Upward view through the curved paths of a circular parking garage with patch of sky visible through a circular opening at the top. Photo by iStock/kamisoka

What Urban Design Can Teach Us About Research

By using the concepts of urban design and visual thinking, students can design richer—and more relevant—research questions to explore.

Open any book on research methods and you will find a chapter devoted to designing compelling research questions. And, yet, when I ask my students how they chose their questions for their dissertations or capstone projects, they often reply that they simply thought of a few questions while gathering information for their literature reviews. They followed no formal process.

But we know that research questions are the rebar and concrete that hold research projects together. The questions our students choose to study set the tone—and limits—of their projects.

For that reason, I think we need to offer students a new approach to research question design that will unleash their creativity, deepen their understanding of their chosen topics, and take their research to new heights. Luckily, such an approach already exists—in the context of the visual arts.

Inspired by Urban Design

I began connecting the dots on how we might help our students design better research questions three years ago. At the time, my son was pursuing his undergraduate degree in urban planning and had a stack of books on the subject on his desk. One in particular caught my eye: The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch.

Lynch published the book in 1960 when he was a professor in the department of urban studies and planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. In 1988, MIT established an award in his name for urban planning research. Three of Lynch’s assertions in The Image of the City, in particular, drew my attention.

First, cities need what Lynch calls “conceptual anchor points.” Effective urban planning, he explains, must take certain physical characteristics into consideration, of which four stood out most to me. Lynch defines these four terms in the following ways:

    Singularity: “Figure-background clarity: sharpness of boundary … closure … contrast of surface.”

    Clarity of joint: “High visibility of joints and seams … clear relation and interconnection.”

    Time series: “Simple item-by-item linkages … and series truly structured in time and thus melodic in nature.”

    Visual scope: “Qualities which increase the range and penetration of vision, either actually or symbolically.”

If we translate these attributes into the context of business research question design, they take on new meaning:

    Singularity: Boundaries between what will and will not be part of the research, and the distinction between conventional and alternative views of the topic.

    Clarity of joint: Interrelation between parts of the research and their place in a larger system of paradigms, schools of thought, and theories.

    Time series: History of the research problem and hypothesis, including its role in a larger historical context and its evolution over time.

    Visual scope: Qualities that will increase the range and scope of the research’s impact—aspects that will make the research compelling to readers.

Second, there are three components to analyzing an urban environment. The first component is identity, which Lynch defines as “the identification of an object.” The second is structure, which he defines as “the spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and to other objects.” Finally, there’s meaning, which refers to the object’s “meaning for the observer, whether practical or emotional.” According to Lynch, these components always work together.

We need to offer students a new approach to research question design that will unleash their creativity, deepen their understanding of their chosen topics, and take their research to new heights.

I had seen this argument before in a different context: investigative journalism. In the 1970s, John Sawatsky, a Michener-Award-winning journalist, taught his students at Carlton University and University of Regina that reporters who produced the richest, most detailed stories always asked three types of questions: what (topic), how (process) and why (motivation). And the best journalists, he noted, always asked these questions in that order.

At this point in my reading of Lynch’s work, I felt I was onto something relevant to management research!

Third, visual and sensory cues drive our perceptions of the world. Lynch explains that we structure and identify our urban environments through visual and other sensory cues, such as color, shape, motion, smell, sound, and touch. I have also heard this idea described another way by Rudolph Arnheim, a brilliant perceptual psychologist at Harvard in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He said that these same cues are the basis for appreciating works of art.

In his book Visual Thinking, Arnheim argues that “the cognitive operations called thinking” are not separate from human perception. Rather, he refers to these operations as “the essential ingredients of perception itself.” He describes a form of visual thinking called “intellectual cognition,” in which the observer of a painting first identifies the individual shapes and colors of an artwork before going on to examine the relations between the individual elements. The interrelation of these cues come together to inform our perception. This idea represents an extension of Lynch’s “clarity of joint” definition above.

At this point, I had a moment of realization: If urban designers can apply the concepts of visual thinking to achieve a richer understanding of the visual world, why can’t students apply them to achieve a richer understanding of the topics they study—to more closely connect their research processes to the world around them?

Lynch’s Framework Applied

To test out this approach, I decided to apply it on research I conducted for my doctorate at the London School of Economics in the late 1990s. My dissertation focused on talks that took place between the United States and the European Union during the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that concluded in 1994.

If I had used Lynch’s framework at that time, my planning would have followed this two-step process:

STEP 1—Identify the attributes of the research question.

Singularity: What are the boundaries of my question of interest? The Uruguay Round bilateral negotiations between the United States and the European Union on audiovisual services (film and TV shows), intellectual property rights related to copyright (IPRs), and the final hours of talks in Geneva.

What is the conventional view of this topic? The audiovisual sector talks were shaped by a clash between cultural and commercial interests. The French and U.S. governments were viewed as dictating the outcome of the talks in partnership with Hollywood lobbyists.

What would be an alternative view of this topic? That forces other than the French and U.S. governments played roles in the outcome. These forces included actions of the E.U.’s General Affairs Council, made up of foreign ministers, and other E.U. member states; linkages forged by E.U. member states and the U.S. in sectors other than services; and the influence of the hawkish element of the Hollywood lobby.

Clarity of joint: What are the parts in this research problem? The parts include film and television shows, IPRs, the Hollywood lobby, U.S. trade representatives, the European Commission, the 1989 Television Without Frontiers (TWF) Directive, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), links between industry sectors, and trade-offs in multilateral trade talks.

What are the “shapes and colors”—the “visual” cues—of this research? How does everything intersect? At this point, I must visualize the way larger theoretical systems shape and shade the way we perceive this subject. These systems include classical and neoclassical political economics, media/cultural imperialism, globalization and cultural identity, applied game theory, and comparative advantage theory.

Time series: What is the historical context? Here, I must factor in the U.S. government’s inability to satisfy the Hollywood lobby in the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), or the talks with the E.U. on the TWF Directive.

How has this topic changed over time? I can look to works such as Ian Jarvie’s book Hollywood’s Overseas Campaign: The North Atlantic Movie Trade, 1920–1950, which points to the need for a more nuanced view of the U.S. government’s relationship with Hollywood.

Visual scope: What is the potential impact of this research question? The most common storyline depicts these trade negotiations between the U.S. and the E.U. as a battle over cultural identity. What is needed, however, is to contextualize these talks within each country’s larger battle to preserve cultural industries and protect the interests of industries unrelated to the visual arts.

If urban designers use the concepts of visual thinking to achieve a richer understanding of the visual world, why can’t students apply them to achieve a richer understanding of the topics they study?

STEP 2—Analyze the components of the research question.

After completing the exploration above, I would be inspired to look at my chosen research topic from a variety of different angles. In the end, I would look beyond a conventional view of these trade talks, instead choosing a less expected research problem to explore:

The Research Problem: Accounts of the final days of the GATT–Uruguay Round do not fully explain why the U.S. and E.U. could not reach an agreement on market access or IPRs.

The Hypothesis: The relationship between the Hollywood lobby and U.S. government in global bilateral talks over copyright enforcement has historically been close and productive. However, in multilateral talks, such as those that took place during the Uruguay Round, no single negotiation can be analyzed without also looking at linkages and trade-offs driven by negotiations in other sectors.

For example, the U.S. film industry might not wield as much political power as other industries, such as agriculture or maritime transport services. As a result, the interests of those more powerful lobbies might supercede those of the audiovisual sector.

With my hypothesis decided, I now could break the research project into its components using Lynch’s identity-structure-meaning sequence (or Sawatsky’s what-how-why sequence). Here are three queries that could drive my broader exploration of the trade talks:

  • What sectoral linkages and trade-offs were considered and ultimately made by U.S. and E.U. negotiators? (Identity)
  • How did the relationship between the U.S. government and Hollywood lobby change during the Uruguay Round? (Structure)
  • Why did Hollywood lose the Uruguay Round? (Meaning)

Richer Research, Greater Impact

I believe that we could use this process to help our students move beyond surface-level questions in the early stages of their research. By following Lynch’s framework, they might discover more compelling angles that might otherwise have escaped their attention.

Dissertations and capstone projects provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their research skills and impress potential employers. But with a little more thought, our students will choose better questions to study. In turn, they will produce research that is more detailed, more impactful, and more likely to extend the frontiers of knowledge in their disciplines.

David Steinberg of Edinburgh Business SchoolDavid Steinberg is principal at Reykjavik Sky Consulting in Scotland and an associate professor in leadership, strategy, and organization at the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University. He also conducts master classes on advanced questioning skills at The Business School (formerly Cass) at City, University of London; the Institute of Directors Scotland; and the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science and Institute for Academic Development.