Design Museum Research

The museum and its audiences are insatiably curious and optimistic. This energy is put to work and shared through the museum's research programme.

Research is a core activity at the Design Museum. As a country we face complex challenges, from redefining our relations with others and the environment to the proliferation of new technologies. Our research involves not only the historical contextualisation and critical analysis of contemporary design, but importantly engages speculative methods. We interrogate how we create, produce, use and discard the things around us; how this might be done differently; and what the role of design museums is in the context of a climate crisis.

We undertake or support research:

Within the museum

Our Curatorial team presents critical perspectives on contemporary design through exhibitions, public programmes and publications. As exhibition makers, their practice requires not just archival, object-centred or text-based research but the study of living and rapidly evolving design practices. They communicate their findings through highly innovative and adaptable forms of display that accommodate not just objects but contexts, systems, software and other intangible forms of design. Increasingly, we are investing more research into reducing the environmental impact of our exhibition making through design, material choices and ground-breaking impact assessment tools. Testing these models is itself a form of research.

● Our Collections team records and catalogues major shifts in design through their acquisitions, drawing on design history, contemporary design studies and collections care.

Over 3000 objects tell the history of mass production, from the manufacturing innovations of the nineteenth century up to the digital and maker revolutions of the last two decades. They are embarking on a major research project to diversify the collections - both racially and in terms of gender – identifying, acquiring and contextualising designers, makers and activists that broaden our understanding of design and the received canon.

● Our Learning team delivers lectures, workshops, performances and screenings for over 40,000 learners each year. They explore the relationship between critical design thinking and critical pedagogy to develop new resources (both physical and digital) and frameworks for design learning and teaching practice; actively positioning design in relation to social justice and sustainable futures. Our ‘New Thinking, New Voices’ initiative begun in 2018 offers afterhours learning to young adults from underrepresented backgrounds, exploring and nurturing a more diverse design canon. Our ‘Design Ventura’ programme has trained teachers and supported curricula across 2,400 UK schools since 2010, incorporating sustainable design strategies as a core component.

● Our Future Observatory team is a research unit launched within the Design Museum in 2021, advancing mission-oriented innovation (Mazzucato 2017) and design-led research. Future Observatory curates exhibitions, programmes events and funds and publishes new research, all with the aim of championing new design thinking on environmental issues. It hosts four internal Design Researchers in Residence, ten external Research Fellows and four Innovation Awardees from across the UK. It produces an annual display on climate-related design research, and will launch a gallery space within the museum dedicated to displaying ‘live design research’, a journal and a podcast in 2023. It is co-funded with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UKRI.

With partner institutions

● Future Observatory is also the engagement hub for a £21-million nationwide design research programme Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition delivered in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Over the next three years, Future Observatory will co-ordinate over 140 research projects, connecting researchers and synthesising findings across over 100 higher education design institutions and 85 industry and local authority partners across the UK.

● The museum is a core partner for the Design Age Institute, the UK’s national strategic unit for design and the healthy ageing economy. We exhibit and contextualise age-responsive design prototypes for a public audience, and organise events that bring together designers, businesses, researchers and communities to help address the challenges and opportunities of an ageing society.

● The museum works in partnership with Kingston School of Art to host and deliver a collaborative master’s degree Curating Contemporary Design. Since its foundation 22 years ago, it has grown into one of the world's foremost programmes for design curators. Museum staff members share their research and methodologies with students; and the Design Museum Library and Archive serve as a central resource for this programme.

● The museum has partnered with Kingston School of Art to submit a proposal for a Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA), supporting research that diversifies understandings around the museum’s collections.

● Since 2022, the museum supports over 700 undergraduate students at University of the Arts London on the Collective Practices Climate Challenge project, connecting them to environmental researchers, biodiversity and biodesign initiatives and sustainable design practice models.

With local communities

● Our Public Programming team in the Learning Department work with community initiatives across Kensington. They use participatory design methods to develop equitable relationships and spaces of enquiry and knowledge-sharing within the borough. Currently, they are working with local community members, researchers, designers, innovators and social thinkers to reformulate the museum’s Dame Sylvia Crowe Garden into a communal green space and an accessible learning and research site.

Future Observatory

How can we put design to work to rebuild Britain?

A new national programme of research, debate and training that will investigate how design can drive Britain's future prosperity coordinated by the Design Museum in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UKRI.

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Action Research: Exhibitions

How can we design exhibitions with a lower environmental impact? We have been working to reduce our scope 3 emissions and have developed a toolkit to guide decision-making whilst developing exhibitions and displays. While this guide is based on our work at the Design Museum, we hope that offers some core principles that are useful to other institutions and enable them to reflect on their own working processes.

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Design Researchers in Residence

Future Observatory launches a new programme for emerging design researchers supported by Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

2020/21 Theme: Restore

2022/23 Theme: Islands

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Material Tales: Research in Action

'Material Tales: Research in Action' is an accompanying design research workshop to our 'Material Tales: The Life of Things' touring exhibition. The series of workshops seeks to understand the material cultures of different regions in more depth, to consolidate ongoing research across the globe into material innovation and sustainable practices.

The 'Material Tales: The Life of Things' touring exhibition unpacks how designed objects and the materials from which they are made impact our day-to-day lives on the one hand and the planet on the other.

The 'Research in Action' workshop was first delivered at the Design Museum in November 2021 by Marta Giralt. The workshop was conducted through a 3 stage process of activities – define, refine and redesign.

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research projects

Design School – the Future of the Project

The Design Museum is partnering with Imagination, Lancaster University and Charles Sturt University, Australia, in ‘Design School: The Future of the Project’, a research initiative funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The project comprises three research summits focusing on the educational, industry and cultural turns of the design school project.

The first summit took place on June 2016. The second took place in May 2017. The third summit is taking place in November 2017. Please see below for further information.

Summit 2: Design School – the Industry Turn

This summit, Design School and the Industry Turn, questions how design education can best meet the challenges of the loss of “fundamental freedoms” and of design’s role within the creative and manufacturing industries in the UK and global economies.

This summit took place in May 2017 at the Design Museum

Summit 3: Design School – the Cultural Turn

Join leading curators, thinkers and academics across the design and museum sectors to explore the relationship between the design school of today and the cultural sector, in particular the museum as an educational resource, manifest through exhibition making, public programme and collections.

This summit will take place in November 2017. Registration is by invitation only.

Please see below for speaker biographies.

Speaker biographies

research partnerships

Curating Contemporary Design MA with Kingston University

A joint partnership between the Design Museum and Kingston University, our MA in Curating Contemporary Design is taught by leading curators and designers. The course gives students the opportunity to test and develop new ideas about curating contemporary design through projects with the Design Museum and partner organisations including the British Council, Architecture Foundation, and the V&A.

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award Scheme with Brighton University

The Design Museum currently has two research studentships with the University of Brighton, funded through the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. Liz Farrelly is investigating national and international perspectives on the 21st century design museum, with a particular focus on the Design Museum’s history. Tom Wilson is researching the design and display strategy of the Museum’s new home, the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington.

Design Age Institute: Designing for Age, Agency & Joy

The Design Age Institute is the UK’s national strategic unit for design and the healthy ageing economy, bringing together designers, businesses, researchers and communities to help address the challenges and opportunities of an ageing society.

research presentations and publications

A selection of papers and publications by Design Museum's past and present employees.

Justin McGuirk, Chief Curator: Keynote speech for Creative Spaces: Urban Culture and Marginality in Latin America

Keynote speech at a one-day symposium organised by the Institute of Latin American Studies, May 2016. Focusing on marginal urban spaces in Latin America, this conference looks at creative interventions and solutions to the problems encountered in them, and on creative representations of their inhabitants.

Design Objects and the Museum ed. Liz Farrelly and Joanna Weddell (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)

Design Objects and the Museum brings together leading design historians, curators and educators to consider the place of contemporary design objects within museums. The Design Museum has contributed two chapters to this volume:

Helen Charman, Director of Learning and Research: Just What Is it that makes Curating Design so Different, so Appealing?

Tom Wilson, Head of Collection and Research: ‘You Are Here, We Are There: Tracing NID’s Design Histories’

Dr Helen Charman: Thinking in Public: Visitor Voice between the Discursive and the Immersive.

An international symposium on Research in 21st Century Art Museums, organised by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Aarhus University, December 2015

Justin McGuirk: Privacy 1.0.

Keynote speech for Span 2015, organised by Google Design, November 2015

Tom Wilson: 'Beautiful and Made of Fine Materials’: Design and Diplomacy at the Commonwealth Institute, London, 1958-62’.

Research paper given at From 'Soft' to 'Hard' Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards, a one-day symposium organised by the University of Brighton, November 2015


The Design Museum Library and Archive

The Design Museum Library and Archives are a valuable resource for the study of design and architecture.

Please note that the space is closed to the public until further notice.

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Library and Archive

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research talks and events

The Design Museum R+D programme offers a range of public talks, workshops and symposia. Check the website for updates.

Get in touch

Design Museum R+D works with a wide range of local and international partners. If you’d like to discuss possible research collaborations or projects, please get in touch using the online enquiry form below.