Aug 19. 2021

Exploring the role of design within interdisciplinary research

Design alone can’t solve all our problems - it must be underpinned by a deep understanding of an issue and what needs changing to improve it. This insight can only come from research and collaboration with experts across multiple fields.

That’s the principle that underpins the concept of interdisciplinary research, a term that’s increasingly popular in the world of design.

For PDR, interdisciplinary research is at the heart of every project. Andrew Walters, PDR’s Director of Research discusses the process and how it benefits the end user.

What is interdisciplinary research?

As the name suggests, interdisciplinary research involves combining research from various sources. Academic institutions, businesses and prospective product users could all contribute to a research project, although this is not an exhaustive list.

“When it comes to design, interdisciplinary research can help to ensure that a project is placed within its proper context,” Andrew explains.

"Taking into account, for example, end users’ experiences, market viability and similar historic projects can ensure the design process is based on genuine insight rather than conjecture.

Interdisciplinary research is known by a number of terms, including cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research.

“Whatever we call it,” says Andrew, “it’s about recognising different areas of expertise, finding ways of marrying them together and collaborating with the ultimate purpose of finding solutions to big issues.”

It’s about recognising different areas of expertise, finding ways of marrying them together and collaborating with the ultimate purpose of finding solutions to big issues.

Andrew Walters | Director of Research | PDR

How does interdisciplinary research benefit clients?

Interdisciplinary research helps designers unlock the needs of the end user through, and perhaps more specifically, the potential ways of meeting of those needs, by consulting experts in different fields.

That level of understanding is crucial for effective design projects, argues Andrew. “Quite simply we need interdisciplinary research because it helps us to produce better products, services, business plans, etc.

“The process lets us solve a problem for the benefit of the end user. That in turn makes the product marketable for the client.”

How does PDR combine interdisciplinary research with design?

Interdisciplinary research and the design process both feed into one another, impacting both research outcomes and the final product or service.

“One example that springs to mind is Dr. Katie Beverley’s work on the Horizon 2020 project, Prestige,” notes Andrew.

“The project looked at how smart materials can improve products. This wasn’t just a technical design task, but one that involved asking questions like ‘how do we design sustainable business models?’ and, ‘how does this benefit the user?’”

Andrew also highlights PDR’s work in medical design: “Our focus is designing new approaches that will impact people’s health and wellbeing. We’re looking to redesign the interaction between everyone in the medical chain, from doctors to nurses to technicians and of course, the patients themselves.”

PDR uses design and research to consider the human experience of real life, day-to-day users. This is a way that interdisciplinary research helps to bring about practical solutions to real issues.

Quite simply we need interdisciplinary research because it helps us to produce better products, services, business plans, etc.

Andrew Walters | Director of Research | PDR

What’s the process?

The process of design is one of trial and error. Interdisciplinary research makes this easier.

Andrew explains: “It’s about envisaging how future products could look and function, testing that and seeing if it really improves a problem.

“We question our assumptions about how things work - and how they should work - considering the needs of clients and users. Then, we test them to gain clarity. We continue this process and keep improving until we have a finished, marketable product that is genuinely useful to the person who will use it.”

Final thoughts

The international community is experiencing complex challenges like Covid-19 and climate change. In this context, the need for interdisciplinary collaboration is more apparent than ever.

“People are beginning to realise that design is a process that is necessary to make better decisions and address the world’s problems,” Andrew explains. “Interdisciplinary research is on the up, and so is the role of design.”

Next steps

Want to learn more about PDR’s work? Take a look at our recent case studies, or get in touch to discuss your next project.