Known by a variety of terms, practice-led research is a conceptual framework that allows a researcher to incorporate their creative practice, creative methods and creative output into the research design and as a part of the research output.
Smith and Dean note that practice-led research arises out of two related ideas. Firstly, "that creative work in itself is a form of research and generates detectable research outputs" (2009, p5). The product of creative work itself contributes to the outcomes of a research process and contributes to the answer of a research question. Secondly, "creative practice -- the training and specialised knowledge that creative practitioners have and the processes they engage in when they are making art -- can lead to specialised research insights which can then be generalised and written up as research" (2009, p5). Smith and Dean's point here is that the content and processes of a creative practice generate knowledge and innovations that are different to, but complementary with, other research styles and methods. Practice-led research projects are undertaken across all creative disciplines and, as a result, the approach is very flexible in its implementation able to incorporate a variety of methodologies and methods within its bounds.
Most commonly, a practice-led research project consists of two components: a creative output and a text component, commonly referred to as an exegesis. The two components are not independent, but interact and work together to address the research question. The ECU guidelines for examiners states that the practice-led approach to research is
... based upon the perspective that creative art practices are alternative forms of knowledge embedded in investigation processes and methodologies of the various disciplines of performance … the visual and audio arts, design and creative writing ("Guidelines and Examination Report for Examination of Doctor of Philosophy theses in creative research disciplines," para. 1).
A helpful way to understand this is to think of practice-led research as an approach that allows you to incorporate your creative practices into the research, legitimises the knowledge they reveal and endorses the methodologies, methods and research tools that are characteristic of your discipline.
Additional advice and guidance on the nature and implementation of a practice-led research project may be sought from your supervisors and from the research consultants.