The What, Why, and How of the Research Design Canvas

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

What is the research design canvas? Why did I create it? And how can it help you?

In preparation for my forthcoming book, Design a Better Thesis, I’ve started this blog to explain what the research design canvas is, why I created it, and how it can help you to understand academic research and have a successful Thesis journey.

What is the Research Design Canvas?

The research design canvas is a pre-structured canvas comprised of key building blocks. The 10 building blocks are Problem / Phenomenon, Assumptions / Paradigms, Literatures, Observations & Arguments, Research Questions, Theory, Methodology / Design, Methods, Sample / Context, and Contributions. Each building block contains corresponding questions and each question represents a decision or choice that will guide your thinking and approach to your Thesis.

The research design canvas is a multiple purpose tool to learn, teach, and evaluate research. In future blog posts I'll be elaborating upon these various uses of the research design canvas. This includes the function of the research design canvas as:

A Simplification Device, A Focusing Device, A Content Producing & Idea Generation Space, A Sensemaking Lens, A Communication Instrument, A Collaboration Tool, and A Reflection Space.

For today, let's start with the research design canvas as a Simplification Device.

Academic research is complex. For the novice researcher or newly commenting doctoral or research masters student, the number and complexity of ideas and different components that academic comprise research can be overwhelming. By acknowledging the 10 building blocks, considering the targeted questions, and bringing these together on a pre-structured canvas, we can instantly simplify academic research and the Thesis.

The Research Design Canvas and 10 Canvas Building Blocks.

Why did I create the Research Design Canvas?

Are you finding your Thesis is easy? Neither did I. Did you instantly and intuitively understand academic research and how to do it? Me neither. Have you had at least some times during your Thesis journey where you felt stressed out, worried, or anxious? So did I. I'll elaborate upon the problems I personally encountered in future blog posts and how the canvas helps overcome them, but for now I'll just make a simple point. The primary reason why I created the research design canvas was because I wanted to provide an intuitive tool that would help those completing a PhD, Doctoral Degree, or Research Masters to have a more enjoyable journey and to write a better Thesis.

The second reason is also quite simple. I teach research classes and supervise research students. If you think it's difficult to understand what methodology and methods are, what a literature review is and how to do it, what theory means and what its role in research might be, or the potential importance of paradigms, imagine how difficult it is to explain and communicate this complexity to others! And that's just the individual parts - helping others to understand the relationships between them is even more challenging (but arguably more important). So I spent hours of weekends and evenings for the past 5 years creating a tool which would simplify academic research and make it more intuitive to grasp.

The third reason? Have you heard of the Business Model Canvas? It's been downloaded 5 million times from The business model canvas provided the initial inspiration for the research design canvas. 6 years ago a friend-of-a-friend sat down with me to chat about an idea for a business I had. She sketched out the 9 building blocks of the business model canvas to help me simplify and bring together my disorganised and poorly articulated ideas. I didn't ultimately pursue the business idea but from that experience I knew that I wanted to create the research design canvas to help others to understand academic research and design their Thesis.

One of the reasons I created The Research Design Canvas - inspiration from The Business Model Canvas.

How can the Research Design Canvas help you?

In lot's of ways! In future blog posts I'll be writing in more depth about the various ways that the research design canvas can help you. Now I'll briefly mention just two.

First, the research design canvas will help you to bring together the different parts of your still developing Thesis on a single pre-structured page by encouraging you to contemplate and then try to answer a number of targeted questions. This is invaluable because we often spend too much time working in A4 documents - whether in digital form on our computer or in the hard copies that we print off to read through and improve. Those documents - such as a research proposal, draft chapters, or work-in-progress documents, are often long and spread across multiple pages. In most cases we'll have worked on different sections at different times, sometimes months apart. They also involve an incredible amount of detail and complex ideas.

Bringing together and summarising those ideas and all that hard work on the research design canvas will help you see the big picture - providing you with a one page structured summary of where you are at any given time during your Thesis. It's likely that this will be the first time that you've ever seen all the moving parts of your Thesis together. As you'll see when completing the canvas for the first time, this will be an eye opening experience and I'll guarantee that you'll take something value away from it - a new insight, a problem you didn't see before, a connection you hadn't thought about, or a question that is revealed or answered.

Second, the research design canvas will help you learn about academic research. Whether your Thesis is for a PhD, Professional Doctorate, other Doctoral Degree, or Research Masters - using the canvas will help you to better appreciate the key components of academic research in terms of the choices and decisions that you will have to take. How well can you answer the questions? Can you complete all of the building blocks? Are they are equally important in your discipline and topic area? Are there some questions that you haven't considered or faced before? Has filling out the canvas for the first time revealed some gaps in your knowledge or areas for further work? What you learn will depend upon what stage of the journey you are currently at and how much experience you've had grappling with the questions before.

The only way to answer these questions and take stock of where you are in your Thesis journey is to have a go at filling it out. Download the canvas here. Print. Make your first attempt at completing it. Take a break. Reflect. Then choose the next step to take...


742 views1 comment

Copyright Ben Ellway and Academic Toolkit.

Privacy Policy.



  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Facebook Social Icon
  • LinkedIn Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon