How to… Research and Innovate? - RSA

How to… Research and Innovate?


  • Design
  • Education

How do you know how to approach a brief? How do you do design research? And how do you turn that research into innovation? These are the pressing questions the RSA Student Design Awards tackled with approximately 100 students from across the country as part of our workshop programme over the last few weeks.

As a global curriculum and competition, the RSA Student Design Awards are working to provide increased opportunities for participants to develop new insights and skills to complement their design education. In addition to workshops this year on design innovation (described here), we’ve run workshops on commercial awareness and designing behavior change and our workshop programme is growing.

One of the biggest challenges for designers is not second-guessing the solution before they’ve carried out the research because they want to design a particular product or service or already have an idea in mind.

Our 2014 design innovation workshops, facilitated by Professor Simon Bolton FRSA (an internationally acclaimed designer, innovation consultant and global thought leader for Procter and Gamble as well as Associate Dean for Applied Research and Enterprise at the Faculty of the Arts, Design & Media, Birmingham City University) gave RSA Student Design Awards participants a set of practical tools to help understand a design brief, conduct impactful design research and translate insights into innovative ideas.

One of the biggest challenges for designers is not second-guessing the solution before they’ve carried out the research because they want to design a particular product or service or already have an idea in mind. Our design innovation workshops aimed to ensure that student designers don't make assumptions and instead, engage in primary research so they ask the right questions and solve the right problem.

In the interest of sharing knowledge for any RSA Student Design Awards participants who weren’t able to attend and for anyone who might be interested, here is a short synopsis of the workshop content and the key learnings:

1. Establish the project focus (or… What am I being asked to do?)

When faced with a brief, such as those developed and issued by the RSA Student Design Awards, it is important to maintain focus whilst understanding the context, the issues and importantly, the goal or the question you are being asked to address. To make sense of a brief, you have to know:

  • Where to look for information (the context)

  • What to look for (the issues)

  • How to evaluate the data collected (keep the goal in mind)

  • And, how to create a defined focus statement

Let’s take an example, the ‘Creative Conditions’ brief, one of the briefs issued this year in the RSA Student Design Awards. The brief asks students to:

Design and develop a vision and business case for an environment or situation that prompts and fosters creative thinking.

If we break this down:

Creative Conditions_understanding the brief Prepared by Simon Bolton for the RSA Student Design Awards

The focus statement should then be directly related to the context, the issues and the goal and should work to further refine it. This will help a project to stay on track and ensure it ‘meets the brief,’ however wide the context.

2. Establish the search criteria (or… What data do you need to collect?)

Professor Bolton spoke about how designers often understand the need to do primary research, but don’t understand what they need to collect or how to collect it. It may sound deceptively simple, but looking for the ‘who, what, when, where, why and how’ should drive and focus the research process.

 3. Discover and collect data (or… How will you collect the data?)

There are three key ways that research data for design innovation can be collected:

  • Observing with the goal of understanding the context and the issues;

  • Interviewing with the goal of further understanding of the issues and the focus

  • Experiencing, or putting yourself in the situation, to better understand the context, the issues and the focus

4. Define and develop the issues (or… What are you looking for in the data?)

Once information has been collected through the systematic seeking, acquiring, capturing and recording of research data, it is imperative to define and develop the issues. These are the three key steps following collection:

  • Cluster: bring together things (observations, statements, etc.) that are similar or linked

  • Categorise: locating information into pre-established or emerging groups

  • Classify: defining and describing the distinguishing features and qualities

London workshop_How to InnovateRSA Student Design Award participants at our London workshop on 'How to Innovate'?

5. Deliver innovation drivers (or… What will your research deliver?)

Innovation drivers are the insights that will come out of all of the steps above and pattern recognition and these will be these things that lead to a magical design solution that is fit for purpose and has the most impact.

 6. Top tip: Ask the right questions, solve the right problem.

Last, but not least, remember that one of the core skills designers is empathy. Designers very rarely – if ever – design for themselves, so thorough, focused research is very important. If you don’t ask the right questions for the right context, you won’t find the right solution. Remember, it’s not what you like, but what you found…

Visit our website for more information on the RSA Student Design Awards.

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