‘To be, or not to be? That is the question:….’ ‘Hamlet’ Act III Scene 1 William Shakespeare
Life is full of questions and choices. Some are life changing – as for Hamlet. Most are not – but they still require careful thought.
One question that many Landscape Architecture students find hard to resolve is how to link the scientific, artistic, and practical dimensions of design. Is it more important to demonstrate design creativity, or to be systematic in my investigation? How do they each relate to the practice of design in a real landscape?
The questions have become more significant as universities require senior students to complete a design thesis, where the different dimensions of design can appear to be in tension. Should a thesis be framed by science protocols, or by design? Are there different priorities at different stages in the process? How do design, science and landscape inter-relate in a thesis research project? These questions need to be resolved during thesis work, and become critical when a thesis is assessed.
Thesis has two linked academic meanings. Practically, it is a substantial document prepared by a candidate for a higher degree. Intellectually, it is a proposition or an argument, which is put forward to advance understanding of an area of knowledge. Assessment of a student thesis typically specifies that it must create relevant new knowledge, use appropriate research methods, and clearly communicate the findings.
First, from which discipline do you ask your question?
However the detailed content and the way a thesis is organised is shaped by the discipline in which it is prepared. A faculty of science may place emphasis upon a candidate’s ability to report upon a systematic and objective investigation, whereas an arts or humanities faculty will focus more upon interpretive skills and insights. Landscape architecture can be located in different faculties in different universities, and this will influence the detailed expectations placed upon students. Choosing an approach to a design thesis therefore depends in part upon the institutional context in which it is undertaken.
Second, what is the nature of your question?
The nature of a thesis investigation also depends upon the research question, as research strategy and methods in every discipline always need to be ‘fit for purpose’.
A design thesis may incorporate design within the research process for different reasons. The thesis may aim to create knowledge needed to support design (research for design); it may seek to improve understanding of design itself (research into design); or, it may use designing as a method of investigation (research through design) .
Each of these has different implications for the thesis programme: Research for design will be shaped by the type of knowledge sought – for example is it to improve understanding of biophysical processes or social conditions? Does it seek general knowledge about a type of landscape, or specific knowledge about a particular landscape? There are a wide range of possible strategies and methods for these types of landscape related research questions, drawn from a range of natural and social sciences, humanities, and arts disciplines.
Research into design on the other hand is focused on understanding design itself as an individual, social, or professional phenomenon. Once again, the key is to be clear about what type of new knowledge is sought about design, and to choose the most suitable method from a wide range of possibilities. There are no given solutions.
Research through design is unique to design disciplines, as it involves using the process of designing as a way to find out something new. In effect, the designer becomes a research instrument, and their own skill and expertise in design is an essential feature of the process. This makes it vital to be clear about the purpose of the investigation and what role designing will play. It is also essential for the researcher to be able to change their own perspective between the act of designing, recording the outcomes, and reflecting critically upon what new insights and knowledge the process of designing has revealed. The role of the student designer as a thesis research ‘instrument’ also makes it vital that the question you are investigating is one that matches your own interests, inspirations and design competencies.
Third, what new knowledge will your question add?
Thinking about what new knowledge has been created by the process raises the question of new to who? Research in a university context is a collective enterprise. It involves adding something to an existing body of knowledge, and the criteria for evaluating a thesis usually include originality and relevance to the discipline. An individual who learns something that is new to them individually but that is already well known in their discipline is not undertaking the research a thesis requires.
A critical part of developing a design thesis is therefore to find out what is already known in relation to your research topic, and to shape the research question, objectives and methodology to add to that existing knowledge. We also need to know how a particular type of design question has previously been resolved – so we must investigate design precedents. However you don’t have to be limited to precisely similar situations. One of the uses of research through design is to ask if a design solution can be transferred to a different situation. What new possibilities does it reveal? The creative translation and transformation of precedents from different situations to develop new types of solutions is at the core of design practice, and an important feature of research through design. Finally, if the question involves a particular landscape, or if the method involves a design experiment in a particular setting, then we need to systematically investigate the specific conditions in that landscape.
Your thesis proposal is already a design
So to return to the opening question – how can a design thesis be creative, systematic, and grounded in landscape? How do we find the ‘sweet spot’ in which these different imperatives can be combined to best effect?
It may be helpful to think about the development of a thesis research programme as a design exercise itself. It is not following a checklist, or given rules, or a set routine, but is a process that moves to and fro between exploring a research context and a potential topic and question, investigating an existing knowledge base (including precedents), and the creation, development and evaluation of possible research strategies and methods to answer the question.Just as research through design needs to use the distinctive strengths of designing, so developing a design thesis programme of any type can draw upon the creative, analytical and synthetic design skills of the researcher.
Think about the thesis criteria as a general brief; the research topic and question as the purpose of the thesis; previous examples of design thesis as precedents; the methods available and your skills and aptitudes as resources; and then experiment on paper or a whiteboard with different combinations and configurations. Think particularly carefully about what function each part of a thesis programme will perform. Then fit the parts together as a coherent whole. It is no coincidence that both designers and scientists often use the same term – elegance – to describe a solution that resolves a need effectively and economically, where the different parts are all well integrated, and which comes together in an emotionally satisfying story.
It should be clear by now that there is no predetermined solution to the integration of art, science and practice in a design thesis. The combination is right when it creates an elegant resolution to the research question, in a way that meets the criteria set by the university that grants the degree. As designers we have skills in exploring and evaluating possibilities before we take action, and in shaping a compelling response. I recommend using the same skills to shape the programme and methods for your design thesis.
 See Deming & Swaffield 2011 Landscape Architectural Research: Inquiry, Strategy, Design. John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey. Chapter 1 for a discussion on research evaluation.  Lenzholzer et al 2016 The relationship between research and design. Chapter in van de Brink et al (eds) Research in Landscape Architecture: Methods and Methodology. Routledge.  Deming & Swaffield 2011 , Van der Brink et al (eds) 2016  Process mapping is a valuable technique, as well as design diaries.  See Wendy Hoddinott 2016, Bridging the Gap Between Expertise and Engagement: an Exploration of Elegance and Design Process. In proceedings of ECLAS 2016 pp109-112 for a short discussion of elegance.