Firstly, ‘research for design’ refers to ‘R & D’ or background research undertaken that is directed towards a particular design project: such as testing the performance of a glaze by an industrial designer or user testing the clarity of a brochure designed by a graphic designer. ‘Research into (or about) design’ includes the various accounts of design phenomena usually done by other disciplines – such as a sociological, historical or economic account of design – which are straightforward dissertations since they can adhere to the conventions of their respective disciplines. Finally, the most contentious but potentially ground–breaking possibility is ‘research through (or by) design’ where a degree may be awarded for a project and is often labelled ‘practice-based’ or ‘practice-led’ research (Frayling 1993/1994, Findelli 2000, Newbury 1996).
This has provided great inspiration in the directions design research can take. I'm most keen on the last idea.
[There] is still a widely held assumption that though sociologists may study and analyse visual representation, the resultant analysis itself is separate from the visual domain: the verbal analyses the visual...But...the distinction between social analysis and visual representation is becoming less clear-cut...social analysis is beginning to make more use of visual representation, and indeed should make more use of visual depictions, unconventional typography and page layout in its analysis. (Elizabeth Chaplin)
Chaplin asserts that visual representations contribute to the social argument in themselves, capable of ‘[telling] us a good deal we did not already know about a particular society.
(Excerpts taken from Helen Box's PhD thesis on design)