Terrific news! The new issue of She Ji: The Journal of Design Economics and Innovation is out today, and it features an article I wrote with Erik Stolterman. Check it out here:
I’ve added some new pages — well one new page and a few revised page names — to the site! I’m really excited about the new page: the theory project. It is one of the outcomes of a research project that I’ve been involved in for the past couple years examining theory from various aspects.
So far we’ve been asking questions like (1) whether there can be scientific theories about the design process, (2) how theories are used in design research and hci research publications, (3) whether there can be theoretical cohesion or consensus in multidisciplinary fields of study, and (4) how researchers talk about the theory-practice gap.
Last year we started publishing some of the outcomes of this work and more are on the way this year!
But in the interest of sharing some of the resources that we have accumulated and maybe kindling some interest from potential collaborators, I’ve gone ahead and created a page containing 250ish texts that form a substantial collection of readings on theory. If you’re interested in theory (its meanings, the implications of these meanings for research and practice, etc.) then check out the bibliography and get in touch so that we can talk more about this relevant and fascinating topic.
I’ve been thinking over these last few days about just what we mean when we say “design research.” Does saying we do design research or that we are design researchers imply that we do a different kind of research? Does it mean that as design researchers we make a unique intellectual contribution to the realms of scholarship and practice that couldn’t be made by psychologists, sociologists, linguists, or cognitive scientists?
I want to make sure I’m not being misinterpreted here, and so I need to clarify that when I say “design research,” I do not mean, “design inquiry.” I think these are two different things. Design inquiry is unique. It is distinct from other kinds of inquiry. If design researchers practiced design inquiry, then perhaps their contributions (in terms of methods or methodics) would be a unique contribution to the intellectual landscape.
But to my knowledge doing design inquiry is not part and parcel of design research. In fact, it’s maybe only essential to research-through-design, which currently enjoys a kind of pariah status (at least informally) in the design research community. So, is design research writ large just a lot of scholars working “on a common theme but [from] different disciplinary perspectives” (Gibbons et al. 2006 on p.28)? A cursory look at the TOC of some design conference proceedings might support an answer in the affirmative. And if so, then what are the implications for the field?
Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (2006). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications Ltd.
One of my summer research projects has to do with knowledge claims in design research publications. The question stems from an interest in understanding the similarities and differences between how knowledge claims are formulated in design research publications as opposed to natural and/or social scientific research. One would expect there to be some overlap as there is scientific work done in design research. In fact, there are lots of different kinds of researchers publishing in design journals so one might expect to see a variety of kinds of knowledge claims (claims with different ontological and epistemological underpinnings) being made in a given journal or conference. But what (if anything) sets a knowledge claim in design research apart from knowledge claims in the natural and social sciences? A preliminary observation is that within some articles there are a variety of different kinds of knowledge claims that have conflicting epistemological and ontological underpinnings. How do we account for this variety? And what are its implications for publishing in design research?
I’m really excited to have the opportunity to travel to Paris this coming April to present a paper written with Erik Stolterman at the 2015 EAD conference. Our paper is part of the design theory / design philosophy track, which you can read more about here. The paper abstract follows:
This paper asks, Can there be scientific theories of design that do not scientize design? And it answers in the affirmative. Not only can there be scientific theories of design that do not scientize design but also that a scientific lens can potentially reveal important aspects of the design process. We apply Karl Popper’s criteria for the scientific status of a theory to four seminal theories of the design process: Bounded Rationality, FBS Framework, Figural Complexity, and C-K Theory. We demonstrate that (1) some theories about design can be construed as scientific in Popper’s terms, and that (2) these theories do not “scientize” the design process.
I will post a version of the paper to my academia.edu page for those interested in reading it.
Erik Stolterman and I are currently working on a paper about design theory and design research. When I gave a recent presentation of our progress, I discussed the origin of the ideas for the paper. I located the origin in conversations we’d had during the last academic year; conversations that centered on the gap between “theory” and practice. I put theory in quotes because it really is a synonym for academia. There is a gap between academia and professional practice, which is to say that there is a gap between the work design researchers are doing and the work that designers are doing in the private (i.e. non-academic) sector.
As we make progress on our paper, I find myself wondering about interesting things that I want to share here. So, first, how do designers in the private sector use theory in their everyday work? I know they do. They have to. To some degree, everyone uses theory in their day-to-day lives. How do designers think about/understand theory? My understanding of it is probably naive and incomplete; it’s a work in progress But I can articulate it thanks to the help of other thinkers.
Theory is the thing that helps us “go beyond observation of a phenomena towards explanations of how and why given phenomena occur.”  Theory is an “ordered set of assertions about some generic behavior or structure assumed to hold throughout a wide range of specific instances.”  Ken Friedman’s definition (the former) is perhaps more useful than Karl Weick’s (the latter) in forging a connection between theory and non-academic design practice. Don’t designers go beyond observation of phenomena all the time? When designers create a design, isn’t that design one of the key constructs in a theory about why or how some artificial phenomenon (might) occur in the future? Of course it is.
Perhaps the more interesting/relevant question is, What does framing a design as a key construct in a theory about some future phenomenon do for the designer? How is this useful?
I’d welcome any answers (or challenges or suggested revisions) to these questions. I have some thoughts in mind, but I’ll save those for the next entry.
Referenced material/suggested reading:
1. Friedman, K. (2003). Theory construction in design research: criteria: approaches, and methods. Design studies, 24(6), 507-522.
2. Weick, K. E. (1989). Theory construction as disciplined imagination. Academy of management review, 14(4), 516-531.
I’ve been thinking about a question put forth by people smarter than me about Design. John Heskett articulates it best:
[Why has design] never cohered into a unified profession, such as law, medicine, or architecture, where a license or similar qualification is required to practice…? 
I’m wondering if an answer to this question isn’t veiled in another widely argued–if not accepted–truth about design. Namely, that it is a basic human activity.
It is our very ability to design that determines our humanness. 
Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human. 
I don’t have a fully formed answer, here. So if you’re expecting something more articulate, now would be the time to recalibrate your expectations. But consider this: law and medicine are not basic characteristics of what it means to be human, nor does our ability to practice these things determine our humanness. Since these are not basic characteristics of what it means to be human, it seems to me that the licensure/qualification procedures, the governing bodies, and the gaining of entry through “regulated procedures”  are necessary whereas the same cannot be said of design.
Nelson and Stolterman state that “everyone is designing most of the time,” which implies that licensure/qualification need not extend beyond birth. Is design, then, a birthright imposing no prerequisite knowledge or skills or tools in order to act (as a designer) other than the possession of life? Echoing the sentiments of the aforementioned authors, Klaus Krippendorff articulates it perfectly with the claim that, “Design is intrinsically motivating and a constitutionally human activity, it is not the privilege of a profession.” [3, emphasis added]
This does not mean that a design profession categorically does not, should not, or cannot exist in the same way as Law or Medicine. But it may have interesting implications for what that profession looks like and how we might go about licensing (or qualifying) individuals in order to be part of it. It may have implications for regulating procedures for admitting designers into the profession. It may have implications for using a term like “unified” to describe the profession.
What if Law or Medicine were constitutionally human activities? What if they were not the privilege of professions? How would they change?
 Heskett, J. (2005). Design: A very short introduction. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.
 Nelson, H., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world. (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
 Krippendorff, K. (2000). Human-centered design; a cultural necessity. Unpublished manuscript, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.