In 2011 one quarter of all articles published in Design Studies and the Journal of Engineering Design used experimental studies. However, there is little work exploring the relationship between laboratory and practice. This paper addresses this by detailing an analysis of designer activity in three situations commonly studied by design researchers: information seeking, ideation and design review. This comparison is instantiated through three complementary studies: an observational study of practice and two experimental studies. These reveal a range of similarities and differences that are described using a mixed methods approach. Based on this it is concluded that laboratory studies are important research tools and that clear and definable relationships do exist between design activity in practice and the laboratory. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.