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Designerly Ways of Knowing (Part 1)

Knowledge of what is doesn't open the door directly to what should be.

Albert Einstein

Design Theory

Seven Colums of Design

Design Education

Design Links


Condensed version of the articles "Design intelligence: the use of codes and language systems in design" (Anita Cross. DESIGN STUDIES, Vol. 7 N? 1, January 1986), "The nature and nurture of design ability" and "Designerly ways of knowing" (Nigel Cross. DESIGN STUDIES, Vol. 11 N° 3 July 1990 & Vol. 3 N° 4 October 1982).

The following text aims to contribute to establish some theoretical bases for treating Design as a coherent discipline of study, in the context of Western Education. Such an acceptance must imply a reorientation from the instrumental aims of conventional Design Education, toward intrinsic values. These values derive from what Nigel Cross, from the Open University (United Kingdom) has named 'designerly' ways of knowing (1). A case is therefore made for design ability as a fundamental form of human intelligence. Because of a common concern with these fundamental ways of knowing, both design research and design education are contributing to the development of design as a discipline:

  1. A Case for Design as a Third Culture
  2. Design in General Education
  3. Core Features of Design Ability
  4. Designerly Ways of Knowing
  5. Bibliographic References

1. A Case for Design as a Third Culture

A principal outcome of the Royal College of Art's research project on 'Design in general education' was the restatement of a belief in a missing 'third area of education' (2). The two already-established areas can be broadly classified as education in the sciences and education in the arts, or humanities. These 'two cultures' of the Arts and the Sciences have long been recognized as dominating our social, cultural and educational systems. However, Technology, centered on design ability, can be viewed as a third culture, with its own things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them.
The 'Third Culture' is not so easily recognized, simply because it has been neglected, and has not been adequately named or articulated. Archer (3) and his RCA colleagues were prepared to call it "Design with a capital D" and to articulate it as 'the collected experience of the material culture, and the collected body of experience, skill and understanding embodied in the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing." This 'material culture' of design is, after all, the culture of the technologist -the designer, doer and maker. Technology involves a synthesis of knowledge and skills from both the sciences and the humanities, in the pursuit of practical tasks; it is not simply 'applied science, but "the application of scientific and other organized knowledge to practical tasks…" (4).
Even a 'three cultures' view of human knowledge and ability is a simple model. However, contrasting design with the sciences and the humanities is a useful, if crude, way of beginning to be more articulate about it. Education in any of these 'cultures' entails the following three aspects:

  1. the transmission of knowledge about a phenomenon of study
  2. a training in the appropriate methods of inquiry an initiation into the belief systems and values of the 'culture'.

In most cases, it is easier to contrast the Sciences and the Humanities (e.g. objectivity versus subjectivity, experiment versus analogy) than it is to identify the relevant comparable concepts in Design. This is perhaps an indication of the paucity of our language and concepts in the 'Third Culture', rather than any acknowledgement that it does not really exist in its own right. As A.N. Whitehead suggested, "There are three main roads along which we can proceed with good hope of advancing towards the best balance of intellect and character: these are the way of literacy culture, the way of scientific culture, the way of technical culture. No one of these methods can be exclusively followed without grave loss of intellectual activity and of character." (5)

The knowledge, values and skills of these three cultures can be distinguished as follows:

Field of knowledge:

  1. Arts: human experience
  2. Science: the natural world
  3. Technology: the artificial, human-made world

Range of values:

  1. Arts: subjectivity, imagination, commitment, and a concern for 'justice
  2. Science: objectivity, rationality, neutrality, and a concern for 'truth'
  3. Technology: practicality, ingenuity, empathy, and a concern for 'appropriateness'

Type of skills:

  1. Arts: criticism, analogy, evaluation
  2. Science: experiment, classification, analysis
  3. Technology: modeling, pattern forming, synthesis

From the RCA report, the following conclusions can be drawn on the nature of "Design with a capital D":

  • The central concern of Design is 'the conception and realization of new things'
  • It encompasses the appreciation of 'the material culture' and the application of 'the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing'
  • As its core is the 'language of modeling'; it is possible to develop student's aptitudes in this 'language', equivalent to aptitudes in the 'language' of the sciences -numeracy- and the 'language' of humanities -literacy-.
  • Design has its own distinct 'things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them'.

2. Design in General Education

The research path to Design as a discipline is concentrated on understanding those general features of design activity that are common to all the design professions: it has been concerned with 'design in general' -which now allows us to generalize at least a little about the 'designerly' ways of knowing-, and it leads us to consider what it is that can be generalized as of intrinsic value in learning to design. The education path to Design as a discipline forces us to consider the nature of this general subject of Design, what it is that we are seeking to develop in the individual student, and how this development can be structured for learning.
Our established concepts of design have always been related to specialists education: design education has been a preparation of students for a professional, technical role. But we are now exploring the ways and the implication of design being a part of everyone's education.

Traditionally, design teachers have been practicing designers who pass on their knowledge, skills and values through a process of apprenticeship. Design students 'act out' the role of designer in small projects, and are tutored in the process by more experienced designers. These design teachers are firstly designers, and only secondly and incidentally teachers. This model may be defensible for Specialist Education, but in General Education all teachers are (or should be) firstly teachers, and only secondly, if at all, specialists in any field.
To understand this distinction we must understand the differences between Specialist Education and General Education. The main distinction lies in the difference between the instrumental, or extrinsic, aims that Specialist Education usually, and the intrinsic aims that General Education must have. For to call something 'educational' is to intimate that the cognitive perspective, processes and activities themselves contribute to or involve something that is worthwhile. Anita Cross has pointed out that, "Since General Education is in principle non-technical and non-vocational, Design can only achieve parity with other disciplines in General Education if it is organized as an area of study which contributes as much to the individual's self-realization as to preparation for social roles." (6)
To be educated is of value in and of itself, not because of any extrinsic motivating factors or advantages it might be considered to offer, such as getting a job. In order to justify Design as part of General Education, therefore, it is necessary to identify that which is intrinsically valuable in the field of Design, such that it is justifiably a part of everyone's education and contributes to the development of an 'educated' person.
This is therefore a challenging criterion for Design Education, since design is often regarded as a skill, perhaps something like bicycle-riding, swimming, or playing golf. It entails a fundamental change of perspective from that a vocational training for a design profession, which is the only kind of 'Design Education' we have had previously. Design in General Education is not primarily a preparation for a career, nor is it primarily a training in useful productive skills for 'doing and making' in industry. It must be defined in terms of the intrinsic values of education.

If you want to read Part 2, click here

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© Silvia Austerlic 2001