Design research at Aalto University has deep roots and has had very rapid recent development. Research activities at the department started in the 1980s, gained momentum through the 1990s and 2000s, and expanded rapidly in the wake of the formation of Aalto University. In 2016 the department had 12 research-active professors, around ten postdoctoral or senior researchers and 50 doctoral students.

Focus areas and research groups

The research foci of the Department of Design are collaborative and human-centred design, design for sustainability and research through design practice. The research profile combines basic research with research applied within and for industrial, public and cultural sectors. Our research seeks both rigor and high societal relevance, and a high proportion of the research includes multidisciplinary collaboration. The research is organized in the following seven research groups:

  1. EDG – Embodied Design
  2. EMPIRICA – Research on Art, Design and Culture
  3. ENCORE – Engaging Co-Design Research
  4. FTF – Fashion/Textile Futures
  5. INUSE – Users and Innovation Research
  6. NODUS – Sustainable Design Research
  7. SDIM – Strategic Design Integration and Management

These seven groups address the following three research foci of the Department of Design as follows.

Collaborative and Human-Centred Design (INUSE, ENCRORE, EDG) research includes co-design, service design, interaction design, user experience, end-user innovation and open design. The research area holds close links with the Collaborative and Industrial Design master’s programme.

Design for Sustainability (NODUS, FTF, INUSE) includes the development of new sustainable materials – especially fibres, research on product/service systems for sustainability, sustainable consumption and research on sustainability transitions. The sustainable design research is closely connected with the Creative sustainability master’s programme.

Research through design practice (EMPIRICA, ENCORE, EDGE, FTF) includes artistic research, design-driven exploration on emerging technologies and materials, and the action research–oriented development of new design methods and approaches.

In addition to the three foci the Department of Design has expertise in design strategy, design management and innovation research, and in research on the historical and cultural significance of design in order to ensure a solid platform for the understanding of past, present and future challenges.

The research at the Department of Design is pursued by an international group of twelve professors, approximately ten postdoctoral researchers and 50 doctoral students. On average five doctors graduate from the department each year and around 30 peer-reviewed articles and books appear annually. In terms of indicators, Aalto ARTS Crown indicator in 2015 was 2.14 (in 2014 it was 1.41), indicating the status of a global leader in research among the art-based design schools. Much of our research is multidisciplinary, utilizing both the wide competences within Aalto University’s technical and business schools as well as various external collaborators. Our research is also characterized by engagement with societal challenges and collaborations with organizations in the private and public sectors, and with civil society actors are natural for us.

Research outputs

Our target is for five doctors to graduate from the department each year and we currently achieve around 40 peer-reviewed articles and books annually. The number of international peer-review journal articles has grown 400% since 20121. The qualitative improvement is visible in the increase of publications in top-of-the-field (the world’s top 10%) outlets, which has grown from 1–2 annually in 2011–2013 to 18 in 2016: about 1000% increase2. Figure 1 presents the growth in the peer-reviewed publications (see footnotes 1 and 2 for explanations of the categories).

The improvement in research outcomes is also visible in international indicators: in 2015 the Aalto ARTS Crown indicator was 2.14 and in 2016 it was 2.65. This indicates the status of a global leader in research among the art-based design schools and is the highest crown score among Aalto’s six schools. The Department of Design is a major contributor to both the volume of articles and the number of citations in the crown score.

Figure 1. Ranked research outputs from Aalto’s Department of Design (the columns for 2014 and 2015 have been rendered as more fine grained regarding the distribution of items).

In addition to the peer-reviewed articles, the department values highly the physical outcome productions of research projects and books that emerge from the department. The physical productions can be for example unique artefacts, or a series of products or spatial designs that can also be displayed in exhibitions. In addition there are various reports, popular texts, public talks and expert duties, all of which are an important part of the social impact of our research activities.

A long-standing goal in the Department of Design has been to spread the research activities to all areas of the department. This was achieved during the years 2014–2015 and all areas have since grown in healthy fashion.

1 For the criteria of what counts as a good quality international peer-reviewed journal publication we use the Finnish National Publication Ranking System, JUFO,, which is the official ranking list that the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture uses. We only calculate publications that have JUFO classes 1, 2 and 3 as internationally peer reviewed academic publications.

2 For the criteria of what counts as a top-of-the-field journal, we use JuFo’s top categories; categories 2 (field leading) and 3 (world leading). For instance, the design journals Design Studies, Design Journal and the International Journal of Design are all currently placed in category 2 and Design Issues is placed in category 3.