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Designing as a Natural Human Ability

Is designing a natural human ability?

Can designing be the result of evolution and natural selection?

  • So many activities of human beings can be explained from an evolutionary point of view.
  • We have been unable to find a suitable “dictionary definition” for this phenomenon, but we believe that this perspective is worthy of study, and so include it using our own experience to guide us.
  • By natural human ability, we mean an essentially innate human capacity.

An ability to design can give an organism an evolutionary advantage.

  • If designing brings about beneficial change, then a designerly organism could anticipate the need to proactively change its environment, to plan that change, and then to execute that plan.
  • If pitted against other organisms without such a capability, then it follows that natural selection favours organisms that design well, /ceteris paribus/.
  • This point has been identified by others.
    • EG: “That which is fundamental to human nature, never changes. In the North East, in India, (in the past…and continue to be) there were natural born designers, because if they weren’t - they would be dead! The rough terrain, weather, foliage and the need for survival made them innovate with material like bamboo and move the quality of life up, bit by bit. Leveraging this innovation, caused their life to transform, by design.” by Sonia Manchanda, posted to, 5 Jan 2009.

Designing in any conventional sense (e.g. in art and in engineering) has a very short history from an evolutionary point of view.

  • Evolution of complex life forms does not act on such short time scales.
  • However, with respect to activities like farming and hunting, it is not unreasonable to think that some sort of planning, creativity, synthesis, etc. could have been used tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago.
  • We can go even further back in time:
    • humanity has existed in one form or another for at least 2.5 million years;
    • many activities of early hominids, such as tool-making, imply the features of designing we have mentioned above.
    • One can even find evidence of some phenomena described in previous sections exhibited in surprising ways by certain animals (e.g. octopi that open screw-top jars to get the food within).

So, if design is a natural behaviour that emerged through evolution, then the first proto-designerly organisms must have been quite primitive by modern standards.

  • If this is the case, then some of the natural/neurological foundations of designing may predate all modern notions of aesthetics, function, and even utility.
  • The design research community should discuss then what a primitive notion of utility/function or aesthetics might entail.

Even if we accept Simon’s broad definition of designing, it is difficult to imagine an animal doing it;

  • but it does appear that proto-designerly behaviours (e.g. problem-solving, synthesis, etc.) do occur in animals, albeit in limited ways.
  • It might then be that designing as a human ability evolved “on top of” these more primitive phenomena.
  • Perhaps regarding designing as a confluence of these phenomena under evolutionary pressures may be a key to understanding the origin of designerly behaviours.

Given the evolutionary argument, design ability emerged when it produced a reproductive/survival advantage;

  • when the proto-human could see far enough ahead to regularly and effectively improve their fate.
  • This would have meant, for example, selecting or modifying improved shelter, understanding fire management, and creating hunting tools that augment the performance of hunters.
  • These hominids would not have known that they understood these things;
    • they would have learnt to do them instinctively (recall again the jar-opening octopus).

Instinct is still very important today.

  • People use it constantly to assess each other in social interactions, and it informs our aesthetic about a thing, even if it is something with which we have no experience.
  • That aesthetic is what product developers attempt to manipulate when creating external features.
  • Unfortunately, it is hard to reprogram and it is sometimes wrong.
    • Devices can look great but have rather awful usability.
  • Hence, not all aesthetics, and certainly not all instinct, can qualify as design.

We suggest that designing is a perfectly natural, and therefore inherently sentient (and human), behaviour.

  • These natural abilities and sensibilities exist because, on the balance, they improve survival.
  • We do not intend to denigrate the importance of aesthetic or other matters here, nor do we seek to minimize the uniqueness of designing in general.

All this discussion of evolution and design is, of course, not a scientific argument.

  • It is not even clear which parts of the hypothesis (that designing is rooted in evolutionary processes) are testable;
    • however, we would like to think that there is merit in pursuing the matter.

Beyond this, it is interesting to consider the differences between designing as executed by professional designers versus designing as executed by the lay population.

  • Whether one argues for evolutionary roots of designing, or merely accepts Simon’s definition, designing is something that everyone does.
  • Professional designers, however, seem to design in different ways than the lay population.
  • Professional designers bring to bear their training, their experience, and a body of knowledge – things to which lay designers do not have access.
  • To use all this material, the professional designer must be aware of it, and so must intentionally act at a meta-level as well, by reflecting on his design activities, selecting tools and methods, and adapting his personal design process to suit the moment.

Both professional and lay designer intend to design, but only the professional designer is necessarily aware of it.

  • The lay designer may not even know that he is designing whilst doing it, and rarely reflects on the designerly aspects of their activities.
  • Put another way, the lay designer designs using only design as a natural human ability, while the professional designer has modified and augmented his natural design abilities with training and experience.

The essential characteristic here is a conscious awareness that one is designing.

  • This awareness is present in professional designers, but not present in the lay designer.
  • Thus, we propose that awareness be the metric that determines a boundary layer between natural design acts – of which the designer would not be aware – and the intentional acts of the professional design.
  • We note that this way of thinking about designing offers an alternative definition of professional design: design conducted with conscious awareness, intent, reflection, and access to an external body of knowledge.

See Also


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research/designing_as_a_natural_human_ability.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)