An Online Design Journey of

site map
Designerly Ways of Knowing (Part 2)

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).

  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

3. Core Features of Design Ability

Traditional views of intelligence and ability as developed in academic psychology tend to view them in relation to the acquisition of verbal and numerical language systems. Intuitive thought, symbolic meaning and concrete learning are not presented as aspects of a high form of intelligence in its own right, but as aspects of a developmental sequence, the end point of which is a learned ability to perform abstract, logical operations.
The knowledge which designers acquire, value and use is ill-explained by these theories. Nigel Cross argues that the intrinsic value of learning in design derives from ways of knowing and proceeding, which are distinctive to design and are essentially non-verbal. He suggests that 'designerly' ways of knowing rest upon the manipulation of non-verbal codes in the material culture: "These codes translate messages either way between concrete objects and abstracts requirements; they facilitate the constructive, solution-focused thinking of the designer in the same way that the other (e.g. verbal and numerical) codes facilitate analytic, problem-focused thinking."
From a review of a wide variety of studies of design activity and designer behavior, design ability is summarized as comprising resolving ill-defined problems, adopting solution-focussed cognitive strategies, employing abductive or appositional thinking and using non-verbal modeling media. These abilities are highly developed in skilled designers, but are also possessed in some degree by everyone. A case is therefore made for design ability as a fundamental form of human intelligence (7).

For example, a number of observational studies have been made of how designers work. These studies tend to support the view that there is a distinct 'designerly' form of activity that separates it from typical scientific and scholarly activities.
Lawson's studies of design behavior, in particular, have compared the problem-solving strategies of designers with those of scientists (8). He devised problems which required the arrangement of 3D colored blocks so as to satisfy certain rules (some of which were not initially disclosed), and set the same problems to both postgraduate architectural students and postgraduate science students. The two groups showed dissimilar problem-solving strategies, according to Lawson. "The essential difference between these two strategies is that while the scientists focused their attention on discovering the rule, the architects were obsessed with achieving the desired result. The scientists adopted a generally problem-focused strategy and the architects a solution-focused strategy. Although it would be quite possible using the architect's approach to achieve the best solution without actually discovering the complete range of acceptable solutions, in fact most architects discovered something about the rule governing the allowed combination of blocks. In other words, they learn about the nature of the problem largely as a result of trying out solutions, whereas the scientists set out specifically to study the problem." (9)

Many people have especially warned against confusing Design with Science. "The scientific method is a pattern of problem-solving behavior employed in finding out the nature of what exists, whereas the design method is a patter of behavior employed in inventing things of value which do not exist yet. Science is analytic; design is constructive." (Gregory, 10). "The natural sciences are concerned with how things are… design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be." (Simon, 11). "To base design theory on inappropriate paradigms of logic and science is to make a bad mistake. Logic has interests in abstract forms. Science investigates extant form. Design initiates novel forms." (March, 12).
The emphasis in these admonitions is on the constructive, normative, creative nature of designing. Design is a process of pattern synthesis, rather than pattern recognition. The solution is not simply lying there among the data, like the dog among the spots in the well known perceptual puzzle; it has to be actively constructed by the designer's own effort. The concrete/icon modes of cognition are particularly relevant in design, whereas the formal/symbolic modes are relevant in sciences.
This pattern-constructing feature has been recognized as lying at the core of design activity by Alexander, in his 'constructive diagrams' (13) and 'pattern language' (14). This kind of thought differs from abstract thinking, but can be engaged, externalized and progressed by 'modeling' language systems, e.g. drawings, diagrams and construction. The designer learns to think in this sketch-like form, in which the abstract patterns of user requirements are turned into the concrete patterns of an actual object. It is like learning an artificial 'language', a kind of code which transforms 'thoughts' into 'words': "Those who have been trained as designers will be using just such a code… which enables the designer to effect a translation from individual, organizational and social needs to physical artifacts. This code which has been learned is supposed to express and contain actual connections which exist between human needs and their artificial environment. In effect, the designer learns to 'speak' a language -to make a useful transaction between domains which are unlike each other (sounds and meanings in language, artifacts and needs in design) by means of a code or system of codes which structure that connection." (Hilliar and Leaman, 15).

Designerly ways of knowing are embodied in these 'codes'. The details of the codes will vary from one design profession to another, but perhaps there is a 'deep structure' to design codes. We shall not know this until more effort has been made in externalizing the codes.
As a matter of fact, it has been suggested that graphic systems contain their own type of 'reflective' component, associated with the semantics of a given graphic tasks. Van Sommers suggests that competent drawers often employ learned strategies. But when these strategies are inadequate or lacking, a type of graphic intelligence is exercised to solve new problems of perceptual analysis posed by complex subject matters (16). Graphic intelligence involves engaging with the meanings or semantics of a task. These meanings are released by the act of drawing. Thus, the act of drawing makes meanings accessible to conscious attention and focusing. This process needs not necessarily be associated with verbal language. On the contrary, drawing may be viewed as a descriptive code containing particular types of spatial concepts not contained in verbal language. The manipulation of graphic marks therefore involves a particular type of thinking, which may be inhibited by, and in conflict with rational verbal conceptualization (17).

4. Designerly Ways of Knowing

The claim from the Royal College of Art report on 'Design in general education' was that 'there are things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding about them' that are at the core of the design area of education. The authors believe that there are designerly ways of knowing, distinct from the more usually-recognized scientific and scholarly ways of knowing; however, they do little to explicate this belief in designerly ways of knowing, and are less than precise about what design should include. Why it should be such a recognizably 'designerly' way of proceeding is probably not just an embodiment of any intrinsic inadequacies of designers and their education, but is more likely to be a reflection of the nature of the design task and of the nature of the kinds of problems designers tackle. The designer is constrained to produce a practicable result within a specific time limit, whereas the scientist and scholar are both able, and often required, to suspend their judgements and decisions until more is known -'further research is needed' is always a justifiable conclusion for them.
However, the world of design has been badly served by its intellectual leaders, who have failed to develop their subject in its own terms. Too often, they have defected to the cultures of scientific and scholarly inquiry, instead of developing the culture of designerly inquiry. Design must have its own inner coherence, in the ways that science and the humanities do, if it is to be established in comparable intellectual and educational terms. Understanding the nature of design ability can better enable design educators to nurture its development in their students.

So what can be said about these ill-defined 'designerly ways of knowing'? There has, in fact, been a small and very slowly-growing field of inquiry in design research over the last 30 years or so, from which it is possible to begin to draw some conclusions.
Nigel Cross has identify five aspects of designerly ways of knowing (1):

  • Designers tackle 'ill-defined' problems
  • Their mode of problem-solving is 'solution-focussed'
  • Their mode of thinking is 'constructive'
  • They use 'codes' that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects.
  • They use these codes to both 'read' and 'write' in 'object language'.

From these ways of knowing, he drew three main areas of justification for Design in General Education:

  1. Design develops innate abilities in solving real-world, ill-defined problems.
  2. Design sustains cognitive development in the concrete/iconic modes of recognition
  3. Design offers opportunities for development of a wide range of abilities in nonverbal thought and communication.

Essentially, we can say that designerly ways of knowing rest on the manipulation of non-verbal codes in the material culture; these codes translate 'messages' either way between concrete objects and abstract requirements; they facilitate the constructive, solution-focused thinking of the designer, in the same way that other (e.g. verbal and numerical) codes facilitate analytic, problem-focused thinking; they are probably the most effective means of tackling the characteristically ill-defined problems of planning, designing and inventing new things.
From this, we can move on to a justification for the inclusion of Design in General Education, based on the recognition that there are large areas of human cognitive ability that have been systematically ignored in our Western education system. This 'Third Culture' of Design relies not so much on verbal, numerical and literary modes of thinking and communication, but on nonverbal modes (18). This is particularly evident in the designer's use of models and 'codes' that rely so heavily on graphic images -i.e. drawings, diagrams and sketches that are aids to internal thinking as well as aids to communicating ideas and instructions to others.

However, there is still a long way to go before we can begin to have much sense of having achieved a real understanding of design as a discipline -we have only begun to make rough maps of the territory. The arguments for, and defense of, Design in General Education must rest on identifying the intrinsic values of design that make it justifiable a part of everyone's education.
Following on from his comments on nonverbal education as the prime justification for design in general education, French points out that there are certain implications arising from this: "If design teaching is to have this role it must meet certain requirements. It must 'stretch the mind', and ideally this involves a progression from step to step, some discipline of thought to be acquired in more or less specifiable components, reflected in a growing achievement of the pupil that both he and his teacher can recognize with some confidence. At present, there does not seem to be enough understanding, enough scholarly work on design, enough material of suitable nature to make such teaching possible. I believe we should strive to remedy this state of affairs. (19)"
We need a 'research program', in the sense which Lakatos (20) described the research program of science. At its core is a 'touch-stone theory' or idea -in our case the view that 'there are designerly ways of knowing'. Around this core is built a 'defensive' network of related theories, ideas and knowledge. In this way both design research and design education can develop a common approach to design as a discipline.
What I hope we shall achieve through academic design studies is that Design Education will become a reliably successful means for the development of design ability in everyone.

5. Bibliographic References

  1. Cross, N. 'Designerly ways of knowing'. DESIGN STUDIES, Vol. 3 N° 4 (October 1982)
  2. Royal College of Art, 'Design in general education'. Royal College of Art, London (1979)
  3. Archer, B. 'The three Rs'. DESIGN STUDIES Vol.1 N° 1 (July 1979) pp 18-20
  4. Cross, N. Naughton, J. and Walker, D. 'Design method and scientific method'. DESIGN STUDIES, Vol. 2 N° 4 (October 1981) pp 195-201
  5. Whitehead, A.N. 'Technical education and its relation to science and literature' in Whitehead ,A.N. THE AIMS OF EDUCATION, William and Norgate, London (1932) Second edition: Ernest Benn Ltd. London (1950)
  6. Cross, A. 'Design and General Education' DESIGN STUDIES Vol.1 N° 4 (July 1980) pp 202-206
  7. Cross, N. 'The nature and nurture of design ability'. DESIGN STUDIES Vol.11 N° 3 (July 1990) pp 127-140
  8. Lawson, B. 'Cognitive strategies in design studies'. ERGONOMICS, Vol.22 N° 1 (1979) pp 59-68
  9. Lawson, B. 'How designers think'. ARCHITECTURAL PRESS, London (1980)
  10. Gregory, S.A. 'Design and the design method' in Gregory, S.A. THE DESIGN METHOD, Butterworths, London (1966)
  11. Simon, H.A. 'The sciences of the artificial'. MIT Press, Cambridge MA USA 1969
  12. March, L.J. 'The logic of design and the question of value' in March, L.J. THE ARCHITECTURE OF FORM, Cambridge University Press UK (1976)
  13. Alexander, C. 'Notes on the synthesis of form'. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA USA (1964)
  14. Alexander, C. et Al. 'A pattern language'. Oxford University Press, New York (1979)
  15. Hillier, B. and Leaman, A. 'Architecture as a discipline'. J.ARCHIT. RES. Vol.5 N° 1 (1976) pp 28-32
  16. Van Sommers, P. 'Drawing and cognition'. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK (1984)
  17. Cross, A. 'Design intelligence: the use of codes and language systems in design'. DESIGN STUDIES Vol.7 N° 1 (January 1986) pp 14-19
  18. Ferguson, E.S. 'The mind's eye: non-verbal thought in technology', SCIENCE Vol.193 N° 4306 (1977)
  19. French, M.J. 'A justification for design teaching in schools'. ENGINEERING (design education supplement) May 1979 pp25.
  20. Lakatos, I. 'Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes' in Lakatos, I. And Musgrave, A. CRITICISM AND THE GROWTH OF KNOWLEDGE, Cambridge University Press (1970).
home design theory design learning online design design journey contact information

© Silvia Austerlic 2001