What is design?

As part of establishing the theoretical building blocks for my thesis I have been writing a position on design, and design research. To my surprise a debate about the nature of both has spring up again on the PhD Design list, I say surprise because I sort of thought that the discourse had stabilized somewhat, but it seems not. I have enjoyed articulating my own position (heavily influenced of course by a range of excellent existing work by others) because it really frees me up from feeling a need to define design in any hard way, but it puts the emphasis in all the right places (for me anyway). In the draft Chapter (Entitled Perspectives on Design Research) I begin with three positions on ‘design practice’ that act as the pillars of my discussion on design research that follows; they are: design  is flexible, design is social and design is situated. I share those three (draft) pillars here.

1.0.1    Design is flexible
While this thesis seeks to contribute to the discipline of design, it takes as a given that there is no single definition for design. In a discussion on the nature of design Buchanan describes design as a “supple discipline, amenable to radically different interpretations in philosophy as well as in practice” (Buchanan 1992, p. 19). The multiple places and ways in which the term design is used demonstrates the inherent flexibility of the activity of design. Importantly Buchanan identifies that in part, the changing ways in which we perceive design are dependent on the changing subject matter of design itself. For Buchanan the following examples represent different interpretations of subject matter in design over recent decades, symbolic and visual, material objects, activities and organized services, complex systems and environments (ibid). Part of the essence of design then is in the interdeterminancy of its subject matter. This is significant because it enables us to understand that design as a discipline cannot be reduced to a single definition, rather it evolves in response to the changing subject matter.

1.0.2     Design is social
Discussions on design often focus on the object of design, the product, technology or service. But it is not only the construction of the artifact that concerns us as designers. Rather design concerns itself with how people live in the world. The following statement by Gropius demonstrates this perspective on design:
our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life…” (Walter Gropius reflecting on the founding of the Bauhaus in 1937 (Gropius 1970, p. 20))

Design as a practice is caught up in the ongoing and ill defined business of real life (Ehn 1988). For this reason it matters deeply how we go about design, and what philosophical approaches or perspectives underlie our design practice (Robertson 2006). This position is expanded later in this chapter in relation to methods, and Participatory Design as a methodological framework for design.

1.0.3    Design as a situated practice
Finally, it is a premise of this thesis that design is a discipline constituted in the actual, the specific, and the particular (Buchanan 1992; Stolterman 2008). Doing design means dealing  with the actual and concrete. For this reason design has been labeled as complex (Stolterman 2008), messy (Schön 1983) and wicked (Buchanan 1992). Designers are required to accommodate the specific and unique conditions of the task at hand (Stolterman 2008, p. 62). Correspondingly design as a discipline refuses to be reduced to one or even a few models or definitions. Importantly, design is not prescriptive. Rather, design is a process of learning, of iteration, of reflection, and of negotiation with the specificities of the world (Schön 1983). This understanding of the situated nature of design practice impacts on how we consider, and go about doing, research in the realm of design.

Buchanan, R. 1992, ‘Wicked Problems in Design Thinking’, Design Issues, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 5-21.
Ehn, P. 1988, Work-Orientated Design of Computer Artifacts, Arbetslivscentrum, Stockholm.
Gropius, W. 1970, Scope of Total Architecture, New York.
Robertson, T. 2006, ‘Ethical Issues in Interaction Design’, Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 8, no. 2.
Schön, D.A. 1983, The Reflective Practitioner, Basic Books.
Stolterman, E. 2008, ‘The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research’, International Journal of Design, vol. 2, no. 1.


One Comment

  1. “the ongoing and ill defined business of real life”

    …what a great phrase.

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