Design and Prevention Research from a EUSPR Conference First-Timer


Maria Portugal | Comms and Design Specialist

The 2019 European Science for Prevention Research conference in Ghent chose to ‘look over the walls’ and promote multidisciplinary work in prevention research. But, as someone who frequently attends conferences and seminars, the word ‘multidisciplinary’ is frequently used, hard to define and difficult to apply. 

Unarguably, there is a strong need for research approaches to be supported by different types of evidence, user experience, context constraints but sadly too few of these conversations are happening in multidisciplinary spaces. 


Changing the conversation- bringing design and research together

As a trained designer working for a research charity and with little experience in prevention research, I applaud EUSPR’s clear intention to change the course of the conversation on multidisciplinary work, by opening their door to a more diverse group of participants and having a particular focus on Design and practice.   

The conference succeeded on two fronts. One, it provided an opportunity for Design’s theory and practice to become a topic of interest in prevention research - some participants were deliberately using and applying a ‘design language and process’ to their research and thinking. Two, the conference offered a space to discuss the common issues and limitations of doing research and designing interventions across academia, industry and public sector. 

It provided an opportunity for me to ‘look over the wall’ – share my own experience and approach to research through a Design lens and, most importantly, to understand what researchers and practitioners know about Design and how they apply it to evidence-based work.  

During his keynote speech, Aaron Lyon from University of Washington ALACRITY Center, echoed the general interest in Design from the prevention community – a couple of statements captured my imagination in particular:

“Innovation design is an under-explored and under-addressed determinant of implementation process”  EUSPR 2019

Aaron highlighted the need to open up discussion around the importance of Design in prevention and its role in research and implementation. Throughout the conference some participants showed genuine curiosity about ‘what Design is’ and its contribution for research. However, Aaron went a step further, by recognising Design as an ‘under-explored’ field and proposing different ideas on how its approach and methods can and should be used in prevention work.  


“(…) design and implementation share similar goals EUSPR 2019

Aaron also acknowledged that prevention and implementation science often have similar goals as Design research (i.e. the design, refinement and optimisation of services to achieve the greatest impact). Yet what became clear throughout the conference was the route to achieving these goals was quite different. There are different languages, emphasis and values in each discipline. 


From conversations to actions – how to make it work in practice

The tension between design and prevention research exists not only at conference-level discussion but also within our own organisation, so here’s a couple pointers on where problems can arise – and where they can be avoided:

“Design” and “Science”

It starts with the terminology itself, and both sides are guilty of the words they use making the task harder. A large number of design-led organisations tend to claim they use a research-based approach to their work. At the same time, researchers also tend to state they incorporate design elements into their work.  Frequently they do this, without having defined to themselves what they mean by ‘design’ and ‘research’ -  so it’s no surprise they can’t be clear with collaborators. 

“Design” vs “Science”

Part of the scientific community understands ‘Design’ to be a way to simply ‘make things look beautiful’, which doesn’t help promoting a vigorous conversation about the role of Design in research.  Science is also seen as ‘complex’ and Design as ‘simple’ and non-nuanced. 


These confusions and assumptions make it harder to incorporate ‘Design’ into ‘Science’ and vice-versa. Design in research is usually seen as a part of the ‘packaging’ stage and limited to the end of the development phase. Likewise, Science can be seen by Designers as belonging only to the part of the initial stages of a process. But Design and Science can meet in several ways and at different stages. In fact, we have another blog on how best to incorporate design into research that we encourage you to read to avoid future problematic processes. 


As designers and researchers, we need to start deepening the conversation, get sophisticated about how we define ourselves outside our own communities, and make sure our skills and processes are accessible to others. We need to go beyond looking over the wall, and actually start climbing it!