Design Research + Human-centred Design in Graphic Design

A summary of my research project

Joni Wicks
May 30 · 11 min read

In recognising that people are largely unlikely to read my RMIT — Master of Design Futures thesis, and that it would be useful to have a published account of my proposition and provocation, I present an abridged version my final masters project.

Also, I believe there is great value in adopting design research and a human-centric perspective in graphic design, so here goes;

What is it?

In short, I have designed a resource for graphic designers who have an interest in adopting design research and human-centred design methods in their work.

Find it at:

Who am I?

I have a twenty-year career as a graphic designer spawned from much hard work and passion, self-directed learning and guidance from peers. Latterly I left my job as a studio manager in an advertising company to get my bachelor degree in communication design, which saw me contracting in a variety of studios for a number of years. During my undergrad I discovered HCD and design strategy and learned the immense value of gaining a deeper understanding of the people and the problem. This inspired me to learn more, so I went on to study a master of design futures.

Why is this needed?

Throughout my career, I have seen the tensions and trade-offs that occur frequently and a continued under-valuing of graphic design. I have witnessed all too often the frustration of the under-utilisation of the designer’s skill, by being consulted and instructed at the end of a project, rather than acknowledging skills and knowledge that would be greatly beneficial throughout.

In developing my career and during my study, I have immersed myself in adjacent design professions (HCD, design research, service design, strategic design) where I have learned methods that;
• gain a deep understanding of stakeholders, the landscape and the problem
• challenge and validate assumptions and bias
• create meaningful solutions that greatly consider the users wants, needs and goals.
• factor equality, inclusion and ethics.

These professions speak the language of business, bring the client along with the journey, consult and show evidence, work with the users/people and are growing exponentially. They also borrow heavily from other design disciplines…

With a natural evolution in technology, social, economic and environmental factors, we face problems growing in complexity that command a deeper understanding, validated solutions which greatly consider changing human needs and expectations alongside these developments.


Products were once designed for the functions they performed… today we want products that appeal to both cognition and emotion.
Don Norman

With a comprehensive lit’ review under my belt and 4 solid years at university, the relevance of degrees and academic writing is a fascinating rabbit hole. Whether you value this perspective or not, prominent authors and academics help shape the landscape.

Donny boy

Don Norman has some great views on design and this article examines the future role of the designer. In essence, he suggests there are two paths, graphic design and HCD, that problems are growing in complexity and evolving technology and human needs commands more than a graphic design practice is equipped to deal with.

His idea that you can live in both worlds aligns with my perspective.

The Future of Design

Richard Buchanan’s idea that there are ‘4 orders’ of design is often (mis)quoted when outlining the design landscape.

Dicky’s 4 orders

It’s useful to identify the different sectors within design but it is limiting. These orders were outlined by way of suggesting that they are ‘topics for discovery, rather than categories of fixed meaning’.

This idea of learning from other design disciplines also supports my journey into fusing graphic design with design research and HCD.

Liz, what a legend

Liz Sanders has been the biggest guiding light and yay for non-beardy white men in the conversation. If you’re going to read one book about this, make it this one.

Liz champions the idea of designers being involved from the outset of a project from what she calls the ‘fuzzy front end’.

She also recognises the changing design landscape as businesses evolve and people want more control over how they live.

How did I come to design the project?

From my lived experience, lots of research, general talking to and stalking of designers and studios, interviews and expert consultation, I concluded that there is a growing interest in adopting design research and HCD to graphic design, but little in the way of how to approach it.

So I brain-dumped all of my knowledge and understanding of UCD, HCD, strategic design and service design(there’s a glossary at the end), and distilled it into a design solution that I thought would be of interest and value to graphic designers and studios.

High fidelity website prototype and the result of my brain-dump

My design solution centres around haptics (touch) and interaction and the idea is to place large format posters on the wall to engage with them throughout a project. The website is a companion with more detailed information.

A0 poster prototypes

A toolbox of craft items is also intended to be used on and off the posters, designed to inspire creativity, group work and used for recording research and mapping journeys and solutions.

Toolbox prototype

Outlining an HCD framework is a massive task–one that probably shouldn’t be the remit of one person– so I took my wireframe to a workshop of peers in the HCD space.

A revised — and much improved — prototype was created after the workshop feedback.

Workshopping, so very useful

The aim of this project

My design solution is by no means an exhaustive list of methods and principles in HCD. Prescribing a ‘how to do it’ approach is impractical and probably won’t gain meaningful outcomes. See any number of ‘design thinking’ workshops for that…

Instead, I acknowledge the graphic designers existing expertise and invite them to research and build on their practice, with processes and methods that are of interest and are relevant to their work. I offer a suggestion that doing so helps design solutions that are founded in deep insight from lived experience of the users, validated and tested to ensure it meets people’s growing needs, expectations and goals.

The aim of this project is to showcase a broader design landscape and entice interest from graphic designers in challenging their thoughts and approach. I very much recognise and acknowledge the impact and scale of challenging age-old thoughts and processes and that adopting these methods pose challenges to business models.

The immediate goal of this project is a provocation, to bring awareness of these possibilities and to start a conversation.

It also serves to showcase my knowledge and skill and to situate me as a champion and leader of HCD in graphic design.


In my research, I discovered thoughts around graphic design being “dead” and being in a “state of flux”. These perspectives and the idea that designers are undervalued, of course, might not ring true with all, and that’s fine.
I might suggest however that design always has been in a state of flux, and as it should be. The world evolves and with that, the environment and people change, and like it or not, it affects our craft.

I believe that good designers continuously reflect and grow their practice through personal interest, passion and career development and it’s this interest that I draw on. I see that great lessons can be learned from examining these adjacent design professions, discovering their offerings and value and adding some new processes to our ever-expanding toolkit. They learn and borrow from other professions, why shouldn’t we?

Graphic design is powerful–whether that’s recognised or not–and with that comes great responsibility. If we want to stay relevant, if there are complex issues to be solved, if we feel under-valued and under-utilised, if we want stakeholder buy-in, a seat at the table or to be part of the process end-to-end, then looking to design research and a human-centric perspective will give us invaluable insight, tools and approaches.

In the interests of equality, inclusion and in ensuring an ethical practice, a deep understanding of these principles and how to adopt them in practice, is essential. The world very much needs this perspective and awareness is growing, as it must continue to do so.

In addressing the ever-growing complexity in social, economic or environmental issues; research, co-design, co-creation, must be consulted in order to fully understand lived experience to design meaningful, future-focused, fit-for-purpose solutions.

With rapidly developing technology, human-needs and expectations continually grow and change and command greater consideration. We shouldn’t make assumptions.

In the quest to grow my practice, deliver meaningful design solutions and show the power and worth of graphic design, I have discovered methods, processes and practices that can help achieve this. I truly believe there is power in gaining a deep understanding of the problem space, the people, discovering insights from lived experience, designing to validated assumptions and outcomes, and that uncovering these can make a difference to design. Fads in design may come and go, but this perspective must and will remain.


Nb. These definitions are my own. They are crafted from study and lived experience with a great interest in taxonomies and the problems within this. Many will have differing opinions and I’m always open to discussion, and a beer.

Graphic Design

Aka visual design, visual communication and communication design.
In an attempt to recognise the suite of the designers’ skillset as that of not just creating visuals or graphics, communication design is a growing term.

Design Research

Legend Liz outlines this well:
“The study of people as users of products, services and environments” (Sanders & Stappers 2014, p22)

Human-centred Design (HCD)

HCD has it’s roots in computer and social science. In essence, it’s putting the user’s needs, goals and expectations at the centre of the design. Ideas and assumptions are validated with the user. The designer is often not the expert, the users are.
It’s more than just designing for humans, it can apply to the environment and just about any problem.
You may find many interpretations of this in practice. You can be a human-centred designer and you can practice human-centred design. This can also be seen as a meta-design principle as other practices can sit under the HCD banner, for example, service design, design research, design strategy can be human-centred.

Design thinking

Design thinking has been around for decades but latterly is a packaged commodity for non-designers. It can be largely lacking in depth or have the ability to be flexible and garnish meaningful results. As Natasha Jen says about it’s usefulness in her ‘Design Thinking is Bullshit’ talk: “Prove it”.
That said, I believe the outline pertains to the HCD side of design rather than graphic design, so bears no resemblance to ‘creative’ design. As contentious as it is, it attributes a growing interest in design from non-designers which has benefits in bringing awareness and value to design at large. This is a large debate and beyond the scope of this glossary. Buy me a beer, lets chat.

Creative Human-centred Design

I have coined this term and used it as a distinction from HCD practitioners and graphic designers adopting HCD, as I believe these are two separate perspectives. I’m fully aware that this is a contentious term and that human-centred designers will assert that they are creative. Alongside the ‘what is design’ rabbit hole, you could go down the ‘what is creativity’ rabbit hole, both of which I’m very interested in.
In essence, I believe there are levels of creativity, that HCD’ers are creative, but that graphic design commands a deeper level of creativity. Liz Sanders outlines ‘four levels of everyday creativity’ (Sanders & Stappers 2014 p. 39) which supports this idea.

Design Strategy

Not to be confused with Strategic Design.
The design of processes systems. A strategy added to design.

Strategic Design

Fusing traditional business strategy methodologies with a design approach, for the systemic redesign of cultures and complex problems.


User-centered Design
Sometimes used to describe HCD but see UX for my thoughts in this.
UCD is the methodology used to discover and ensure the users’ needs are met. Heuristics and design principles are employed to ensure frictionless use. The outcome is UX.

User Experience.

As the design landscape evolves and semantic drift takes place, UX is applied to different meanings. Some consider it to be the design and consideration of a users experience in any instance, such as when using a product or service.
Having studied UCD, I sit firmly in perspective of UX referring to the users’ experience in a digital medium. I believe that the term ‘user’ should only be applied when referring to those using tech. Outside of this, they’re humans and a should be considered as such in order to understand and design better solutions for them. The term ‘Experience Design’ works well for designing the experience of products or services. Let’s stop confusing our customers!


Sometimes called participatory design, this principle involves a diverse team of people with lived experience and subject matter expertise, all engaged in identifying or solving the problem, usually in a workshop. It poses the people as experts, not the designer.


Not to be confused with co-design, it’s the collaborative effort of designing new concepts, solutions, products or services etc. It can pose the designers as experts but can also utilise users with lived experience.

You can see why we are generally confusing clients, can’t you…


The analysis and use of various methods. Often used incorrectly when meaning ‘method’…


Norman, D. (2016). When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It: The Future of Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 2(4), pp.343–348.

Buchanan, R. (2001). Design Research and the New Learning. Design Issues, 17(4), pp.13.

Sanders, E. and Stappers, (2014). Convivial design toolbox. Amsterdam: BIS.