The Pluralism of Design

One challenge with discussing design is that design is simultaneously familiar and elusive. It refers to activities that involve all people and also to formalized activities that are done by people who identify professionally as designers. Since the early 2000s, there has been a reinvigoration of the design fields and of the general public's awareness of and interest in design, as evidenced by an increase of popular design journalism. One outcome of this increased interest is that the distinctions between professional and nonprofessional design are becoming increasingly vague. In the past, a distinction could be made between professional and nonprofessional design based on tools, an artifact 's technical complexity, or aesthetic consideration of an artifact. But such distinctions are eroding. Everyone can use desktop publishing and media software to create and orchestrate images, text, sounds, and motion. Books such as Ellen Lupton's DIY: Design It Yourself (2006) introduce professionals and nonprofessionals to the basics of form and composition to heighten the aesthetic considerations of a range of artifacts. Even the technical complexity of electronics and batchmanufacturing projects are tamed and popularized in a new breed of magazines such as Make and ReadyMade and Web sites such as Instructables that provide resources for independent designers who often have not been professionally trained.

At the same time that nonprofessional design is proliferating, the professional boundaries of design continue to expand. Educational programs are growing, and dozens of professional design organizations and scholarly journals are published regularly. Design-related activities and subjects include familiar forms such as fashion, industrial, interaction, and graphic design as well as less familiar forms such as service and organizational design. As new fields of design emerge regularly and the range of practices within the fields of design constantly change, more and more people identify themselves or are identified by others as designers.

So what are we talking about when we talk about design?

The renowned social scientist Herbert Simon was one of the early thinkers to place design in a broad context relevant to contemporary practice. For Simon, there were two key aspects of design. First, it was a hallmark of any professional activity: medicine, policy, management, engineering, and architecture all engage in design. Second, it was concerned with the artificial (how things might be) and not with the natural (how things are), which concerned prior sciences. In The Sciences of the Artificial, Simon (1996, 111) offers this now classic definition of the activity of design:

"Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." As the practice of design and design studies has matured, so too has our thinking about what design is. More recently, design studies scholar Richard Buchanan (2001, 191) has offered the following definition of design: "Design is the human power of conceiving, planning, and making products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of any individual or collective purpose." Like Simon ' s definition, Buchanan 's definition of design allows for the discovery and assertion of a wide range of activities under the rubric of design. And both definitions emphasize design as action-oriented.

Buchanan and Simon represent two opposing positions in contemporary design: those who assert that design is or should be a science, and those who do not. It was important for Simon to consider design as a science and the study of design as a scientific endeavor. The emphasis in such an approach is on the decision-making processes of the designer, the empirical study of the effects of design activity and outcomes, and the identification of the factors that produce such effects. The purported benefit of such a scientific approach is that it allows practitioners of design to be more precise and effective in design activity and research and to make claims that are based in fact, not assumption. In contrast to Simon 's scientific approach, Buchanan (2001) considers design to be a liberal art and roots understanding and discourse about design in the humanities, not the sciences. Buchanan 's primary interest is in casting design as a contemporary form of rhetoric, its concern being the communication of belief and the incitement to action through argument. According to Buchanan, this notion of design as rhetoric assumes that designers are "agents of rhetorical thinking in the new productive sciences of our time" and that the discipline of design "employs rhetorical doctrines and devices in its work of shaping products and environments" (Buchanan 2001, 187). The implication of casting design as rhetoric is that "In approaching design from a rhetorical perspective, our hypothesis should be that all products—digital and analog, tangible and intangible—are vivid arguments about how we should lead our lives" (Buchanan 2001, 194). Given such a position, design practice and scholarship should focus on the means of constructing and analyzing the arguments enacted or embodied in design process and products.

In this book, design is discussed as a liberal art with an emphasis on the rhetorical aspects of design. But even across those contrasting positions, there are shared qualities of design. Regardless of whether one considers design as a science or a liberal art, three general characteristics of design bind together multiple design positions and practices. Its first characteristic is that the practice of design extends the professions of design. Anytime a deliberate and directed approach is taken to the invention and making of products or services to shape the environment through the manipulation of materials and experiences, this is design.

Its second characteristic is that the practice of design is normative. It is how things could or ought to be. As a normative endeavor, design stands in contrast to disciplines or practices that produce descriptions or explanations alone. Design attempts to produce new conditions or the tools by which to understand and act on current conditions. In the process of doing so, designers and the artifacts and systems they produce assert claims and judgments about society and strive to shape beliefs and courses of action. Claiming and asserting that things should be other than they are and attempting to produce the means to achieve that change are not neutral activities. Positioning design as a normative endeavor has consequences: it opens the practice and products of design to ethical, moral, and political critiques.

Its third characteristic is that the practice of design makes ideas, beliefs, and capacities for action experientially accessible and known. For example, even when information is expressed to an audience by text alone, the text is taken as visual material to be manipulated and sculpted to provoke specific patterns of reading, association, and meaning making through the practices of graphic and information design. Such treatment of textual data can be traced through early twentieth-century examples of book, poster, and newspaper design through to contemporary forms of computational media. The visualization work of designer Ben Fry provides salient examples. Fry uses information design to sculpt data with the basic of elements of type, line, shape, and color. The goal is to increase understanding of scientific information and make new connections and perhaps even new scientific discoveries. His creative expression of data extends the standard forms of documentation and communication used by scientists in truly novel ways. For example, when Fry (2001a) presents the 13 million letters from the genetic code of human chromosome 21 rendered in a 3-pixel font into an 8-foot by 8-foot image, the resulting image can be considered an attempt to make the data of that chromosome experientially accessible and known so that we might viscerally understand it as information and come to a greater appreciation of the complexity and vastness of human genes. More directly associated to action is Fry's Isometric Haplotype Blocks (2001b) interface, which presents a set of genetic data in six views, allowing the user to navigate among the views and produce a new perspective of comparison and contrast, ideally for the purpose of advancing scientific discovery.8 Such an emphasis on the production of experiential forms extends nearly all design fields, from industrial to organizational design. With each field, the materials that are rendered for experiential effect change to reflect the traditions of that field and the skills of the designers, but the emphasis on making ideas, beliefs, and capacities for action experientially accessible and known remains consistent across all varieties of design.

In terms of the range of activities (from fashion to medicine) and of perspectives (from scientific to humanistic), design covers a broad swath of contemporary cultural production. What we are talking about when we talk about design is both a field and practice. It includes the professional fields of design such as graphic, information, industrial, and interaction design and the products produced within these fields. It also includes the work of nonprofessionals who draw from or reference design fields and products in their work—the work of those who engage in the practices of design but might not identify themselves as designers. This practice of design is an implicitly normative endeavor of conceiving and producing experiential forms—artifacts, systems, events—to shape beliefs and courses of action. What distinguishes adversarial design is that it works to shape beliefs and courses of action in regard to political issues.

 
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