Christopher Frayling’s “Research in Art and Design” review

Recently, I’ve decided to revisit a foundational paper on research through design. In “Research in Art and Design”, Frayling attempts to unpack what research is in the context of arts and design. He starts by differentiating between ‘research’ and ‘Research’; while he links the usage of the former term to a common search, inquiry or investigation, the latter is associated with academic professionalisation, legitimation of mastery, and practices around product development and innovation.

Frayling discusses the assumptions and popular stereotypes around artists, designers, and scientists. He builds upon Herbert Read’s framework — research for art, research into art, research through art — to better position and to reflect about the shortcomings each of these roles in research.

For Frayling, an artist “is someone who works in an expressive form, rather than a cognitive one, and for whom the great project is an extension of personal development: autobiography rather than understanding” (Frayling, 1993, p. 1). This is illustrated with how artists relate more to research for art if to any research at all, using Picasso’s claims about approaching art making with a spirit of research but emphasising making as the main objective.

Frayling critiques on how for designers it is all about doing and craftwork, instead of “using systematic hypothesis, structures of thought or orderly procedures” or creating meaning. Frayling depicts the evolving caricature of the designer, from the “boffin” who engages in “honest hand-on experimentation”, to the “style warrior”, through to the “imagineer”, who tries to recycle images, signs, and styles and fit the latest trends.

In contrast, Frayling considers the research scientist a critical rationalist who has an hypothesis and tries to demonstrate or refute it with a given methodology; or instead, as someone who “takes a problem, makes tentative conjectures, regarding the answer to it, and keeps revising the answer in the light of neat, well ordered experiments, which must be repeatable and replicable” (Frayling, 1993, p. 2). He argues, however, that critical rationalism has been under attack because, although it claims a strong reliance on methodological clarity, it has been argued beforehand that research under this stance also involves a great deal of subjectivity, irrationality and undisclosed tacit knowledge.

Building on this, Frayling puts forward the argument that there have been links between experimental science and art throughout history, and that there should be adjustments to ways in which research around these disciplines is done. According to the Frayling, research needs to be motivated by some reason, institutional, technical, pedagogical or academic, and should go beyond status, promotion and fundraising. He proposes that “Design as research” should be understood as applied research (i.e., where knowledge is used for a specific application) or action research (i.e., actions are utilised to generate insight and validate new knowledge).

For instance, artists can use a cognitive idiom, “exploring materials for what they are”, researching extrinsic subjects to themselves and to their personalities (e.g., op artists researching human perceptual limits). Frayling considers that in these scenarios, research is for art and sometimes through art. Regarding design, Frayling claims that, traditionally, design is taught using a more formal curriculum, as a language; grasping the grammar grants access to the latest research on the design process.

Frayling concludes by extending Read’s framework to include design and suggesting what each of the research categories should encompass in terms of domain, methodology, and contributions. Furthermore, he establishes major criteria for validating research in art and design: research that follows the cognitive tradition, and that outputs new knowledge and understanding about design artefacts, beyond the iconic and imagistic.

References: Frayling, Christopher (1993). “Research in art and design.” Royal College of Art, Research Papers, Volume 1, Number 1, London