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Why should we know what is design?

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Jennefer Hart
29 October 2010

After many years a student is still finding difficulty in understanding what design is at its core. The students cannot build a concept of what design is. He is very good at the 'making' of design but the thinking part is difficult. There seems to be a difficulty in not knowing the goal or essence of design and designing. 

There is an ongoing dialogue with the tutor, but no illumination. The tutor also has no answer. There might not be a answer, or not one answer. The student needs to find for himself the answer. The tutor can only be there and listen. The question arises:

Why should we know what design is?

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nicole schadewitz
3:32pm 29 October 2010


In design studio education, there seems to be a constant quest for finding the answer to the questions what design is. It's hard to pin down, it can be many things for many people. A key point that was mentioned in the discussion was intuition. The student needs to develop a feel for what design is, but does the student also have to develop and be able to express a concept of designing? 

Derek Jones
10:22pm 2 November 2010


How about inverting the question to ask 'what is design not?'

The presumption here would be that the student you mention, since they display the ability to demonstrate an aptitude for designing, must at some point have generated something (an idea, or sketch) about which they thought 'this is not design'.

In doing so they might not necessarily have a definition of what design is, but they will at least know what it is not (with reference to what they are being critical of).

In fact, could you extend this and suggest that all design is simply a case of working out a whole bunch of things that it it is not ('failing forward') and only on the last iteration presenting a compromise of what it might be?

The process of try, fail, learn, repeat, is common to so much design that it is entirely possible that there is no such thing as design (or that Design is some kind of ideal that exists only as a concept - a Platonic dream?). Hence all definitions of design are 'dream' of the concept Design - giving Nicole's subjectivity with no single 'truth'.

DeBono said (and I paraphrase and can't find the ref :{ ) "Today you have a good idea; tomorrow you have a better one. But the perfect idea, never."

Maybe design is just what is left when you've decided what it's not ...

(ps sorry for going metaphysical, again.)

(pps I take it we are talking about 'design' as a noun here ... ?)

nicole schadewitz
10:19am 9 November 2010


Yes, I think we talk about design as noun, as in 'concept of design'.

I have to be honest, I would have similar problems with deciding what is not design than what is design. Obviously not in all but certainly in border-situation, such as, cleaning my house. Do I simply clean, or do I re-design the interior of my house, constantly questioning and evaluating the question is it clean, orderly or chaotically, and good enough to live in here? It is very difficult to know where does design end. Honestly, when cleaning, I constantly try to optimise the design of the interior of my house. Maybe this is different with other people, so is design a very personal definition then?

For me the question: "Why should we know what is design" in the concept of design pedagogy fundamentally asks: Do students need to form a concept of design (that they can capture in a definition using words), or is knowing what design is more an intuitive venture or state of mind? Then how can it be better expressed than in words only - compendium maps ;)?

Derek Jones
6:35pm 15 November 2010


Yup - see what you mean. Thinking about what it is not does not help me create a definitive definition either (oh well...).

I guess it is still perhaps worth considering for the student who may be struggling with it conceptually - i.e. that if they are '...still finding difficulty in understanding what design is at its core', then it is perhaps still worth a look at the inverse. In urban design there is a graphic representation of cities called an inverse Nolli plan, whereby instead of the buildings being coloured black, the space between them is. This 'opposite' view of built space can often lead to interesting things turning up - you can often 'see' the space between buildings in a very interesting way.

If he/she is consistently producing good design, there must(?) be some framework / process in operation to allow this - even if the student themselves cannot express this? There must surely be some point at which a value based decision is made - a small process of deciding whether one choice is 'better' than another?

Perhaps it is an entirely subjective thing but I do wonder if the original student (who's difficulties we are still considering, but who has an ability to produce consistently good design) has a problem with conceptualising what good design is or simply communicating in one particular way (i.e. verbal/written language) what good design is. They can obviously communicate 'what is good design' through their own designs... so, yes, Compendium is perhaps (one of) the answer(s) in the sense that we seek an alternative mode of expression for this student? 

Is the more intriguing question whether an educator should interfere with this process at all? Would it still work if it were brought to conscious realisation (like experienced fighter pilots who cannot fly planes and describe what they are doing at the same time)?

PS - let me know if you want to 'clean' my house :)

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