording artist like Christina Aguilera supporting the use of mood boards, what better advertisement is there besides this fact?

Bridging the Gap – Product to Consumer

Design research can range from just the tip of the iceberg to an extensive and comprehensive one. It all depends on the scale of the project and the expectations and parameters of it. No matter the magnitude of the project, one should not be ignorant to the importance of doing your design research beforehand. It is a crucial part of the design process that cannot be bypassed as it will ultimately be reflected in your design and your work ethics.

What is your design research process? Is there a specific method you always adhere to whenever you receive a new design brief? Do you do your research differently from the method mentioned in this article? If you have other tried and tested methods, share them with us so that we may all become better designers.


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