Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of the Design Education Association, Cardiff March 14 2002.

Work of this kind is by its nature collaborative. Many people have contributed to it. In particular, I would like to thank Dr Ruth Shrensky, my partner and collaborator on many things. While I was asleep in the UK, Ruth, in Australia, edited the final draft of this paper.
My thanks also to Coventry University for their support while I was undertaking some of the research for this paper. In particular, I would like to thank Clive Richards for his invitation to give this paper and for his encouragement of my work in this area.
Finally, to all my colleagues at the Institute. This work grows out of our collaborations.

Divine design

If we begin with Genesis, as all explorations of design history should, then we discover that at that time there was only one designer. God, who created the world.

Plafond de la Chapelle Sixtine

By the time we get to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, we find that Holy Scripture—the report on God’s design project—is being questioned.

To pluck just one set of arguments from the time, Gallileo—as a devout Christian—accepted that God’s write-up of his project was a true account of events. But—as a proto-scientist—Gallileo argued that God had left us another text to read: the production version of the design, the natural world. This production version, he opined, could be read like Holy Scripture, as the authentic word of God; it just required a different kind of reading. Where he got into trouble with the Church was to suggest that in any dispute between the readings of the project report and the reading of the production version, the production version should prevail.

But Gallileo still accepted that there was only one designer, and that the only project we humans could undertake was to reveal and celebrate the grand design. This was the project of natural philosophy for most of its history to the present day. What we now call science and philosophy are the outcomes of this project. Scientific methods and the careful reasoning by philosophers were created to reveal God’s design, the world as we find it.

Human design

In the 19th Century a new type of human, as opposed to divine, project suggested itself—most eloquently and simply expressed by Karl Marx when he said:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it. (Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach, 1845)

What Marx and his contemporaries saw in the cities and factories was a humanly-created world, not a natural world created by God. And, like many of his contemporaries, Marx did not like the world he saw. But he realised that changing it was not only a different project than describing the world, but a project that required different methods and different ways of thinking.

At this remove, we might consider Marx’s design methods and philosophy to have been unsuccessful. But it is important to see his work as a contribution to design methods and an important part of design history, even though, we would now agree, he had a limited view of the range of factors that a designer needs to take into account.

In the 20th Century we see emerging a much more elaborated sensibility about design:

Design has many connotations. It is the organisation of materials and processes in the most productive, economic way, in a harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function. It is not a matter of facade, of mere external appearance; rather it is the essence of products and institutions, penetrating and comprehensive. Designing is a complex and intricate task. It is the integration of technological, social and economic requirements, biological necessities, and the psychophysical effects of materials, shape, colour, volume, and space: thinking in relationships (Moholy-Nagy 1947).

And with this sensibility, we now find ourselves on the threshold of our greatest design challenge so far. The following quote is from the opening paragraph of an article that recently appeared in Harper’s Magazine:

Biology once was regarded as a languid, largely descriptive discipline, a passive science that was content, for much of its history, merely to observe the natural world rather than change it. No longer. Today biology, armed with the power of genetics, has replaced physics as the activist Science of the Century, and it stands poised to assume godlike powers of creation, calling forth artificial forms of life.

The article goes on to suggest that the basic science on which genetic engineering—or as we might call it, genetic redesign, or even genetic makeover—is out of date. Projects like the human genome project and much of the work on animal and plant genetics are based on the classic assumption that inherited characteristics are wholly determined by the primary genetic material, DNA.

More recent research suggests that some inherited characteristics are expressed by proteins that are manufactured in the cell, as a secondary process in the replication of DNA. In other words Genetic makeovers do not take account of contemporary scientific findings that add a more ‘penetrating and comprehensive’ understanding of the ‘complex and intricate task’ that is genetic redesign.

The article concludes—echoing perhaps the same type of fears that were voiced about the possible consequences of Marx’s social design project:

What the public fears is not the experimental science but the fundamentally irrational decision to let it out of the laboratory into the real world before we truly understand it.

Might the attempts today at redesigning biological systems be as disastrous as yesterdays’ attempts to redesign social systems? Might the attempt result in something far less than Moholy-Nagy’s “harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function”? Might indeed the consequences be catastrophic?

Having moved from an ancient view of a single divine designer, to a contemporary view where we are prepared to consider designing anything ourselves—even life itself—it should come as no surprise to any of us that design—its nature, processes, and consequences—is likely to become the principle intellectual preoccupation of our time.

Our challenge: merging design and philosophy

Meeting the The challenge for us as design researchers and educators is to draw on our knowledge and experience to provide the necessary intellectual leadership for our time.

With that in mind, I would like to share with you some of my thinking on this issue in the hope that it can contribute to our collective deliberations at this conference.

I begin with an idea that I have been working on for some time namely that design thinking and philosophical thinking could merge into a single body of thought and practice.

In this paper I shall trace some of the threads that led me to this idea, and spell out some of its consequences. Necessarily in this paper I can do no more than signpost the more detailed arguments that lie elsewhere in my own work and in the work of others who seem to be heading in the same direction. But I hope I can give you a road map, as it were, for you to see the broad outline of the idea, and some of the practical consequences for our teaching and practice.

Let me begin with two assertions and one statement of principle. The first assertion is that, for me, designing is our most developed form of practical adaptation to our environment. It is the means by which we, as biological entities, change to meet the demands of our environment, and make changes to our environment to adapt it to our needs. My second assertion is that philosophising is our most developed form of practical reasoning. It is the means by which we wonder about our nature and try to make sense of what we do. Note that I treat both as activities—things we do—rather than objects—things we apprehend.

By defining designing and philosophising in this way, you can see why I might consider a merging of the two not only possible but desirable, even inevitable.

In the development of my thinking I have been guided by the principle of parsimony or Occam’s razor: what is the simplest set of ideas necessary to answer the question.

Without going into detail (indeed the principle of parsimony itself discourages me from doing so!), I would suggest that this choice of guiding principle puts me at odds with much contemporary philosophising and theorising which seems to see its task as one of endless elaboration. Therefore, if you are looking for signposts to post modernism, you will not find them here.

However, you should not regard my parsimony as reductionist. I am aware of the interdependent complexity of our world. I just don’t believe that my task as an intellectual is to add to it. Where possible, I take my task as providing some useful synthesis.

In exploring the connection between philosophising and designing, I have been interested in their similarities of action and methods. In this exploration I have been drawn to the philosophy of language and in particular the insights and methods developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his later work, most notably in the Philosophical Investigations.

I have been drawn to the philosophy of language, partly because of my specific interest in information design, but more broadly because of my interest in the nature of the things we construct as designers. Language, in its broadest sense, is one of our most ancient, elaborate, and sophisticated constructions. How we think about language has a lot to offer us in how we can think about the other things we construct.

One of Wittgenstein’s most important contributions to the philosophy of language was to argue that language is something we do rather than an object for us to contemplate. So, even though we might refer to language as a ‘construction’—something we create—it is always to be seen as a construction in process, an unfinished and unfinishable project, the nature of which is renewed and transformed as it is used. Indeed its nature is in its usage. Wittgenstein goes on to argue and demonstrate that many traditional ‘problems’ in philosophy are the result of inappropriate usage of language. In much of his later work he shows that many seemingly intractable philosophical problems disappear when he applies to them his own methods of analysis.

For me, there is an uncanny and compelling similarity between Wittgenstein’s analysis of and ‘therapy’ for the use of language, and the kinds of analysis and problem solving that designers use. Also, there are many critiques that Wittgenstein applies to philosophising that might be equally applied to designing.

I will sketch out some of these for you. The first and most obvious similarity is in the inherently unfinished nature of designing, and the transformations and changes to designed objects that occurs through usage. This has always been a feature of designing, but it is made more evident in user-centred design. Change of this sort is the lot of all humanly-constructed things: they aquire their meaning and value in usage, and as usage changes and transforms, so too does the value and meaning of objects themselves. The shift in emphasis from a regard for objects to a regard for the relationships in which they partake is as relevant to our understanding of language as it is to design.

The second aspect of Wittgenstein’s method I would draw your attention to is his use of changing aspect in order to dissolve philosophical problems—not to solve them, but to make them go away, ‘letting the fly out of the fly bottle’ as he so eloquently puts it.

For example, in ordinary language grammar the word ‘potato’ has the same grammatical status as the word ‘mind’. You can ask: ‘where is the potato’?, and you can also ask, using the same ordinary language grammatical construction: ‘where is the mind’?. But, Wittgenstein points out, these words do not belong to the same group of words; they are not equivalent in anything but this superficial grammatical way. Thus, Wittgenstein argues, to ask ‘where is the mind?’ is actually nonsensical. If we accept Wittgenstein’s argument, the problem of the location of ‘mind’ dissolves and with it all the philosophical debates about the locus of mental activity.

Changing aspect

How like the way in which we sometimes ‘solve’ or rather dissolve seemingly intractable design problems! Here are some mini case histories to illustrate what I mean by changing aspect in design. The case histories concern the scoping stage of design problem solving when the designers are trying to define the problem that they want to solve. These cases illustrate how a design problem can dissolve or transform into something else when we change the aspect.

Example 1. Redesigning a hospital signposting system

A large urban public hospital called in an information designer to help redesign the hospital’s signposting system. The problem they wanted solved was that of people getting lost and confused when visiting the hospital campus. At the end of the first part of the scoping stage the information designer had discovered that the hospital, which had first opened in the mid-19th century, was made up of a large number of buildings in different architectural styles—gothic revival, utilitarian, modernist, post modern, and an assortment of ‘temporary’ prefabricated buildings from various eras—all squeezed into an increasingly crowded inner urban site with no car parking for visitors. Various generations of attempts at signposting coexisted, some out of date, and many placed in inappropriate positions for hospital visitors. Observations showed that most visitors went up to the original majestic, vaulted front entrance—now used exclusively for hospital administration—and tried to find someone to direct them. There were no signposts on this building because it was a listed historical building and such appendages were not allowed. The most frequently-asked person was the doorman, whose main job seemed to be to open the majestic doors for consultants. If he was unavailable, visitors would poke their heads around office doors, looking for signs of life.

Moreover, on further investigation, the information designer discovered that the wayfinding problem did not begin at the majestic entrance. Most first-time visitors were either referred to the hospital by a GP, or were coming to visit patients, and they had to find out how to get there by public transport, or how to find a parking place and then walk. Visitors’ sense of the problem extended a long way outside the hospital boundary. Once they were at the hospital they asked ‘the nice man in the uniform’ if they could find him. They went on to say that he gave them very clear directions, But, as one visitor said:

I came across some signposts that said something different. I didn’t know what to do, and then I forgot all the instructions he’d given me anyway.

The solution proposed by the information designer was not to re-signpost the hospital—a very expensive option that could only ever work partially on such a complex site. Rather he proposed that the hospital:

1 provide all local GPs with a simple leaflet showing patients how to get to the hospital by car or public transport

2 take down all the old signs

3 redefine the doorman’s job

4 provide the doorman with carefully developed maps to all public locations in the hospital to help visitors remember his instructions

5 design a new map when any change at the hospital affected visitors, and

6 let the consultants open the door themselves.

Example 2. Redesigning a medicine information leaflet

A pharmaceutical manufacturer had developed a medicine and was concerned about a possible side effect if the medicine was not administered correctly. The medicine—a tablet—could cause upper oesophageal burning if it lodged in the oesophagus for any time before entering the stomach. They asked an information designer to redesign the medicine information leaflet, instructing patients not to sit or lie down when they took the medicine, and to walk about after taking it. However, during the scoping investigation, the information designer discovered that a number of people taking this medicine had limited mobility and were likely to be unable to ‘walk about’ after taking it. The information designer suggested to the pharmaceutical company that, rather than redesign the leaflet, a more appropriate solution would be to redesign the medicine.

Example 3: recording health information in Indian villages

At the invitation of the Indian government, Apple Computers investigated the redesign of the Newton interface (an early handheld computer) for use by health field workers in rural Indian villages. But in the scoping stage it was realised that the technology was totally unsuitable for the cultural context and what was needed, if anything, was a better paper system.

Some lessons

Four important lessons can be learnt from these case histories.

First, the ‘solution’ as originally conceived—a signposting system, a medicine leaflet, a computer—was not the ‘solution’ that emerged during the scoping stage.

Second, the ‘problem’ as originally stated—people getting lost, not following instructions, having difficulty processing data—was not quite the problem that emerged during the scoping stage.

Third, all the ‘solutions’ involved a shifting of the problem boundary, or put in Wittgenstein’s terms, changing the aspect. In the hospital case the shift was partially physical in that the ‘problem’ extended away from the majestic hospital doors into doctors’ surgeries and people’s homes; in the medicine case, the problem was not in the instructions but in the medicine itself; and in the third case, the problem was inappropriate technology.

As many here will know, this type of boundary shifting—changing of aspect—is quite common in design. Indeed it is one of the things we routinely train designers to deal with. Again there is a similarity between philosophy and designing. Moreover, this type of changing of aspect does not include the many ways in which designers routinely provide new ways of looking at old situations

Time and space permitting I could further elaborate on the similarities. Wittgenstein’s use of analogy, comparison, morphology, and his attention to the surface of things, things as they are seen, rather than to deep causation; all have their resonances and parallels in designing. It may be casting a long bow, but I am struck by the fact that Wittgenstein was trained in engineering design and undertook a number of design projects during his life.

Doing philosophical investigations through language is, in my view, not just like designing; it is the same critical and constructive process. Wittgenstein’s purpose was critical rather than constructive. It focused on the language philosophers use and the environment in which that language is commonly used. As designers and educators our concerns are both critical and constructive across a much broader range of constructions.

I have two reasons for exploring these ideas with you today at this conference. First, to suggest to you that the current position of design at the periphery of the intellectual universe is misplaced and that there are good intellectual as well as practical reasons for moving design to the central pre-eminent position in our teaching and research institutions. Second, and in keeping with Wittgenstein’s austere philosophical investigations and the principle of parsimony, I would like to suggest to you that this position of pre-eminence does not require us to take on the mantle of complex theory, often imposed on us by our minders in the bureaucracy and our peers from other disciplines.

The first of my reasons for exploring these philosophical ideas is probably clear to you by now in outline, at least. But there is much exciting work ahead of us in articulating the idea of philosophy as design and design as philosophy—a way of thinking that places design at the centre of our intellectual life.

My second reason needs some elaboration and development. And as it has the greatest immediate consequences in the way in which we develop future educational programs, I will spend the rest of this paper elaborating the idea.

Between design and other disciplines

The area I want to explore with you is the relationship between design and other disciplines in the academy and how this has some bearing on the distinction between theory and practice over which so much recent energy has been expended.

Let me take you back some forty years to some views that were expressed at the time about design and its relation to other disciplines.

In 1969 The Working Party on Typographic Teaching, set up by the Society of Industrial Artist and Designers, made the following recommendations:

We believe that the study of the processes of conceptual thought, learning, perception, memory, cognition, and other aspects of human behaviour are of great importance to the typographer and graphic designer and should be included in his education.

Contrast this with James Holland’s view expressed in the Penrose Annual of 1966:

The student who has to secure implicit approval from the psychologist, the biologist and all the other ologists may find them even more inhibiting mentors. Many practicing designers are deeply suspicious of these trends in art education. They find it hard to name the outstanding practitioners the method has produced. They suspect that it fosters cultural name dropping, and that this disguises a sort of creative castrato at worst, and at best a scissors–and–paste pattern–maker.

I would characterise the former as a proposal to allow the tail to wag the dog, and the latter as an assertion that the dog has no tail at all. Neither were correct in their time or today, but how familiar they still sound to us today; these debates still go on!

I would like to tease out some of the implications of both these positions so that we can look at the issue of the relationship between design and other disciplines.

In the case of typography, some 40 plus years on, we can probably agree that the contribution made by ‘the study of the processes of conceptual thought, learning, perception, memory, cognition, and other aspects of human behaviour’ to the craft of typography has been relatively modest. Most researchers and thoughtful practitioners working on the typographical side would say that such studies, when they have been relevant to typography, have usually just confirmed known good practices that were already routinely used many centuries before these modern studies were done. This type of conclusion does not inspire confidence in the contribution that other disciplines can make to design.

One of the areas where I have done a great deal of research has been in the area that is nowadays called usability. I first explored the application of usability methods in graphic design back in the 1960s, long before its current vogue.

In some forty years of research and development of methods and findings, the only generalisation I can offer today’s designers is to suggest that the best predictor of future human action is not to be found in any theory from psychology or its offshoots in ergonomics or cognitive science; rather, it is to be found in past human behaviour. Put in a practical way: if we want to know what people might do in the future with a design we create today, the best thing we can do is watch what they do with the design today. By the way, this is not an argument against doing usability studies, far from it. It actually tells us that none of our theories are of much use to us, whether they come from within design in the form of aesthetic theory or from outside in the form of theories about human cognition or behaviour. It tells us that if we want to find out how our designs are likely to work in the world, we have to watch people using the designs. Usability studies are not an option but a necessity.

But this is hardly a grand theory. Indeed, such a conclusion suggests that theories, or in other words, attempts to explain what has or might happen may be of little value to us; what we need as designers is accurate and sensitive description, not explanation. This, by the way, is exactly the same conclusion that Wittgenstein comes to in his investigation of philosophical problems. We should try and describe what people do with language, not explain it.

Curriculum development

I would argue that these conclusions suggest two things about our development of design curricular in the future. First, design is no longer, if indeed it ever was, an exclusively studio-based activity. Training designers to undertake accurate and sensitive description of what people do has to be a vital part of the craft. Many studio-based designers and educators are themselves going to have to learn these crafts. Second, we do not need elaborate theory to guide or legitimise our practice or our educational programs. What theory we do need can be simply summarised (Sless 1997).

None of this should be construed as suggesting that our work does not have to meet the highest standards of scholarly research and professional practice. However, we need to do this in a designerly way—in a way that our levels of description and analysis matches the subject matter we are dealing with rather than a set of abstractions. As an example of such scholarly research that informs both our practice and our reflections on practice, I would cite Sue Walker’s recent book: Typography and Language in Everyday Life(Walker 2000). Her work crosses the divide between typography and language, providing scholars and students in both fields with a systematic way of understanding the interrelation between the two. Her development and use of the distinction between prescriptions and practices, though simple sounding, is a masterful use of post-Wittgensteinian classification, with the capacity to illuminate many aspects of linguistic research beyond her own field of expertise. But her book is uncompromisingly written from a typographic, designerly point of view.

Nor should any of this be construed as suggesting that designers do not need to consider all of the many factors that impinge on their design. We cannot turn our backs on the ‘technological, social and economic requirements, biological necessities, and the psychophysical effects of materials, shape, colour, volume, and space’ to use Moholy Nagy’s phrase. But, again, we need to integrate these things into our practices in a specifically designerly way. To do this effectively we need to rethink some of the limitations of what we do, some of the unreflected ideals which have guided our practice.

Going back to the 1960s we can see some of these issues clearly. Here expressed by Chermayeff & Alexander:

The designer must learn to approach technological change by taking into account well–known scientific, social, and technical data outside his field that may have an indirect influence upon his work, and he must accustom himself to weighing the largely ‘invisible’ factors that more often than not prove on closer examination to have the most serious implications for physical form….

The designer’s task is to create order: to organise conflicting material and to make a form. In our time, even the most gifted and devoted designers find it increasingly difficult to exercise their intelligence and talent at all levels towards this end.’ If this is true of today’s designers what of tomorrows? (Chermayeff & Alexander 1963).

Notice in this, as in other expressions about the nature of design activity right up to the present day, there is an ideal of perfection and a complete solution. ‘The designers task is to create order’ to use Chermayeff & Alexander’s phrase, or ‘[Design] is the organisation of materials and processes in the most productive, economic way, in a harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function’ to use Moholy Nagy’s phrase.

Such ideals, such visions of panaceas, are sustainable within the limits of a picture frame, a piece of paper, or a solid object. When design was concerned with the creation of a single object, whether it was the design of a poster, a kettle or a building, then the illusion of the perfectly harmonious solution was sustainable. But once we move out of this narrow frame, change the aspect, then our capacity to ‘create order’, or ‘a harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function’ is severely tested, if not destroyed, by the sheer size and complexity of our world. Moreover, when we change the aspect we sometimes notice something else. If the information designer working on the medicines information had gone ahead with that particular project in the form in which it was given to him, he might have developed a ‘harmonious functional document’. Viewed from the perspective of the person using this medicine, he would have developed not a harmonious design, but a prosthetic device for a poorly-designed medicine—papering over the cracks in the system. Thus changing the aspect shows us that what may seem to be a panacea from one point of view is, when viewed from a different aspect, a prosthetic device. It seems to me that being caught between a panacea and a prosthesis in not only uncomfortable, but unsustainable. We may have to radically rethink the ideals and objectives that we instil into future generations of designers. In doing this we will not only alter the nature of design tasks but our moral and aesthetic sensibilities.

A copernican revolution

I have suggested that we need to assert a uniquely designer point of view and lay claim to the principle intellectual preoccupation of our time?

In time honoured fashion, I propose that we should mount a revolution: throw over the old order and establish the new, with all the confidence, zeal and energy we can muster. Lest you be concerned that I am going to ask you all to person the barricades and put your lives at risk [not to mention the English language], let me reassure you that the revolution I propose is intellectual, not political. What I would like to do is propose a radical change in thinking—a copernican revolution, though with profound political implications as I have hinted.

Suppose we, as designers and design educators, rethink our position in the intellectual universe, just as Copernicus rethought the position of the sun in the physical universe. Here we are currently at the periphery of the intellectual world: a minor satellite of the academic and intellectual world. Contrast our orbit and sphere of influence, as it were, to that of science, the current centre of attention and funding when it comes to research and prestige.

Suppose we assert, as I have suggested, that design, more than any other discipline in or outside the academy, is the necessary foundation from which all other human pursuits stem, that our capacity to design is fundamental to our social and economic life. Needless to say, this is not a proposition that would be accepted readily by everybody. We would have to argue the case for such a proposition. However, as I hope I have shown you, it is a proposition with a strong basis in fact and argument. I am by no means the first to suggest such a view, and there is a wealth of historical antecedents to draw upon to substantiate the case. The work of doing this lies ahead of us. Central to making this happen, as I hope I have indicated, we need to rethink both our practices as designers and the educational programs we provide for the next generation.

I don’t think we will ever take over creation, but we do have the capacity to become significant contributors.

Thank you.


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Community and Privacy Towards a New Architecture of Humanism NY: Doubleday & Co. Inc.

Holland J 1966
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Marx Karl 1845
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Vision in motion.
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Sless D 1997
Theory For Practice

Walker S 2000
Typography & Language in Everyday Life
London: Longman

Wittgenstein L 1953
Philosophical Investigations
Translated by Anscombe E
Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Working Party on Typographic Teaching 1969
Typographic Education, England
Journal of Typographic Research 3(1) pp91-102