From research to practice

As a designer, you often design for a particular context, argues Marianne Aarnoudse, Head of Design Works at Dutch Design Foundation (DDF), in her opening of the Knowledge and Reflection Session ‘Designing research on complex social issues’. “How can we shift our focus to another level? How can we demonstrate impact and take it a step further?” The stage for this knowledge and reflection session was provided by Foundation We Are, DDF’s new neighbour.

Type Update
Published on 17 May 2023
From research to practice
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Researchers Thomas van Arkel, Kornelia Dimitrova and Shay Raviv learned from practice in their research. During the knowledge and reflection session on 3 May, they shared key insights from their recently completed research projects. Afterwards, they engaged in group discussions with attending DDF partners and designers.

Synergistic collaboration

Van Arkel and Nynke Tromp investigated the requirements to achieve more synergetic collaboration between the creative industry and the security sector. “Synergy refers to the effects you get that you couldn’t have gotten in any other way,” Van Arkel explains. 

After analysing four exemplary collaborations between creative professionals and public safety organisations, Van Arkel and Tromp came up with 16 building blocks for synergetic collaboration. The researchers explored in a design study how these building blocks manifest themselves in a collaboration, what the support needs of creative professionals are and the preconditions for the development of process support. 

One of the lessons Van Arkel identifies is that collaboration is something you need to pay constant attention to, and that you can even shape it. As well as the lesson that a design process can add value beyond outcomes. It can also be a means of engaging in discussion and reflecting together on the organisation’s own role in the process. Van Arkel: “That is also a challenge, because you are usually not instructed to change something at a higher and more strategic level. Designers often come in at the operational level.”

‘Wij zien projecten vaak als iets dat een einde heeft, die kunnen worden afgevinkt en uitgevoerd, maar in werkelijkheid is dat niet het geval. Sociale projecten leven; de context en samenwerking veranderen voortdurend.’

Continuous process

Out of a personal desire to understand why it is so difficult to implement design projects, Shay Raviv started the research Beyond Projects. ” As a designer, I have participated in many labs, challenges and open calls. We put a lot of effort into creating a collaborative environment, yet we struggle with implementation. Why is that?”

Beyond Projects is a collaborative research project, it was developed together with the What if Lab and fellow designers. Raviv wrote the visual essay in dialogue. One of the lessons Raviv mentions during the knowledge session is that arriving at implementation is an ongoing process. “We often see projects as something that come to an end, that can be ticked off and executed, but in reality that is not the case. Social projects are dynamic; the context and collaboration is constantly changing. Like Jeanne van Heeswijk, a pioneer in socially engaged art, who, when starting a new project, tries to think that she is actually starting a process to realise something together.”

“That means designing and thinking about what is needed for it to last for the next decade. The Voorkamer in Utrecht is a very good example, this place has been around for six years.  You might say it has been reimplemented and maintained constantly. The DNA of the place goes beyond the people who started it.”

Kornelia Dimitrova - credits: Bernhard Lenger

Mental healthcare

Kornelia Dimitrova trained as an architect and is a social designer. For the past 10 months, she has been investigating how spatial decision-making in the healthcare sector works in practice. For that purpose, she conducted nine interviews with decision-makers and experts within the healthcare sector. “I wanted to understand how they arrive at major decisions for a spatial vision or master plan. How do they shape those processes and how can design research be of value in this?”

“I think it’s important to understand, experience and connect. To collaborate with existing entities and ways of working requires an attitude of openness to the creativity of the other. That can promote innovation from within.”

Dimitrova brought all the stories together in a roadmap, which gives an overview of the process as a whole. “That was very valuable for myself, but also for them.” The researcher emphasises that this roadmap is intended to be a living document. “It’s just my interpretations as a designer about their process. With their permission, of course. The value of the roadmap manifests itself mainly in the conversations, it facilitates how we collaborate.”

“It's about positioning the right people, at the right time, with the right position and the right knowledge. It's more than project planning, it's about project choreography.”
— Kornelia Dimitrova


One of the lessons from successful transformation processes shared by Dimitrova is that it is not about checking off a list of actions. “It’s about positioning the right people, at the right time, with the right position and the right knowledge. It’s more than project planning, it’s about project choreography.”

During the reflection part, Dimitrova had the people in her group interview each other about a case they were responsible for. “What was the dream you started with, how did you arrive at a plan, how did people take action?” A lot of process wisdom was shared by the participants, according to the researcher. Such as: “The core of collaboration is a kind of mini-psychology.” Everyone is different, people react differently. In fact, every designer should include some psychology.”

And, “It’s important not to have to think about what other people are thinking, but to keep the overview of the process and stick to your role. otherwise you will lose yourself and your decision-making ability in the confusion of the other person, or in the hustle and bustle of the day.”

Towards its own practice

At Raviv’s reflection session, attendees also shared their experiences. They reflected on their own projects using the five approaches from the Beyond Projects study. As one of them put it: “A nice interpretation of these five approaches is to discuss them with your stakeholders. You reflect on how you collaborate with each other. However, that conversation often only happens at the end.”

It was also about the designer’s coming of age: “I always thought I could change the world and come up with the very best ideas. That may not be a bad thing, but nowadays I question what the role of a designer really is.”

“It was interesting to start translating her story about research into our own practice,” said Hannah van Luttervelt, social designer at Department of Extraordinary Affairs, afterwards.

Thomas van Arkel - credits: Bernhard Lenger


Social designer Aurore Brard joined Van Arkel’s session. He got people to discuss the 16 building blocks from his research. Brard: “It was really nice to use a new tool. To have a discussion about different topics. That is also useful for the collaboration during the design process.” 

During the session, another attendee mentioned that it is good to express tensions or other feelings in joint discussions. “Sometimes there are points you don’t readily raise in a group. Then it is good to speak to the people separately and then and ask how they feel about how things are going. You can move on by discussing things.”

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