BBC – 3.1: How to Read Scientific Papers

Time to be resilient. Time to evolve, adapt, and attune to changes in my schedule. I have officially started my MDes degree, and am now faced with a rubber raft, being shipwrecked in the ocean of new information, as the brutal blinking cursor is beating down on me like the sun.

It is best to take the raft of least resistance and raise the stakes. Instead of summarizing the entire research and concept in one post, I am now spending more time at each design phase and extracting what might be relevant and useful to other designers, who would like to practice biomimicry as much as I would. Let’s start from the beginning. Discovering and Identifying a challenge, or – as we like to call it – opportunity. Here is a Design Spiral developed by Biomimicry Institute that summarizes the process of Biology to Design and Challenge to Biology:

Solution-based and Problem-based approaches. © Biomimicry Institute

By designer for designers: how to decipher and make sense of scientific writing

The first step, regardless of your choice of approach, will always lead to scientific papers. Understanding them is the key to a deep inspiration.

Sure, the term ‘discover’ could also mean that you put on your detective cap and I get my giant magnifying glass and we go see if we can find some clues. But this will likely still lead you to more questions that can only be answered by experienced scientists. Very few start-up designers have a luxury of having a biologist at the table. Scientific papers is the next best thing. Right now, I am taking my time with papers from medical fields and seeing if I can find correlation of challenges with biological systems. That means, a lot of science-related writings that can be extremely overwhelming to someone with an industrial design background.

What is science, anyway?

Academic Press Dictionary defines science as:

  1. the systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts.
  2. the organized body of knowledge that is derived from such observations and that can be verified or tested by further investigation.

Design process is not far behind: designers often observe user behaviours and habits, frame the design problem based on what’s learned from those observations, and then test and verify their design through prototypes and further engagement with users. However, there is an important distinction between science and design.

A diagram greatly influenced by Andy Adler (a biomedical engineering professor at Carleton University) and Peter Niewiarowski (a biology professor at University of Akron), eventually turned into this:

Peter Niewiarowski version

My final version

In science, the means of solving a particular phenomenon usually starts with stating a current scientific theory, deriving specific predictions, and testing these predictions to allow for falsifiability. The ultimate goal is to formulate a law or prove a theory.

In design, the means of learning about a natural law, process, system, behaviour starts with observation, identifying a challenge, formulating a design brief, and visualizing and testing. The ultimate goal is to solve a problem.

Design picks up where science leaves off. That is why it’s absolutely crucial to establish a clear language in the phase of design discovery.

How scientists communicate

Some of the best resources can be accessed through university library: books, technical reports, journal papers, conference proceedings. Right now, I am in the process of investigating rattan wood’s incredible structure that is very close to that of natural bone tissue, and a paper I found will be my stepping stone for deeper discoveries. After going through hundreds of journal papers, I’ve learned a few tricks that might be useful to designers:


The first author of the paper is usually the one who did most of the work. If you would like to find more information about this particular subject, he/she is definitely the one to contact. Senior author is the one in charge of funding for the project.


A very well formulated summary of the entire scientific paper can be found in an abstract along with goals of the project, methods of achieving them, and the main results. I always skim through an abstract before delving into the paper – it saves a lot of time and reveals many keywords and terminology that I google before really diving into the meat of the study (words overlaid in pink are candidates for googling).


The main portion of the paper is all about introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Methods section usually contains a lot of details that are extremely important to scientists to allow repeat experiments for falsifiability and can be quite overwhelming to non-scientists. The good news is that no results or discussion are allowed in this section, which means, designers may skip this part without suffering too much information loss.

Finally, I really recommend looking at S. Keshav’s ‘How to Read a Paper‘ article, which outlines a practical and efficient three-pass method for reading research papers.

The key idea is that you should read the paper in up to three passes, instead of starting at the beginning and plowing your way to the end. Each pass accomplishes specific goals and builds upon the previous pass: The first pass gives you a general idea about the paper. The second pass lets you grasp the paper’s content, but not its details. The third pass helps you understand the paper in depth.

Finally, not all journal papers are worth reading. But if I do find an excellent quality article, reference section is always ripe for plucking.

Liz Sanders – a visionary in applied design research – asserts that roles people play in the design process are changing, and this can be seen in the language we use. Design is also taking on increasingly collective forms, which will ultimately lead to collective generativity and cultural sustainability. Thus, it is absolutely crucial for designers to begin learning the language of scientists to move away from expert-driven design and toward greater co-experience of discovery phase.

7 thoughts on “BBC – 3.1: How to Read Scientific Papers

  1. Pingback: Translating the Wisdom of 3.8 Billion Years | Efficient vs Resilient Communication | Eco | Interface

  2. This is superb. Great to see a designer putting this together. Thanks for putting this together – I’m going to use it in class and see how my students go.

    p.s. what is the MDes program you’ve dived into?

  3. Pingback: Helping Designers Navigate Science « Bouncing Ideas

  4. Carl, today I began reading a book titled The Design Way by Harold Nelson. He brought up some very interesting differences and perhaps points of intersection between scientific and design ways of thinking. I especially liked his way of describing that which is “true” in scientific world, and that which is “real” in design world. I’d like to investigate this further and see if the the scientists and designers can find a common language through these terms.

    The MDes program is at Carleton University: master of interdisciplinary design. There is some very interesting research going on there: for example, one of the students is researching how the concept of musical jam sessions could help develop better collaboration techniques in design. I decided to go back to school, because, well, first of all, I love getting involved in design projects, working with students, finding an effective language between disciplines, and … sigh … science and design are not letting me sleep at night – I have to put on my detective cap and investigate!

  5. Your writing is lovely, and your writing about the process of process is with a lovely clarity.
    (Mine tends to wander a little too much, but I think that’s science too. Scientia.)
    Here’s something I am reading online : “Elizabeth Spiller identifies the early modern period as a
    moment of monumental transition from Aristotelian scientia to modern science and
    identifies, moreover, the critical role played by art in this transition: “Both classic
    and modern epistemologies of science exclude art,” Spiller writes, “but the crucial
    transition from the first to second was itself largely achieved by art. Art unexpectedly
    became the mediating term that made it possible for early modern intellectual
    culture to abandon Aristotelian scholasticism and move toward experimentalism
    and fact-based knowledge models…
    from The Machine in the Text

    Maybe art can move us towards re-integration.

  6. Barbara, I am so glad Tony sent me your article! It’s a pleasure to connect with someone as thoughtful and inquisitive about both science and art. A paper you shared with me grabbed my attention for the entire day as I devoured it, marking down all the books I now absolutely want and have to read.

    It was also quite refreshing to read about not only an indisputable influence of science on art, but also of art on science. A case study on sunspots made me smile and the quote about the gap between history and science reassured me of the flaws we have in educational system. There is a great professor at Carleton University – John Buschek, a superb chemist – he teaches Technology, Society, and Environment Studies. He also publishes books on poetry and has a great passion for literature. I will forward him this paper as he often laments about a constant disconnect between the disciplines.

  7. Pingback: The Culture Clash of Evaluation in Science and Design | Eco | Interface

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