Understanding Designing

How can we achieve a deeper understanding of designing

There are many ways to answer that question. We can achieve a deeper understanding by engaging in a design process, by reading about design, by critiquing designs (or designing)… all roads of inquiry lead hopefully to one thing: deeper understanding. Achieving one step closer to a thing about which we’re curious. [I like the “step” metaphor, which is not mine, by the way. I once asked a friend why he’d been listening to Mozart for the last thirty years. He said, “Because each time I do I get closer to him.” Achieving a deeper understanding of anything puts us one (perhaps many) step(s) closer to it. But there are many ways to take the steps. So, how do you decide?]

How do you determine whether to design, read about design, critique designs, or scrutinize design theories? How do you decide whether to take a philosophical approach, a scientific approach, or a designerly approach? None of these are really easy questions, so don’t expect any easy (or for that matter well-formulated) answers.

I met Karl Popper for the first time last year. I know. 30 years old and I’d never read Popper before. Or Thomas Kuhn for that matter. Boy did I miss out. But no longer! Anyway, I’m still getting to know Popper but he and I have something in common. We’re both curious about what it means to “be” something. Popper was curious about what it meant for a theory to be scientific as opposed to something else. I was curious about what it means for a theory to be designerly as opposed to something else.

Our overlapping interests fit together quite nicely in a (thankfully still current) discourse within the design community about the relationship between design and science. You see, since design is a relatively new “discipline,” it is helpful to compare and contrast it with more mature disciplines like science in order to establish its “own” identity. Among others, I know at least the philosopher Martin Buber wrote about distancing and relating as methods for ascertaining identity. In what ways is design different from science (distancing) and in what ways is it similar (relating). If I had to speculate, I’d say that the pendulum is swinging towards relating at this moment.

But the relating questions asked, right now, maybe have less to do with what design and science have in common and more to do with how to negotiate the relationship between them. What can science do for design? What can design do for science? Maybe negotiate is the wrong word. Maybe optimize is better. Regardless, both are valuable questions. Both equally meritorious of answers. Both signify a shift in thinking about design and science not as competitors but as teammates.

It’s possible to use scientific and philosophical-scientific approaches to study design in ways that help the design research community attain a deeper understanding of the object of its inquiry. And this is how Erik Stolterman and I are going about it at the moment. In our work, we don’t suggest that what science has trumps what design has. But we are saying that science offers design something worthwhile and interesting.

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