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Design Philosophy

Design Philosophy is thinking about designing and how designing interacts with other human/natural phenomena.

On Attempting to Define Design

By d.sless@COMMUNICATION.ORG.AU on, 15 Aug 2007:

The inevitable consequence of playing the definition game is that something important gets left out. Lest we all get carried away with our collective sense of worthiness in changing existing situations into preferred ones, may I remind us all that sometimes as designers we just make new things for the joy of making them. Sometimes we find a use for these new things and can retrospectively claim that we changed from an existing to a preferred situation. But sometimes what we make creates new situations–desirable and undesirable–that did not exist before we made them. We have to accommodate 'creating new situations' into a definition of design, that is if one thinks playing the definitional game is worthwhile.
  • Leaving things out is a useful way of thinking of definitions – leaving out everything we do not mean to associate with the label.
  • Joy is an important motivator for designing. Joy is a pleasurable emotion that we are drawn to seek. Evolution has selected for joy-seeking creatures. Joy lowers stress, which improves survivability.
  • Creating a new situation is the point (the intent?) of designing in general. We changed existent to preferred situations. The new situation (creating the situation) is the ultimate goal. It seems to me that creating situations is part of the definition already – we just don't dwell on this aspect perhaps as much as we ought to.
In the 19th Century Karl Marx said: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.' (Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach, 1845) Before Ken gets too wound up about Uncle Karl, I'm not suggesting that Karl did any more than articulate and and help us mark a change in thinking that was going on in the 19th Century, from the idea that thinking and research were a means of revealing the world, to an idea of the world as something we should change through thinking and research: a change from revealing god's work, to changing the mess that we have made of the world; seeing the world as something to celebrate and reveal in all its detail through science, to seeing the world as full of problems that need to be solved by science.
  • I'm not sure this is that good. Nature has no problems. Problems only exist in our minds. To see the world as full of problems is to make things far too anthropocentric for my liking.
  • The real conflict is between nature's apparent disinterest in humanity's survival, and our own natural tendency to want to survive. We need to look for a /balance/ between being a cog in nature's machine versus being the force that entirely disrupts the natural world for our own not-necessarily-natural needs/wants/desires.

Subjects of a Design Science

Eekels [Eek00] suggests the following three subject areas that should be covered by engineering design science:

  1. decision theory
  2. engineering design axiology – values, norms, criteria, that enter into engineering design decisions, and
  3. engineering design deontology – the duty of the designer, of teams, etc, in light of morality.

Design & Human Neurobiology

TORONTO (Reuters) - When someone is “easy on the eye,” it could also be because they are easy on the brain, according to a new international study.

Scientists from universities in the United States and New Zealand analyzed previous studies and conducted new research to find that attractiveness could be linked to ease of mental processing.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at previous research that found people rated images of standard-looking objects or people as more attractive than variations of these things.

They also tested people by showing them a prototype image made up of dots and geometric patterns and variations of it to see which people liked the most.

Piotr Winkielman of the University of California, San Diego, who led the research, said the less time it took to classify a pattern, the more attractive it was judged.

“We show that this preference for the prototype is a function of the prototype being particularly easy to perceive,” Winkielman told Reuters on Tuesday. “So the easier the better.”

Winkielman pointed out that this “beauty in averageness” could apply to things like the silhouette of a car, a watch, as well as to people.

“You can even get it for the taste of chili,” he said.

“An anecdote was reported in the paper that some guy won a chili cooking contest by basically going around to various competitors and putting a spoon of chili into his own pot and eventually he found the perfect, well balanced flavor.”

I have further comments about this article by others in my phd-design mailbox, with subject line Easy on the eye.

A Design Space

Elizabeth Turnstall has suggested that design schools can be classified on 3 axes:

  • Product & Artifact orientation to Design Process Orientation
  • Hands on Skilled orientation to Hi-Tech & IT centered orientation
  • Applied Arts orientation to Business Process orientation.

I think the result would be a rugplot style visualisation. I also think something like this can be used to broadly categorise design research too.

On Design as Universal

I posted this to IDFORUM@YORKU.CA 13 Feb 2006. Ken thought it was a great post.

In my travels, both in and beyond engineering, I've come to believe that there are certain universals in 'designing'. It doesn't matter whether one is in engineering design, architecture, font design, interior design, organisational design, …. I have for example talked with font designers, and described in non-engineering terms what I teach to my students 'designing' is. They nod their heads and say “Yup; that's pretty much it.”
If this is in fact so, and if we could develop a discipline as hearty as, say, physics or law, that treats the universals of designing, and if such a discipline could, in time, become an established intellectual activity distinct from all the discipline specific kinds of designing, then I believe that many people who currently see designing as an archipelago of distinct entities based on industry or specialisation may start to appreciate the big picture more.
From there, one would hope to get more cross-pollination of ideas and thinking, so that a good idea in one sub-discipline stands a better chance of getting out into the larger design community. Which in turn should help break down other barriers between the design sub-disciplines. And which in turn will help make the general discipline of design even heartier.
Untied from the usual concerns of, say, engineering design, general designers and design researchers might become more comfortable interacting with, say, ethnographers - and vice versa. Or so I sincerely hope.
Indeed, I see mailing lists like idforum and phd-design as the breeding grounds for such new developments.

On Classes of Conceptual Models

In a post to PHD-DESIGN@JISCMAIL.AC.UK of 30 May 2005 (message available here), John Broadbent describes the work of J. Fawcett, who evaluated various conceptual models of nursing, and how such a thing might matter in design research.

Fawcett develops 3 classes of models: developmental models, systems models, and interaction models.

Broadbent suggests “Taken in reverse, these deal respectively with the social ecology of nursing, the contextualisation of this latter into a systems view of nursing, and then a dynamic view of that system moving through time. In short, the three models fit into a hierarchical system model themselves.”

While this is just one way to look at the matter, it does make a certain sense, and is pertinent to design research. The particular advantage that I see here is that this hierarchy can facilitate focussing one's attention on particular aspects of designing without losing the coupling between the different perspectives.

One might then conceive of a similar classification of design research – not to isolate research groups, but rather to help organise them sensibly and provide some vehicle to help transmit findings between groups of researchers that might not otherwise find cross-pollination of research results easy.

Broadbent describes his interpretation of Fawcett's work in more detail here.

See Also


Eek00. a J. Eekels. 2000. On the fundamentals of engineering design science: The geography of engineering design science. Part 1. J. Eng. Design, 11(4):377-397, 2000.
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