Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

The Origins of Design Research: Bruce Archer and the Department of Design Research

‘You cannot ignore the nurturing of the material culture and still expect to enjoy its fruits. That is why I invented design research as a back-up to design practice. I don’t think it is because I happen to be standing here instead of somewhere else that the world seems to be revolving around this point.’
– Bruce Archer, 1977

Whoever you choose to align with or champion historically, it’s undeniable that the rigorous enquiries into design research that took place in London in the 1960s and ’70s, and particularly those at the RCA’s Department of Design Research (DDR) led by Professor Bruce Archer, were the catalyst for what will in all likelihood become the defining feature of twenty-first century innovation: the addition of design thinking into science, technology and engineering, commonly known as STEM-D.

This week, the RCA hosts a conversation with six original members of the DDR: Kenneth Agnew, who graduated in Industrial Design (Engineering), having originally trained as an architect, and became a central figure in the DDR from its early days through to 1978, designing the famous King’s Fund Hospital Bed and many other objects and systems; George Mallen, a researcher at the DDR 1971–81, who led computing as a subject; Ken Baynes, who studied stained glass at the RCA and went on to be Head of the RCA Design Education Unit (DEU) which grew out of a DDR project; Eileen Adams, who worked in the DEU; and Doug Tomkin and Tim Coward, who were both Research Fellows in the DDR. Collectively, their careers represent a global historic span of fifty years of design, design research and design education.

The unit has become a passionate concern of the conversation’s chair Stephen Boyd Davis, Professor of Design Research at the RCA, who is leading a project to interrogate the history of the DDR and the wider design research landscape of the 1960s onwards. ‘The early history of Design Research reveals engagement with a remarkable range of issues,’ says Boyd Davis. ‘There were ambitions both to improve the practice of design and to develop an understanding of what design is in a philosophical and social sense.’

The DDR traces its origins back to 1961 when Professor Misha Black, Head of the School of Industrial Design (Engineering), invited Bruce Archer from the Hochschule Ulm to the RCA, to lead a research project that Black had created under the title ‘Studies in the Function and Design of Non-surgical Hospital Equipment’, to be funded by the Nuffield Foundation. 

Archer, a chartered engineer, became a key figure in early design research, raising the level of design analysis, seeking a philosophy of design, and affecting educational policy. Facilitated by Misha Black and his triumvirate areas of influence – designing for industry, government policy and public engagement in the form of the Festival of Britain and the Council of Industrial Design – Archer led the DDR for 25 years and was an important contributor to UK design policy through the Design Council as well as engaging extensively with the commercial world. 

Under Archer, the unit produced numerous innovations, most notably attempting to establish for the first time a philosophy of design and understanding design’s relationships to science and other domains. In doing so, it sought to build design a framework as a professional and academic discipline – rigorous, evidence-based and with research methods that took account of advances in materials, manufacturing, and scientific knowledge such as psychology and ergonomics.

As Archer’s opening statement intimates, the DDR appeared because it was what was needed at the time. With mechanical engineering and mechanised production, design had become too complex to do using rule of thumb and intuition. It needed to be more systematic, using the organisational methods and operational research that had characterised the Allies’ success towards the end of the war combined with an openness towards the potential for computing to support and even transform the design process.

In later analysis, Archer proposed that he’d wasted time trying to get design to fit into the world of management methods – trying to subsume design into science. By the 1970s, he’d come to a different view, that design ought to be regarded as a third form of knowledge – alongside and equal to the traditional disciplines of humanities and science. This prescience is recognised today as the foundation of modern design thinking and research, and its potential to have a profound impact on the global issues faced by humanity in the twenty-first century.

Did Archer get there first? Many believe so, and the importance of the DDR, Misha Black and other leading figures will be hotly debated today by the panel and invited guests, including Bruce Brown, Janet Daley, John Chris Jones and John Langrish. What’s undeniable is that Archer and his colleagues in the DDR were the first both to articulate the need for a philosophy of design – to understand in a deep sense what design is, what kinds of knowledge it embodies and requires – and to identify the potential role of design in society with implications for sustainability, social well-being and policy.

In many respects, STEM-D, and the idea that design innovation is hugely important to the future of society, is the fulfilment of Archer’s dream: that design as a discipline has acquired professional and academic respect that puts designers in a room with engineers, medics, innovators at the beginning of the project not at the end. Archer’s emphasis on rigour changed over time, and there are signs that he would have embraced agile, iterative thinking. He certainly recognised the need to make things in order to develop ideas, and pioneered user-centred research methods. It seems likely that he would have been hugely stimulated by the very different design environment of today’s RCA. 

For the 50th anniversary conference of the Design Research Society, Stephen Boyd Davis and Simone Gristwood created an online exhibition that provides more information on the themes discussed above: 

The College holds the L Bruce Archer Archive containing 34 boxes of administrative files, articles, diaries, lecture notes, recorded lectures, and other teaching materials, as well as the Kenneth Agnew Archive which includes around 500 slides and 1,000 negatives documenting many projects. Thus for the first time we have the beginnings of a comprehensive and balanced view of the Department, both textually and visually. For more information, and to access the collection, please contact [email protected].