From multi-disciplinary to transdisciplinary design research 

By | February 25, 2022

Source: Rasmussen, B., Andersen, P. D., & Borch, K. (2010). Managing transdisciplinarity in strategic foresight. Creativity and Innovation Management, 19(1), 37-46.

Exploring the transdisciplinary nature of knowledge let me conclude that insights gathered via various design research methodologies can be said to exhibit, for the most part, transdisciplinarity. The figure shared above from the work of Rassmussen and her colleagues (2010) helps clarify why.

By visualizing epistemic integration correlated to the varying degrees of complexity and the concurrent increase in knowledge boundaries that must be crossed for efficacious co-generation of knowledge, Rassmussen et al. (2010) contribute to my conjecture that one could apply this as a lens for evaluating the outputs of design research based on the continuum of the degree of user integration (i.e. their knowledge contribution to the sensemaking process) during design research. Going back to Sanders’ seminal mapping of design research landscape (Sanders, 2006; 2008) below helps explicate the connection:

Figure 2: Sanders, Liz. “On modeling an evolving map of design practice and design research.” interactions 15, no. 6 (2008): 13-17.

When we look at design/research approaches that trend towards the participatory mindset on the horizontal axis, and correlate the activity that takes place during such knowledge co-generation processes to Rassmussen et al.’s (2010) categorization of epistemic integration of knowledges, it is not difficult to arrive at the conclusion that this work is inherently transdisciplinary. And, as the purpose of design moves away from commercial objectives towards societal challenges, the complexity and nuance of knowledge contributions required increases. Implying a concurrent increase in transdisciplinarity when composing the stakeholders involved in this social design process. Climate scientists have long recognized this need for an increase in transdisciplinarity if they are to effect social changes in response to changing socio-environmental conditions in a holistic and inclusive manner. Has design?

Perhaps, this is where criticisms of design’s social change ambitions arise (see Vaughen, 2017; Chen et al. 2016); from the lack of clarity on the degree and complexity of epistemic integration of knowledges required for such projects? Koskinen and Hush (2016) categorize these ‘massive social change’ efforts as “Utopian” social design as compared to the micro/meso levels aspired to by “Molecular” social design (see Markussen’s framework, 2017). Designers have been led to believe that design can solve all problems, however the nuance between an efficacious problem discovery and solving methodology and the knowledges required to inform the problem space aren’t highlighted by the popular press or marketing campaigns.

Pursuing this direction of exploration promises to bear fruit.


Rasmussen, B., Andersen, P. D., & Borch, K. (2010). Managing transdisciplinarity in strategic foresight. Creativity and Innovation Management, 19(1), 37-46.

Chen, D. S., Cheng, L. L., Hummels, C., & Koskinen, I. (2016). Social design: An introduction. International Journal of Design, 10(1), 1-5.

Knapp, C. N., Reid, R. S., Fernández-Giménez, M. E., Klein, J. A., & Galvin, K. A. (2019). Placing transdisciplinarity in context: A review of approaches to connect scholars, society and action. Sustainability, 11(18), 4899.

Koskinen, I., & Hush, G. (2016). Utopian, molecular and sociological social design. International Journal of Design, 10(1), 65-71.

Markussen, T. (2017). Disentangling ‘the social’ in social design’s engagement with the public realm. CoDesign, 13(3), 160-174.

Vaughan, L., ed (2017) Practice –Based Design Research. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

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