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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Integrating insights from Psychology into Design: Three facets of Design Research in Architecture.

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Recently, I found myself in a situation where it was necessary to explain how my studies in Psychology fit within the practice of Architecture. Although the day-to-day tasks and activities that are part of my work are easy to describe, it is surprisingly difficult to clearly communicate how I see the bigger picture of the relationship between the two. The people I was discussing this with were director-level professionals in architecture practices, and despite their interest in my personal perspective, their frame of reference was very different. In order to address this challenge, I spent some time revisiting relevant literature with the aim to find a “simple” way to explain this connection in more familiar terms.

This article will discuss three facets of Design Research from the perspective of Arts and Design, through Frayling’s approaches to Design Research. Although there are different viewpoints to how research fits into the practice of Architecture, Frayling’s philosophy was the most compatible for the purpose and context of my discussion as it is widely adopted by design disciplines in the UK.

Design Research in the practice of Architecture. Frayling's three approaches to Design Research

Mini overview

  • Metatheory: Three facets of Design Research

  • Philosopher: Sir Christopher Frayling

  • Publication Title: Research in Art and Design

  • Publication Date: 1993

  • Publisher: Royal College of Art

  • Field of Origin: History

  • School of thought: Arts & Humanities

  • Topic: Design Philosophy, Research Into Design, Research Through Design, Research For Design

Before I discuss Frayling’s philosophy, I would like to provide a brief overview of what Design Research is - something easier said than done. As a disclaimer, the following descriptions do not reflect the views, roles, activities or opinions of my employer or the applied research team I am currently part of. They are provided as a personal perspective for educational and reflective purposes only.

What is Design Research?

Design Research is a fairly new term, encompassing a range of activities and topics in the intersection of design and research. In his 1981 essay on the nature of Design Research, Professor Bruce Archer provides two potential definitions which he describes as “insufficient”; the former being too broad, including virtually anything man-made:

‘Design Research is systematic enquiry whose goal is knowledge of, or in, the embodiment of configuration, composition, structure, purpose, value and meaning in man - made things and systems’

and the latter too narrow, encompassing the original definition of Design Research that only focussed on the design process:

‘Design Research is systematic enquiry into the nature of design activity’

Various other definitions have been developed since then, the majority of which have a heavier focus towards Art rather than Design. Within the Design fields, User Experience (UX) research has been at the forefront of the discussions in recent years, with some focussing on the context of architectural design specifically (Fraser, 2013). Nonetheless, these definitions remain unanimously fuzzy even within the same discipline. This is not an uncommon challenge for emerging fields and approaches, but for the purpose of this article, I will adopt Archer’s former definition of Design Research, with some simplifications, and adaptations of terms borrowed from the field of Management, which is in many ways very close to the practice of architecture as a business venture. More specifically I am using the idea of Logic Models (Mathison, 2005) for evaluation (inc. inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact), to better fit the context of Architecture in practice:

Design Research applicable to the practice of Architecture can be described as a systematic investigation with the aim to gain knowledge regarding inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts of spatial design-related interventions.

Logic model of design research in practice. diagram

Although this may not be totally representative, it serves a purpose of introducing a familiar context to the three facets to Design Research discussed below, and by extension where Psychology / Environmental Psychology fits into them.

About Christopher Frayling.

Sir Christopher John Frayling is a British educationalist, writer and historian (Jones, 2003). Within the field of Architecture he is often discussed in relation to his teaching at the Royal College of Art and involvement with the Design Council (2019). His seminal paper on ‘Research in Art and Design’ (1993), which defined contemporary approaches to Design Research over the past few decades, “provided an operational framework differentiating researcher positions in relation to designing by building on earlier work by Archer” (Galdon & Hall, 2022, p.926).

The three facets of Design Research.

Part of the success of this framework comes from the clarity of the three facets which are presented as an extension of Herbert Read’s (1948) outlined “actions” on teaching through and to Art. The following definitions have been adapted to fit the context of Architecture:

Research into Design

Refers to traditional models of research in Architecture and Architectural Philosophy, including design philosophy, design criticism, historical research, aesthetic research, and other forms of theoretical research, often archive-based. This approach adopts an external perspective to the study of Architecture.

Research through Design

Refers to research achieved through the design process itself, something most commonly found in materials research, (digital) development work, and action research. An example of this within Architecture is the idea of Participatory Design as a research method, where end-users are actively engaged in the design process. This approach is focused on exploring by making and iterating, adopting an internal perspective to the study of Architecture.

Research for Design

Refers to the gathering of information that is then interpreted within the design output. Frayling defines Research for Design as “thorny” as it provides little tangible evidence of its effects and is an internal process to the architect who interprets it. This may include activities such as precedent gathering, case study analysis, environmental analysis, end-user requirements gathering, market research, user research etc. that feed into the briefing and design process and become part of the layers of interpretation towards a design solution.

Frayling's three facets of Design Research. Research into Design, Research through Design, Research for Design. Diagram

The role of the Researcher.

Jonas (2007, p.191) in his overview of the ‘trinities’ of design concepts outlines the role of the researcher within each of the three facets of Design Research as follows:

Researcher is an Observer (Research into Design)

In Research into Design, the Researcher adopts the role of an external observer who strives to not disturb their object of observation. In the case of Architecture that may be a historic artefact, vernacular architecture, approaches to design philosophy etc. with the object of observation being a spatial condition or philosophy.

Researcher is the Designer (Research through Design)

In Research through Design, the Researcher is the Designer and is therefore directly involved in establishing connections and shaping the research object. In the case of Architecture that is most commonly a spatial output such as a building, cityscape, room etc.

Researcher is a "supplier of knowledge" (Research for Design)

In Research for Design, the Researcher is the “supplier of knowledge” who is involved in a temporal way to produce the right information required for achieving a specific output or outcome. Unlike Frayling who focuses mostly on more traditional information gathering approaches, such as precedents, inspiration material etc. Jones includes market and user research into this category, indicating that the collection of information on user requirements falls under the realm of Research for Design.

Jonas's role of the researcher within Design Research (research into design,  research through design, research for design) approaches. Diagram

How Architects use Research.

When it comes to use of research within the practice of Architecture, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) highlights that research is usually of technical or functional nature, related to the requirements of individual building projects. Regarding the specific focus and activities undertaken, key areas of interest include environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, analysis of precedents, and research into materials, products and construction techniques, with Post-occupancy Evaluation (POE) “gradually emerging as an important research activity” (Lee et al., 2014, p.6). The main benefit of research is seen within the increase of sector expertise, and the credibility added that provides a competitive advantage.

The latter point resonates with Groat & Wang’s (2013) description of the role of Abduction as a research approach within the wider practice of Architecture and Engineering. Comparatively to Deductive and Inductive approaches that aim towards predicting or explaining phenomena, Abduction aims towards the creation of value. The authors describe this in the form of a simple equation:

What (thing) + How (Working Principle) = Value (Aspired)

Depending on what is considered “Value”, different forms of research may be employed to fill in different gaps within the equation. For example, energy performance analysis may be employed to determine the working principles (How) that need to be used to design a building (What) that is more energy-efficient (Value).

Where does Environmental Psychology fit in?

Based on the above descriptions, it can be argued that research stemming from Environmental Psychology falls within the “Research for Design” category as it provides insights on people-environment relationships that can be utilised to achieve desired outcomes. Very often results are interpreted in the form of design guides and guidelines with the aim to aid the designer towards making appropriate decisions related to health and wellbeing, comfort, sustainability, productivity and more.

This statement however, only applies if design outcomes (e.g. wellbeing, comfort, positive user experience etc.) are as important to the designer as design outputs (e.g. the physical building). More often than not, despite how interested an Architect may be in ensuring a fantastic experience, architectural design stops at the completion of architectural outputs when a building project is completed. Evaluating the success of the outcomes the spatial intervention has led to, often observed among other things in the form of comfort, intuitive use, perception etc. by the end users, as well as other aspects of environmental performance, leads to that holistic understanding of whether a project was truly successful.

Logic Model of the intersection of design research with environmental psychology. Diagram

Environmental Psychology can help Architects achieve that, both as an initial input to the design process during information collection stages (i.e. briefing, initial design stages etc.) in the form of design guidance, and after completion of a physical building in the form of evaluative studies and benchmarks. This is where we start speaking of approaches such as evidence-based design where research becomes an integral part of the design process and evaluation rather than an afterthought. For more information on Evidence-based Design please refer to the following article:


In conclusion, definitions and positioning statements can be very tricky topics to navigate when it comes to young and constantly evolving fields and roles. Both Design Research and Environmental Psychology happen to fall within those categories, however, there are ways to explain their connections and put forward some arguments to support the impact they have on spatial design. As a summary, I would like to highlight that the three facets of Design Research represent a perspective of understanding different approaches to how research is conducted and utilised in design disciplines such as Architecture, with Research for Design being the closest fit to the contribution of Environmental Psychology within the field of Architecture. This however is only possible when the impact of design outcomes is considered an important factor, and therefore worth investigating further, something that creates a few barriers to the implementation of this type of research within practice when cost and time inevitably become primary drivers for both clients and designers.

Archontia Manolakelli profile image

Archontia Manolakelli is an Architect and interdisciplinary Design Researcher based in Manchester, UK. Her commitment to designing more comfortable, inclusive and sustainable places using an evidence-based approach, led her to discover Environmental Psychology back in 2016. Since then she has continued to further her knowledge on this wonderful field through the study of psychology and approach to professional practice in architecture.


Hello. Thank you for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your reading! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on LinkedIn or via email.




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