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Design as indigenous practice

Artikel door Stijn van de Ven

Our study and profession revolve around design. By working with sketching paper, pencil and markers we experience a creative process. We develop solutions that are relevant to both the academic world and our society, addressing spatial challenges and wicked problems that become ever more complex. Still, most students wonder what design practice in the master’s thesis resembles as we are supposed to do research, right? In this article, I will demonstrate how design practice comes into play,  I will use my thesis as an example to show how design practice relates to the thesis.

Afbeelding 1: I always start my design practice with good old fashioned sketching paper and markers


Whilst students seem to have trouble grasping the concept of design practice, it comes close to the studios we enjoy in our studies. Several documents written by our teachers explain what the design practice is. The design practice, as described in the thesis course guide, study information binder and OSIRIS page, is executed parallel to the MSc Thesis. It is the design process that takes place during the thesis. You use it to test your research outcomes, theory and concepts through design by translating them into spatial designs.  During the design practice, you critically reflect upon your design process, results, design decisions, and argumentation. Of course, this all will be in the context of the academic and societal relevance you are striving for. All of which are graphically expressed to show your research and design results. In short, The design practice is your design process, in which you graphically test, reflect and critically evaluate your results, to achieve knowledge with academic and societal relevance.


The three types of design research are defined as research FOR, ON, and THROUGH design (Lenzholzer et al., 2016). All three types of design research employ design practice in different methods. Research FOR design (RFD) generates knowledge for the design, or its products and processes. RFD therefore is used to inform the design practice and can be used to test the RFD results.

Research ON design (ROD) is a reflection on design and can be interpreted from different perspectives. ROD resembles an active analysis or review of the design practice through for example a reference study.

At last, research THROUGH design (RTD) covers the research processes that integrate design as a method for research. RTD applies the design practice as a method to acquire knowledge, through a creative design process, which is evaluated by pre-determined criteria. This is done in several iterations until an adequate result is achieved.  In conclusion, each type of design research has a different relation between design and research, by informing, evaluating or employing it as a method. The design practice is just the design process that comes with it.

Afbeelding 2: The three types of design research, Research FOR, ON and THROUGH design. (based on Lenzholzer et al, 2016).

Allow me to briefly introduce my thesis to show examples. My thesis aims to generate design principles for spatial and functional coherence for cultural heritage systems. It centralizes around the King’s roads of King-stadtholder William III of Orange (1650-1702). William III was a fanatic hunter who considered the Veluwe as his favorite hunting grounds (Panhuysen, 2020; Van Heijgen, 2015). He and the Dutch royal family constructed several hunting lodges across the Veluwe to facilitate hunting leisure. These lodges were interconnected by King’s roads, straight roads that occasionally were flanked by beech lanes (Bijster, 2019). The royal infrastructure was used as transport routes and to show power in the landscape, as William’s royal right allowed him to construct these roads, regardless of land use or ownership (Storms-Smeets et al., 2016; Storms-Smeets, 2021). But William III passed away before he could finish his royal hunting landscape, and his successors had different interests and left the royal roads unsupervised (Van Meerkerk, 2009). This allowed the roads to become fragmented by other land uses and infrastructural and urban expansions in the centuries to come. This resulted in that the King’s roads are currently found as isolated relics in the landscape.

Afbeelding 3: The entire King’s road system of William III is spread out over the entire Veluwe. The roads connected several hunting lodges and estates to facilitate the hunting leisure (Bijster, 2019).

The structure of my thesis is considered a research FOR design, as it is structured into a clear research phase and design phase. As I try to generate design principles for the cultural heritage systems, these will function as the knowledge that can be used as input for design processes.

The concept of a cultural heritage system arises from a scale enlargement as cultural heritage research moves from monuments to ensembles and eventually to systems. The heritage sector shifted its view from ‘objects’ to ensembles (collections of monuments as a whole) to a landscape-based approach (Storms-Smeets, 2023; Smith, 2014; Nijhuis et al, 2023). As a result, heritage becomes a social product that can adapt to the needs of society (Janssen et al., 2017; Fairclough & Rippon, 2002).

With my thesis, I try to define the concept of cultural heritage systems by centralizing the King’s Roads as the ‘links’ between the ‘nodes’ (the ensembles). This establishes the royal hunting landscape which we can consider as a cultural heritage system.

Can the systemic approach I try to adapt to cultural heritage be considered part of our indigenous design practice? The systemic layered approach developed by Ian McHarg has been thoroughly adopted at Wageningen University and has inspired me to try to place it in the context of cultural heritage, so I consider it to be.


These cultural heritage systems become interesting for landscape architecture when we recognize the royal landscapes as designed landscapes. This is where indigenous design practice comes around again. By examining these landscapes, we can learn how regional design was already employed in the Middle Ages before we even started to nationally plan out our landscapes. As the research phase of my thesis consists of reference studies (ROD) to similar cases, I enable myself to learn about how design was conducted, and how it became part of our cultural heritage. This way, I am generating knowledge and inspiration from other designs concluded in design principles, which then are tested by applying them in the design case of the thesis.

What is important for the cultural heritage systems, is the fact that they are spatially and functionally coherent. Without coherence, the systems become unrecognizable and unnavigable, which we need to be able to show the heritage of the region. In my thesis, I aim to understand and define the historical design principles of these original royal landscapes. Understanding them is necessary to redevelop them into a spatially and functionally coherent cultural heritage system. This becomes the input that informs my eventual design for the case of the King’s roads of the Veluwezoom.


The historical, spatial and recreational examinations I am conducting can be done according to methods, such as those of Kevin Lynch (1960), Gordon Cullen (1961) or Bernard Tschumi, who dissected the landscape in links, nodes, districts, edges and landmarks. I think it is fair to consider such methods also indigenous design practice, as we are taught these ways of analyzing when we start our studies. These methods of analyzing and designing will always stay with us and will therefore be indigenous to us.

Afbeelding 4: The scope for studying heritage has developed from objects to ensembles as part of cultural landscapes. This holistic, integral landscape-based approach, enables the ability to view the King’s roads as a cultural heritage system. It interconnects ensembles (nodes) with the roads (links) (Nijhuis & Storms-Smeets in Nijhuis, 2021; Colors adjusted by author).

I consider the design practice to be something personal. We can be critical in what you consider your design practice. You lead your design process and decide what steps, decisions and methods to take to come to a final design. Look for new ways to iterate and evaluate your design. We all learn the well-known established design practices like the layered approach or the Lynch method, but should be looking for new ways to practice design. Be creative and come up with new ways of employing design. We, students and young professionals will determine the future design practices. Can’t we therefore consider all future design practices as indigenous?

Afbeelding 5: Design practice is something personal. Be creative and critical in your process. You lead your own process and decide on what steps and methods to use.


·       Bijster, P. (2019). Snelwegen voor de Koning: Een onderzoek naar koningswegen op de Veluwe aangelegd tussen 1675 en 1702 ten behoeve van (Koning-)Stadhouder Willem III. Groningen: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

·       Cullen, G. (1961) The concise townscape. Oxford: Architectural press.

·       Fairclough, G., & Rippon, S. (2002). Europe’s landscape: Archeologists and the management of change. Brussels: EAC.

·       Janssen, J., Luiten, E., Renes, H. & Stegmeijer, E. (2017). ‘Heritage as sector, factor and vector: conceptualizing the shifting relationship between heritage management and spatial planning’. European planning studies. 25 (9), 1654-1672. Doi: 10.1080/09654313.2017.1329410.

·       Lenzholzer, S., Duchhart, I., & Van den Brink, A. (2016). ‘The relationship between research and design’. In A. Van den Brink, D. Bruns, H. Tobi, & S. Bell (Eds., 2016), Research in landscape architecture - Methods and Methodology. London: Routledge.

·       Lynch, K. A.Go (1960) The image of the city. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

·       Nijhuis, S., Storms-Smeets, E., & Thissen, P. (2023). Resilient Estate Landscapes Gelderland. Past, present and future. Prinsenbeek: Jap Sam Books.

·       Nijhuis, S. (2021) ‘Diagram of object to ensemble approach’ (Image). ‘Future-proofing estate landscapes – a regional design approach for historical country estates in a landscape context’. Bulletin KNOB, 4, 62-74.

·       Panhuysen, L. (2020). Oranje tegen de Zonnekoning. Amsterdam: Olympus.

·       Smith, J. (2014). ‘Applying a cultural landscape approach to the urban context’. In K. Taylor, A.St. Clair, & N. Mitchell (Eds 2014.). Conserving cultural landscapes. Challenges and new directions (pp.182-197). New York, NY: Routledge. Doi: 10.4324/9781315813226

·       Storms-Smeets, E. (2023). ‘Leren denken in ensembles - Toekomst voor Limburgse landgoederen. Het Buiten: kastelen, buitenplaatsen en hun bewoners. 5(14), 18-25.

·       Storms-Smeets, E. (2021). ‘De sociale geografie van het buitenplaatslandschap Gelders Arcadië’. Bulletin KNOB, 4, 33-46.

·       Storms-Smeets, E. & Reesink, T. (ed., 2016). Karakteristieken en Ambities Gelders Arcadië. Arnhem: Gelders genootschap & Buro Poelmans Reesink.

·       Van Heijgen, E. (2015). De Veluwe als jachtlandschap. Bennekom: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

·       Van Meerkerk, E. (2009). Willem V en Wilhelmina van Pruisen. De laatste stadhouders. Amsterdam-Antwerpen.

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