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Boundaries of Designing

This is an attempt to define designing by first defining what it's not.


This project originated with the publication of [SE07] and [SE07a].

One persistent question in design research is What is design?

  • Every design teacher/practitioner/researcher has an intuitive sense of what design is.
  • But there is no universally agreed definition.
  • Sources of dispute include:
    • difference between designing as a general process and as a specific process practised by professional designers.
    • differences in disciplinary background.
    • conflation of design as an academic field, and product development as practised in the “real world.”

From [ACC00]:

  • The authors model “design” and “new product design” as two different and orthogonal activities. This highlights the kind of confusion that can arise.
  • “The principle of design process division into phases is typical of each of the global methods. The main difference concerns the start and finish points, and variations in the numbers of steps and their de􏰜nitions (steps and deliverables at step ends). The resemblance of methods is, without a doubt, linked to the ‘universal’ style, applicable in many places.”
    • This highlights the question of boundaries between designing and other activities in product development.
    • This also relates to the application of stages and gates, and where their boundaries fall.
    • TODO Hypothesis: there is a single underlying process of information and decision making that stretches through all processes everywhere. A single segment of one thread of all that network is called “designing” and its boundaries are best identified by the types and numbers of decisions made along the thread. (New research project)

Many definitions of design have been proposed.

To start somewhere, we prefer Simon's definition [Sim81]:

  • “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

It may be futile to ask the question What is design?

  • One can argue that it is just as difficult to define disciplines like physics or chemistry even though they have been studied vigorously for many years.
  • Indeed, scientists have created an entire discipline to fit in the grey area between physics and chemistry – physical chemistry.

However, we believe that seeking an answer may be more important than the answer itself.

  • We may someday find that the question itself is flawed.
  • But it is hard to see how we might reach that point without at least trying, and not benefit substantively from the attempt – surely such a study will advance some aspects of our understanding of designing.
  • Until then, we see will use this opportunity to introspect on an activity that is so often fixated on outward considerations.
  • So, trying the answer the question will likely do more good than harm.

Here, we will focus on a unique perspective on What is designing? (per [HE96]) - the act of designing.

Other approaches are either (de)compositional or specializational.

  • In the (de)compositional perspective, designing is defined with respect to its constituent activities, domain knowledge elements, or internal characteristics.
  • In the specializational perspective, design is defined as a qualified speciality of some other discipline or activity.

Here, we take a qualitative relational approach, examining designing with respect to other phenomena, to illuminate the boundaries where designing becomes something else.

  • This approach is not completely new; for one example, [HE96] do discuss designing as it relates to other phenomena (e.g. intuition, creativity, heuristics).
  • Our approach is unique to the best of our knowledge because of the nature of the comparisons we describe between designing and other phenomena.

What is a boundary?

The notion of finding boundaries is particularly important.

Consider a paradox that arises in trying to distinguish between an organism and its environment.

  • To identify the organism, one must know what constitutes the environment; that which is not-environment must be organism.
  • However, the converse is also true: to identify the environment, one must know the organism.
  • So, which comes first, the organism or the environment?
  • The paradox is broken by finding boundaries first, then identifying the things to either side of them.

A boundary is a region where some (basic) property changes value in some way.

  • There is evidence (e.g. [MZ97a] and [#7]) that suggests the brain operates by taking advantage of boundaries to compartmentalize its work.
    • Colour, shape, and motion are treated separately, and then combined into a model of a scene.
  • Thus, using boundaries to distinguish between different entities may be an entirely natural way of thinking.

Obviously, the boundaries of designing are not crisp.

  • Indeed, they ought not be crisp, to ensure that there is enough flexibility to allow design as a discipline and a body of knowledge to evolve with humanity’s understanding of the universe.
  • Boundaries in the real world are not crisp, even if they appear so to us.
  • Science gives us the notion of a boundary layer – a region where change happens relatively smoothly, rather than some crisp mathematical discontinuity.
  • Examples include:
    • The zone between the skin of an airplane and the steady-state flow of free air is a boundary layer.
    • The zone at which materials bend permanently under loads can be thought of as a boundary layer.
    • The region inside a wire that actually carries an electric current is a boundary layer.
    • The extent of the human body is defined by a boundary layer; the amount of activity happening at the “surface” of our skin at the microscopic level is quite high, to the point where it is difficult to know where “skin” ends and “atmosphere” begins.

Thus, we expect the boundaries we find between designing and other phenomena to be boundary layers.

  • We also expect that these boundaries will change because they are human constructs, and as humanity’s sensibilities evolve, so will our notions of the boundaries of designing.
  • Indeed, this kind of evolution may be in the very nature of definitions and categories [BS99].
  • So the best we can say, we believe, at this time, is that any set of boundaries must be meaningful in the present and be able to evolve in time.

Finding boundaries

Can some sense of what designing is be found at its boundaries with other phenomena? This section will study some of those boundaries.

  • For each phenomenon considered in this section, we will use typical, “common sense” definitions, from the Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus, to keep the arguments broadly relevant and to avoid the misunderstandings that can arise when terms are used in discipline-specific ways.
  • We will then consider how designing is like, and unlike, the phenomenon, to illuminate the nature of the boundary between them. We will also try to define the boundary in terms of a quality or characteristic the value of which changes at the boundary.

We intend, in the end, to suggest that designing may be thought of as the confluence of these other phenomena – not just a superposition of them, rather a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

See Also


[SE07]. F.A. Salustri and N.L. Eng 2007. Design as…: thinking of what design might be. J Design Principles and Practices, 1:1(19-28). (link)
[SE07a]. F.A. Salustri and N.L. Eng 2007. Designing as…: thinking about what designing might be. Proc Intl Conf on Engineering Design. Paper 673. (link)
[ACC00]. A. Aoussat, H. Christofol and M. Le Coq 2000. The new product design - a transverse approach. J. Eng. Design, 11(4):399-417.
[Sim81]. Herbert A. Simon (eds). 1981. The Sciences of the Artificial. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[HE96]., [HE96]. V. Hubka and W.E. Eder. 1996. Design Science. Springer, London.
[#7]. RCD97+
[BS99]. G.C. Bowker and S.L. Star 1999. Sorting things out: classification and its consequences. MIT Press, London.
research/boundaries_of_designing.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)