Reframing Research as Design

Reframing Research as Design

Nascent researchers may be daunted by unanticipated setbacks and delays intrinsic to the research process and even tempted to abandon their investigatory enterprises.  The good news?  Solutions exist!

Theorists suggest the unpredictable nature of work (Isaksen, 2000; Nelson & Simmons, 2003) creates both eustress (positive stress) and suffering (negative stress).  Stress management techniques vary with the individual’s personality (de Souza Sant'Anna, Kilimnik, & Diniz, 2017) and are strengthened by capacity to see challenges as opportunity (Coutu, 2002; Sotile & Sotile, 2002).  Positive psychology links personality traits such as self-control, optimism, and resilience (Duckworth & Seligman, 2017) to an aptitude for creative problem solving.  

Viewing research as design provides practical guidelines for thinking outside the box.  Challenges are crafted in the conceptual context of a “frame” (Schön, 1984).   Reframing “recasts” the original research design (the “frame”) in new perspectives (Kolko, 2010, p. 23).  By seeing “things in a new way” (Kolko, 2010, p. 23), reframing facilitates viewing situations from different perspectives to envision alternatives and transform potential problems into opportunities (Grisold & Peschl, 2016).  Plsek’s recommendation exemplifies reframing in the context of health care:

It is more helpful to think like a farmer than an engineer or architect in designing a health care system. Engineers and architects need to design every detail of a system. This approach is possible because the responses of the component parts are mechanical and, therefore, predictable. In contrast, the farmer knows that he or she can do only so much. The farmer uses knowledge and evidence from past experience, and desires an optimum crop. However, in the end, the farmer simply creates the conditions under which a good crop is possible. The outcome is an emergent property of the natural system and cannot be predicted in detail. (Plesk, 2001, p. 316)

Seasoned scholars recognize “complexity, ambiguity, fuzziness, chaos, change, uncertainty, and unpredictability” (Gummesson, 2005, p. 310) contribute to research design, interpretation, and theory generation.   My personal experiences as Research Fellow validate reframing as vital to successful project execution.   In one case, reframing yielded “radical innovation” (Grisold & Peschl, 2016) when inability to obtain formal authorization to interview agency representatives necessitated redesign and reformulation of study objectives.  In another situation, reframing transformed an “overwhelmingly complex reality” (Kolko, 2010, p. 22) of conflicting priorities and compromised leadership support into a dynamic partnership. 

In conclusion, effective researchers expect the unexpected and utilize reframing to ensure completion. Synthesizing art and science, research has been described as a “wilderness of complexity and unpredictability” (Gummesson, 2005).  Reframing research as design contributes to “making sense out of chaos” (Kolko, 2010, p. 15).

We welcome comments on responses to unexpected setbacks in research!


Coutu, D. L. (2002). How resilience works. Harvard Business Review80(5), 46-56.

de Souza Sant'Anna, A., Kilimnik, Z. M., & Diniz, D. M. (2017). Human work and its discontents. In Quality of Life and Quality of Working Life. InTech.  Retrieved from

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2017). The science and practice of self-control. Perspectives on Psychological Science12(5), 715-718.

Grisold, T., & Peschl, M. F. (2016). Facilitating radical innovation by double‐loop learning: Introducing a strategic framework and toolbox. Theory and Applications in the Knowledge Economy440.

Gummesson, E. (2005). Qualitative research in marketing: Road-map for a wilderness of complexity and unpredictability. European Journal of Marketing39(3/4), 309-327.

Isaksen, J. (2000). Constructing meaning despite the drudgery of repetitive work. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 40(3), 84–107.

Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design Issues26(1), 15-28.

Nelson, D. L. & Simmons, B. L. (2003). Health psychology and work stress: A more positive approach. In: Quick, J. C., & Tetrick, L. E. (Eds.), Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology (pp. 97-119). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Plsek, P. (2001). Appendix B:  Redesigning health care with insights from the science of complex adaptive systems.  In: Institute of Medicine, Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century (pp. 314-319). Washington, DC:  National Academies Press.  Retrieved from

Schön, D. (1984). Problems, frames and perspectives on designing. Design Studies, 5(3), 132–36.

Sotile, W. M., & Sotile, M. (2002). The resilient physician: Effective emotional management for doctors & their medical organizations. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association.

About the Author

Louise Underdahl



Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

Psychology Today
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American Psychological Association Conference-Utilizing Clinical Hypnotherapeutic Intervention with CBT to Treat Pandemic-Aug. 13-2021 Symptomology

ILA Conference Geneva Switzerland 2021
Presenter -Topic-"The Stress Arc in Leadership and 3 Powerful Disciplines for Mitigating Major Stress Impacts in a New Era"-Upcoming
Presenter -Topic-“Improving Higher Education’s Role in Diversity and Social Equity through Relational Leadership in the New Era”-Upcoming
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2021-Knowledge Without Boundaries National Summit-College of Doctoral Studies Research Conference-University of Phoenix-Panel Discussion-"Exploring Emergent Trends in Leadership and Education"-Based on published symposia article from the Journal of Leadership Studies-


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