On the role of design and education of designers.

(From a letter to a friend who has been working, writing and publishing on the problems of ‘design’.) Thorbjoern Mann, May 2015

I have been busy trying to communicate with the systems folks on LinkedIn about the role of argumentation in systems modeling — there seems to be an obstinate blind spot (or hole?) in their oh so holistic minds about that. I have yet to see a systems diagram in which the various issues (contentious questions, for example regarding assumptions of the model variables and parameters, about which people might disagree) are not somehow assumed to be ‘settled’. No more discussion. Curious, it is making me feel a little like someone trying to fill those open minds (they insist) with the precious grains of my speculations only to see them run out of the bottoms of those minds (there are holes top and bottom, and the bottom ones are larger?) like ocean sand.

So every once in a while I resort to wise books like the Designology volume you graciously sent me, for reassurance that the design perspective is one to be valued, respected, and further explored. I especially am fascinated by the heroic efforts in that book — and elsewhere — to identify and locate the proper role of design in the academic landscape of disciplines and departments. And the more I think about it, I sense how much of a monster this thing must look like from the point of view of, say, a ministry of education confronted with demands for proper designation of funds and personnel and labels (department names) let alone assignment of leadership roles to this ‘design’ phenomenon.

For it seems to be a little like that curious object some people have used to test prospective designers’ visual imagination: the thing that has a square profile if seen from one side, a triangle from another, and a circle from a third direction. Design indeed looks like a handful of different disciplines, depending on the angle from which it is seen. The literature is replete with complaints about the difficulty of agreeing on a common definition of design.

For example: Let’s say we start, arbitrarily, from some proposed explanation that design has something to do with problem solving. Looking at a problem as a discrepancy between a state of affairs as it IS (or will be, if nothing is done), and as it OUGHT to be, raising the need or desire to find out HOW it may be transformed from the former to the latter. A closer attention to the IS part may get us to look not only at the facts of the current situation and their adequate determination and description, but also at the causes that made things get this way, trying to understand the forces and laws at work in that process. This may have to do with physical aspects of reality, suggesting an approach like the scientific method of natural sciences to validate and understand it: Does this not look like Science? But not only science in the sense of the ‘hard’ natural sciences, because physical conditions and artifacts involved in problems have effects on people, their minds (psychological, physiological) and relations: Social science. The designer must have some adequate understanding of both ‘kinds’ of science in order to deal with the challenge of doing something meaningful about it.

Looking at the other end, though, the OUGHT aspect, a first impression that it also has a social sciences flavor — user needs, for example — soon gives way to a sense that there may be more esoteric aspects at work: vision, dreams, desires, imagination, aesthetics: aspects for which either science label clearly is not appropriate. In fact, the label OUGHT evokes connections to quite different disciplines: those that explore the good, morality, ethics, norms. So should design actually be situated in the philosophy department?

This is not a very common idea. Rather, it is the imagination aspect, or more specifically, the need to use visual images to communicate about the proposed results of this activity, that has led many to see the essence of design in the tools we have to help our own and the audience’s understanding and ability to ‘see’ proposed solutions: Drawing, model-building, perspective, rendering, with their closeness to painting and sculpture: Obviously: it’s (a kind of) an Art? Even given more recent tools of computer programs for virtual visual walk-through presentations. This is a historically a more widely embraced notion.

However, there are more, less ‘artistic’ tools designers need to persuasively present solution ideas to clients and the public. Proofs of validity, affordability, safety: diagrams, calculations. More like the tools engineers are using?

Wait: persuasion? Yes, designers will have to spend some effort trying to convince others of the advantages of the solution — mainly the ones who are expected to pay for its implementation. This is partly the stuff of ‘storytelling’ many design teachers admonish their students to cultivate — what will it be like to live in this great proposed solution? But also, when things are heating up, of argumentation: exploring, discussing the pros and cons of the proposals.

Arguments? Doesn’t that have to do with logic, rhetoric? But the disciplines in charge of argumentation haven’t paid much attention to the kinds of arguments we are using all the time in the design and planning discourse, so they do not have much room for the concerns of design in their curricula — but it’s argumentation, all right. Even the structure of these ‘planning arguments’ clearly indicate the multifaceted nature of the concerns involved:

“We ought to adopt proposal X
1) implementing X will result in consequence Y provided conditions C are given;
2) we ought to pursue consequence Y,
3) conditions C are indeed present?”

This ubiquitous argument pattern (of course there are many variations due to different assertion / negation of terms, and different relations between X and Y) contains at least two or three different kinds of premises: the factual-instrumental premise 1, the deontic premise 2, and the factual premise claim 3. If questioned, each of these will have to be supported with very different kinds of reasons: the kind of evidence we could loosely call scientific method for premises 1 and 3, but based on conceptual agreements about the meaning of the things we are talking about. Reasons which employ arguments found in the familiar catalogues of reliable logical and statistical inference, observation, data-gathering, measurement. A closer scrutiny of the catch-all premise 3 might reveal that the conditions C include all the variables, values, and relationship parameters of a systems model. The ‘Systems Thinking’ community (referring to a variety of different emerging ‘brands’ of systems studies) would this argue that holistic understanding and modeling of the systems into which designers are intervening is a necessity, and this is the concern of premises 1 and especially 3.

But for premise 2, the supporting arguments will be of the same kind of ‘planning argument’ type. From the point of view of formal logic, these arguments are not ‘valid’ in the sense of deductive syllogisms whose conclusions must be accepted as true if all the premises are true. They are merely ‘inconclusive’ at best, no matter how recklessly we use and accept this kind of reasoning in everyday planning discourse. That very recklessness being a strong argument in favor of designers studying such reasoning more carefully than is currently the case… What to call this perspective?

Coming back to the impression that design is more like engineering. There is good evidence for this: the question of HOW to transform the unpleasant IS condition to the desirable OUGHT requires the application of scientific knowledge — science, again — to the task of putting together tools, processes, resources to generate solutions and to evaluate them, test them to see if they will meet the requirements and withstand damaging forces. And in the production of modern architecture, there are many different kinds of engineers involved — engineering had to divide itself into many different sub-disciplines, each drawing on their own branch of science. The available and needed knowledge has become too rich and complex for any single professional to master them all. This means that effecive coordination of all these activities in the design process requires at least an adequate understanding of the different engineering branches and their vocabulary, concerns, criteria, to make sense of it all. Ideally. So perhaps it was appropriate for many architecture schools to be located in Institutes of Technology rather that in art schools such as the Beaux Arts?

The successful practitioners of this kind of art, though, (the ones who consistently win commissions for significant work) find themselves facing a quite different challenge: that of running a business. And some of the well-known sources of jokes about architects refer to their frequent troubles of this kind. For example: meeting deadlines: time management, and even more seriously, staying within the budget. A case for including more management, business and economics material in the education of designers?

What, besides an understanding of engineering, business, and economics, — we might as well throw in the various disciplines exploring the aspect of sustainability and ecological impact of their buildings — does this mean for the poor architects? The ones who got through architecture school even in spite of the required structures courses that gave their artistic minds so much trouble? It becomes a very different activity: to guide and orchestrate — the word is very apt for the assembly of different disciplines and professions — the activities of all these people in the design process. Not only there, but of course also in the subsequent implementation process, with different professionals. The architect there has to become a project manager — if he hasn’t given up that role to yet another, different profession. But a good design has to take the implementation process into account as an important determining factor: if it can’t be built, if it takes too long, if there are too many possibilities of accidents or failures along the way, his prospects for successful creation of solutions are slim.

Creating, designing, then, involves all these considerations and skills. And while this little sketch considered only the architect of buildings (the word ‘architect’ has been taken over by many other ‘designing’ roles such as software developers and even turned into a verb; old Vitruvius must be rotating in his grave) it should be easy to see how this multiple perspective feature applies to many other areas of modern life. Yes: for the academic department designer, ‘design’ is a monster, and the proper role and placement of design education is a very wicked problem.

It raises a number of important questions for how research (the science of design) and education for all the professions that will have to deal with design ought to be organized, funded and guided. The current confused attitude and treatment — best characterized as the infamous ‘benevolent negligence’ quip by Senator Moynihan about race relations — perhaps has the advantage that many different people in many different realms are forced to creatively deal with it. But it can’t, by any measure, be called a convincing, efficient design. This very point, in my opinion, is calling for increased attention and discussion. Perhaps a conference? A research project (if research is the proper word, after all these questions…)? A ‘design’ competition? A large online public planning discourse?



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