Is there a theory of design?

I had a quick discussion with my friend and colleague Jordan Beck, who is now working on the notion of Design Identity. As part of that work, Jordan is creating a list of definitions of Design and an interesting list of possible design theories. Then, we were discussing whether there’s a theory of design as such. As usual, we employed the whiteboard to discuss our viewpoints. The result is shown below.

Schemas about theories of design
a) A typical example form Gestalt theory (Jordan). b) A schema regarding theories in relation to their “belongingness” to Design and their applicability (Omar). c) Design as consequence of a networked non design theories (Jordan).

As it’s shown in the schema b, I was telling Jordan that most theories of design are generated from other fields, such as Psychology, Philosophy, or Literary Studies. This idea is represented by the horizontal axis. My quick comment was made in relation to the applicability of those theories—the vertical axis. I conjectured that, in terms of applicability, designers pay more attention to those theories not generated within Design since they are the ones that are more related with the designer’s competence at the moment of actually doing design. In relation to the theories generated within Design—that is, generated by Design Researchers, in designerly (research) context, and working for and with designers—usually they don’t know or care about those theories because their not “visible” in their everyday practice.

Then Jordan came with the schema c from the picture above by which he remarked about the possibility that Design is (partially) constituted by networked knowledge/theories not generated “within” Design.” From here, he made the interesting question about whether there’s a theory really generated within design. The quick discussion was basically focused on that. I commented that it seems to be no theory of design as such. Since the two of us are taking Erik Stolterman’s seminar on Philosophy and Theory of Design, I added to my point that by discarding knowledge generated from non design Disciplines, Philosophy of Design might represent the theory of design—as theoretical generative means regarding design and for design. Yet we talk about Philosophy, so it belongs to other field at the end. Tricky and funny.

In relation to comments above, we got this quick and crazy deduction that there’s no theory of design apparently. Later, since there’s a relation between some disciplines and design as we appreciate in the current “design theories”, Design seems to be present somehow (or mapped back) in these fields. If it is possible to create this type of bidirectional connection with any discipline, does it mean that design is everywhere somehow? Was Paul Rand right when he said that “Everything is design”?


Design, Science, Art and Craft: among facts and abstractions.

What’s the difference between Science and Design? What about Art and Craft? Is design about something concrete (an object), a process, an line of thought? Further, by taking User Experience (UX) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) as knowledge disciplines, what’s the relation of UX with Science? Does UX belong to Craft or Art? What can we tell about HCI? These are very difficult questions to answer, and they require to take a philosophical stance—at least, I assume—in order to create arguments and hence generate discussion. So, what’s the point of this post any way? Although I think I don’t have the answers to all these questions whatsoever, I would like to share my perspective on how these big words relate each other by means of the following schema.

Relational space between Science, Design, Craft, Art, Actuality and Abstract.
Relational space between Science, Design, Craft, Art, Actuality and Abstraction.

In regard to the description of this relational schema, I would like to start commenting why I took the continuum Art/Craft. In 2008, I wrote this idea in Spanish

El diseño implica arte pero el arte no implica necesariamente diseño.
La ciencia implica diseño pero diseñar no implica necesariamente hacer ciencia.
Aun así, la ciencia implica hacer arte.

The literal translation is as follows,

Design implies Art, but Art not necessarily implies Design.
Science implies Design, but to design not necessarily implies doing Science.
Yet Science implies doing Art.

The last part, “Yet, Science implies doing Art”, seems to make no sense in English. The adequate translation could be,

Yet Science entails Craft.

My point here is that “doing Science” in real life is not that rigid as it looks in paper. To me, it involves both aspects of Craft and Design. Further, this phrase indicates the underlying implications of using a particular language at the moment of reflecting and philosophizing. Regardless, the selection of this continuum is somehow influenced by the perspective of Howard Risatti when comparing Art and Craft—although I don’t share his vision regarding Craft and Design in this “Theory of Craft”.

For the case of Science and Design, I consider the relation between these two as discussed by Nigel Cross and Harold Nelson & Erik Stolterman. As I tried to embed it in my phrase above, I state that it turns out difficult to outline strict boundaries in the relation of Science and Design. All depends on what type of definition, questions, and the place where those questions are made.

The third continuum entails the consequences of Art/Craft and Science/Design in relation to the real world. Thus, I consider—at least—the range that goes from abstraction to actuality. That is, from ideas to things that people can interact with. This continuum is theoretically related with ideas such as the “ultimate particular” and “design inquiry“—as a compound of the inquiries into the real, ideal, and true respectively—by Nelson & Stolterman.

The relational schema presented above doesn’t have the intention of being prescriptive. It corresponds to my personal viewpoint and a attempt to formulate my position as HCI/UX researcher regarding the type of research/discourse generated in my near context. That is, among the faculty and colleagues at Indiana University Bloomington. Further, since I have interest in schemas/diagrams/sketches, I generated it as an example of how schemas may function as a means for argumentation.

My purpose here is for you to take this schema and tear it up. Make it your own.

However, before you go and destroy this relational schema, let me show how it helped me to sketch the answer to the aforementioned issues.

UX and HCI in the relational space

As we observe from the schema above, the relational space is conformed by three axis, each of them representing one of the continuums describe above. Then, I perceive User Experience (UX) as a discipline highly design-oriented, focused on concrete outcomes, and with a high flavor of craft in its practice. I think these qualities make it different from other approaches regarding interactive artifacts-systems such as Software Engineering, ICT, or Computer Science.

UX in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
UX in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

On the other hand, I locate Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) in a different place within the relational space. I perceive HCI as more scientific discipline focused on concrete outcomes, yet with certain nuances of craft in its practice. I remark that I’m talking about a general or traditional perspective of HCI. In other words, a practice—and also its research—more emphasized on the first and second waves of HCI.

HCI in relations to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
HCI in relations to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

I consider that HCI influences UX, more than the other way around. Although HCI provides foundations and methods to UX, the latter seems to lack of impact regarding HCI in this fashion. Of course, this discussion could be very extensive and profound. So far, I remark this influence with an arrow, just to indicate that HCI may entail a more traditional approach whereas UX corresponds to the designerly approach.

Designerly and non-designerly approach to HCI/UX.
Designerly and non-designerly approach to HCI/UX.

In the attempt of describing the relation of HCI and UX and the implications that each has on the other, I’ve observed that within the HCI track—in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington—theory plays a critical role. It provides the discursive components to understand the aforementioned relation. Thus, in this milieu I’ve heard of design theoretical topics such as Slow Change Interaction Design, Sustainable Interaction Design, Feminist HCI, HCI Criticism, Participatory Design, Critical HCI, Design Theory, and Design Pedagogy, Practice and Methods. All of them gathered under the big umbrella of Design Theory (DT).

Design Theory in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
Design Theory in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

From my current perspective, UX influences DT since it provides the input to start theorizing about design. The consequences of UX are actual design cases. At the moment (design) researchers start analyzing those cases, a universe of study is created. By picking one planet, system, or galaxy of such universe, the (design) researchers cannot avoid to meet a philosophical situation since there’s an intrinsic relation between the researcher and the piece selected to study. And just as we may observe from the last sentences, the attempt to understand becomes a matter of (design) philosophy.

The relation between UX and Design Theory.
The relation between UX and Design Theory.

So far, we’ve observed from above the relations of HCI→UX and UX→DT. The question is now, in terms of DT and HCI, what is the discipline more prominent to influence or affect the other? I want to remark that it’s not my intention to be prescriptive. Based on my experience, I think that DT→HCI marks the relation within the type of research I’m currently involved. That is, DT provides HCI with theoretical foundations, which are in turn employed to generate frameworks.

Not necessarily connected with the latter, (design) methods are located very close to HCI in the path of this connection. Nowadays, more that thinking about their degree of applicability, I think that the so-called design methods could work without a deep—and hence philosophical—understanding of DT. I conjectured the latter based on my early experience with HCI, particularly as an undergraduate and latter getting involved with HCI researchers.

The relation between HCI and Design Theory/Theories.
The relation between HCI and Design Theory/Theories.

Research as an act of reconciliation

As I mentioned above the relational schema has the purpose of helping myself what’s my position as HCI/UX researcher. The relational schema is limited in order to respond to such statement. However, it provides a means to make an approximation for such goal.

I notice that more than talking about a precise position as (a possible future) researcher within the relational space, I can better reflect on the interrelation of UX-HCI-DT to understand on what research field I can work at. For instance, in the schema below, I picture a research field with big emphasis on the actuality and Art dimensions—although the connection with DT will always be there. Any change on this membrane represents a different framing on what to pay attention as HCI/UX researcher.

Research on design as reconciliation of HCI, UX, and Design Theory.
Research on design as reconciliation of HCI, UX, and Design Theory.

There are as many membrane variations as HCI/UX researchers. In my case, I know that my academic/professional past as designer and my current formation as scholar influence on how I frame the research field I’d like to work when I reach the dissertation stage. In this sense, I remark that relevance of the context. My advisor Marty Siegel, my mentor Erik Stolterman, the faculty, my colleagues PhD students from all the tracks, and the master’s students from the HCI/d program have a huge impact on shaping my particular membrane.

Questions come along more often than answers. I guess it’s a natural consequence regarding the formation as scholar. Yet I look forward to create many schemas that help me to understand this journey better. 🙂