Sources of design
T Binder, J Redström 2006 Design Research Society . International Conference in Lisbon
But what are the marks of excellence of such research and how can it claim its relevance and ensure credibility of its results? How does the knowledge produced relate to design itself? In search for answers to these questions, we will briefly survey three well-known yet seemingly orthogonal sources of knowledge production related to design.
The first source, often called design theory, has its origin in art history and literature theory, and takes as its starting point design to be the aesthetic production of form associated with such well established genres as graphics design, industrial design, fashion design, textile design or ceramics. Design theory seek to produce knowledge about the results of what designers do, and organize this knowledge into theories about what constitutes a design and how designs are operating in a societal context [e.g. Greenhalgh, 1990]. Design theory may even provide us with insights into design as a cultural phenomenon, and contribute to our understanding of how people make sense of designed objects [e.g. Attfield, 2000]. Within the framework of design theory the knowledge interest is primarily to shed light on the field of design as aesthetic expressions of socio-culturalconditions, and like the relation between art and art theory, there is typically no ambition of producing knowledge that is in any way operative to the designer.
Our second source developed during the 1970’s and 1980’s with the interest in what computer technology could bring to the way designers work. This tradition, often referred to as design studies, focuses on the act of designing and has mainly through protocol analysis sought to establish knowledge about reasoning, representation and choice as the designer takes him or herself through a design assignment, like documented for example in [Goldschmidt and Porter 2000]. The knowledge interest in design studies is primarily to develop models of design thinking that help to identify how such thinking can be facilitated, or even rationalized. More lately anthropological studies of designing in real life settings has been taken up in this tradition [e.g. Cuff, 1992], but with a very few exceptions like [Porter, 1988]. design studies do not put particular emphasize on what is designed. The objectives in this tradition include providing a better understanding of the environment in which designing takes place, as for example in educational settings [Schön, 1987], but the tradition is not prescriptive in the sense that it aims at improving the way designers work. Though the studies may contribute to the designers understanding of their own work, and thus to a more reflective attitude, it produces at best a foundational contribution to the epistemological question of how designers know.
The third source of knowledge about design and designing that we will point to, is the tradition often associated to the notion of a science of the artificial. In this tradition, ‘design’ is used as a broad term covering all those professionals that in Herbert Simon’s terms are engaged in changing “existing states into preferred ones”. Two characteristics have to be taken into account according to this tradition [Simon, 1969]. First designing must be understood as directed towards solving societal problems, where solutions are conditioned by the constraints provided by other problems and solutions and the resources made available. This means that solving problems has to produce ‘good enough’ rather than ‘true’ solutions. Second, the outcome of designing is ‘artificial’ in the sense that design devises artefacts that interface social and natural systems according to intentions and goals, i.e., essentially man-made.
Unlike design studies, the idea of a design science does not work from within the minds and bodies of designers, but concerns itself with understanding methods and procedures that can ensure that what designers do lead to intended results. A design science must provide the basis for analysis of design-relevant problems and decomposition and abstraction of goals into generic sub-goals. In parallel rational methods must be devised that makes it possible to establish choice opportunities in a generalized solution space. The knowledge interest is here how to govern and control rational problem-solving, and provide rational methods that designers and others can apply in order to arrive at “good enough” solutions. Unlike the other two traditions mentioned, knowledge production is here directed towards prescribing procedures and strategies for designers to follow. Yet these are rather measures of guidance and control than actually depicting the way through which designing is accomplished.
Whereas these three different threads of knowledge production surely contribute to our understanding of design, it is striking how they are mutually incompatible and all employ what could be called an observer perspective. Design theory can tell us about how the works of designers are part of cultural systems of aesthetic expression and experience. Research claims can be contested through alternative readings of the works and their participation in larger societal and historical contexts. But turning such insight into operative knowledge in designing would violate the essential premise of the autonomy of the design work. Design studies can give us essential knowledge about the reasoning and acting of designers that form the core of design as professional practice. This may lead us to a better understanding of how designing can be taught and in what ways new tools may be adapted by designers. We can however not derive from design studies any valid claims about what designers need to know. Even less can claims be made concerning what designers can do, as this would presuppose an inclusion of conceptualizations either of a generic nature of design or of the goals and experiential qualities inherent in works of design against which these claims could be evaluated. Finally a design science of the kind nurtured in the tradition of Simon’s “science of the artificial” can provide us with “checks and balances” as to whether design work is instrumental to the accomplishment of societal ends and is accountable to structures of rational choice. There is however no way that a design science of this kind can tell us if this work can actually be sensitively done by designers, or how this instrumentality can be embodied in aesthetically comprehensible form.
These ‘short comings’ are not in any way coincidental, but rather inherent to the research perspectives applied within the three traditions. For a design research aiming at exploring new terrain for design and designers these traditions fail to provide a participant perspective that allows for an integrated approach to experience, ethos and instrumentality. Such an approach will need to be informed by, and prove its compatibility with, scholarly research of the kind that the three traditions provide, but it must acquire its relevance and credibility through other strategies. In what follows, we will present one way this could be done.