When Don Norman wrote that he is "made to read a lot of crap" in Why Design Education Must Change, he had me sighing in agreement. Around ninety-percent of the design and design education research I read sends me to sleep. I am interested in design, education and research and the futures of all three, but why is the strike rate of interesting material so low? It leaves me rather depressed about a discipline that claims creativity to be among its key attributes. When it comes to engaging in public discourse, design research has suffered a failure of imagination.
I should clarify here that when I am talking about design research, I am talking of institutional, mainly academic research. I'm not talking about research that designers do in design practice. That this needs explaining is part of the problem, of which more in a moment.
The media regularly contains calls from scientists for more research funding, more science to be taught in schools and claims for the enormous importance of science to the world. STEM subjects—an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics—are the centrepiece of curriculum development and the associated funding. Newspaper columns and sections are devoted to science. Entire television channels and expensive series, such as the BBC's highly successful Wonders... series featuring Professor Brian Cox, are directly aimed to inspire and ignite the imaginations of schoolchildren and adults alike. Where are the equivalents for design? Gary Hustwit's Helvetica and Objectified may have been seen by most Core77 readers, but I doubt the average schoolchild is aware of either of them.
To be clear, I'm not bashing science. Science is important, as are technology, engineering and mathematics, but this is just one side of the coin (and brain). Given that the world is not only filled with designed objects and media, but also suffering under the enormous weight and consumption of much of them, design clearly has a central role to play in society for good or ill. Where are the impassioned calls for the role of design and for teaching design in curricula debates in mainstream media? Where are the TV programs, magazines and books? I am not talking about superficial style magazines or the design periodicals that essentially print articles on the reverse pages of press releases. Where are the design equivalents of Scientific American or National Geographic? Why isn't design debated in government in the same way as STEM subjects?
Some voices are there. Sir Ken Robinson has argued the case for creativity in the curriculum from the perspectives of both personal fulfillment and economic value. Tim Brown contends that anyone, in any business, can and should become a design thinker. These two are best known through their TED Talk appearances, but their voices are missing from national newspaper columns, television series and government debates. Don Norman has argued the case for a change in design education and for toppling the barriers to that change. All three are well-known names to any Core77 readers, of course, but that's part of design's problem. Provocative and insightful as Norman's articles are, they are not part of the mainstream conversation about education and design's value to society. We are preaching to the converted and this does not change the public agenda. The Obama administration has an Office of Science and Technology Policy, but there's no job for Don in an equivalent for design.
It is hard to compare popularity or influence directly, but Professor Brian Cox's Wonders... series had regular viewing figures of between three and four million when first broadcast in the UK. Dan Brown's (awful) The Da Vinci Code is the UK's biggest selling book of the last decade with just over 4.5 million UK copies sold. So that's just the UK and two media forms, one TV science, the other airport novel trash, but the numbers are large enough. (I have no sales figures for the books of Tim Brown, Ken Robinson or Don Norman. I expect they are significantly lower, but maybe Don will spill the beans and prove me wrong).
By contrast, Apple sold 20.34 million iPhones and 9.25 million iPads alone in the third quarter of 2011. Most people will have heard of Steve Jobs, but I doubt the number of British people who have heard of Jonathan Ive is anywhere near those who have heard of Professor Cox. Yet far greater numbers of people own the devices designed by Ive than the numbers of people who viewed Cox's TV series. Thanks to the efforts of broadcasters such as the BBC helping to push the science agenda and through early contact with science in school, I would expect that many children and adults would have a better chance of describing the methods behind science than those behind design. (You can even ask for a STEM ambassador to visit your school).
This is a poor indictment of our abilities as designers. Design educators and researchers and, I think, designers in general, have failed to imagine and communicate an integrated vision of design's role and value in society comparable to that of science.
Design research and design education research should form the backbone of this message if we are to escape the popular public understanding that design equals style. The skills so central to design are also crucial skills for everyone. They should sit next to discussions on curriculum where STEM is balanced by, as John Maeda put it, IDEA—Intuition, Design, Emotion, Art.
Comparing design and science
Unpacking the comparison between science and design reveals a key to the problem. Design practice, design research and design theory have fractured apart from one another. When design research methods or theory are taught, they are frequently both taught and perceived by students as "not practice." Worse, theory and methods are often seen as a distraction from getting on with the "real work" of creative design practice in both senses of commercial practice and the activity of designing.
I can't blame the students for taking this view. Some design theory and research reads as if it really has nothing to do with designing at all. I believe there are two key reasons for the split between design research, theory and practice. The first has to do with the role that the arts have in schools. The division between the STEM subjects and the arts happens very early on. This tends to create an environment in which pupils with a dominance in visual or kinesthetic learning styles begin to reject STEM subjects or find them difficult to engage with due to the way those subjects are usually taught. Even if they do want to engage in both the sciences and arts, preference choices often force schoolchildren to choose one path over the other. This initial experience taints future situations when design students are studying in higher education. Subjects to do with theory or research immediately smell of STEM and either fear or boredom set in.
The second reason is that designers have been complicit in perpetuating the myth of design ability stemming from talent and inspiration for far too long. Both of those play a part in successful design activities, but they do in any discipline. To accept that creative thinking is just the result of a special gift is to deny the effort that goes into practice and experience. Relegated to being "non-academic" in school early on, designers can fall back on the magic of how they come up with great ideas to restore their sense of self-worth. Later, in agency form, this mystery is sold to clients, perpetuating the mythology.
This has been an enormous mistake on the part of commercial design practice and has led to a backwash into education and, I suggest, design education research. We have sold what we do as magic at the cost of hiding our thinking process and when we hide our process we can no longer articulate it, teach it or give it the value it deserves.
Design method and the scientific method
The choice of the word "magic" is a deliberate reference to the title of Jon Kolko's recent book Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner's Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis in which he argues the case for designers to interrogate and explicitly articulate the process of design synthesis. I'm not going to describe the process of synthesis here, because I assume many readers already do it, even if they don't articulate it. The important thing is Kolko's comparison of abductive thinking to describe hypothesis as a form of inference. "It is the hypothesis that makes the most sense given observed phenomenon or data and based on prior experience." This is the kind of best guess or inference that designers make all the time, ideally based on a combination of experience and research. This is in contrast to the science's usual model of inductive reasoning, by which a structured experience (an experiment) has an intrinsic logic. "Each time I do A under the same conditions, B occurs. Inductively, the next time I do A under these conditions, B will occur."
There is an important difference in attitudes towards process. For science, the process and method are everything. Nothing is believed to be true until it is experimentally proven to be so and even then the door is always open for the discovery that experimental conditions, instruments or starting data were flawed (or that Einstein might have been wrong). Arguably, method and process are more important than the actual end results—scientists remain skeptical until proven otherwise and rigour is paramount. Traditionally, however, design practice has taken the opposite approach. Results are what count and often speak for themselves in the designed artefacts. Process is merely a means to an end.
The mistaken divisions between theory, research and practice
One of the key differences between the sciences and design is in the relationship between research and practice. For most scientists, research is what they do. Research is science, scientific practice is research. A similar view of design is absent from most commercial design practice and design education. In many countries design research is a very young field, even when they have a long tradition of design (such as Switzerland, where I work). As design research has become more important both intellectually and financially to institutions, the false separation between theory, research and practice has been expanded. This has meant that design is seen what designers do, while theory and research are concerned with thinking about design, usually in an academic context.
For institutions and teachers that come from a tradition of design as craft (in which theory and research are present but often unarticulated), this separation gives rise to practical tensions concerning funding, positions and program design. In academia this often means lecturers and researchers are either part-time and have a day job as a "real" designer or they are not active in design practice anymore at all. Students are acutely aware of this, but a path in design education from undergraduate to postgraduate tends to take a trajectory from practice into the purely theoretical. The two are not integrated.
We should be teaching students that theory is practice and practice is theory and that the same goes for the design and research. To do this we need to be clearer about the value of research and synthesis to the practice of design. We also need argue for greater rigour in commercial design practice as designers start to work in far more complex areas than their craft training has prepared them for.
Service design and world peace
Many of the services that are valued in society are those that we expect to be around for a long time, such as healthcare, welfare, finances, mobility, communications and energy. For service designers engaging in these fields the design challenges become increasingly complex. Recently, service designers and researchers have been exploring the limits of design's ability to tackle one of the most complex, important and "wicked" problems of all—international peace, development and security. Derek B. Miller and Lisa Rudnick from the Security Needs Assessment Protocol (SNAP) team at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) have been examining design's relationship with public policy in order to build an interdisciplinary research agenda. Miller, however, strikes a note of caution (PDF) regarding the danger of unintended long-term side effects of the design intervention.
Many designers today, especially the younger generation of designers, want to do some good in the world. They no longer seem satisfied simply creating objects of desire for profit. This is laudable. But for the good intentions of the design profession to actually result in some good, it is going to be necessary to carefully attend to how we design. Design is both a social process, with implications for others who are participants to that process, and also brings something new into the world that may have social force. Attending to both matters responsibly will be essential as the field moves forward.
This is especially true as design steps into the wider world of international peace and security—given that the issue here is not consumer value but life and death.
There is some limited discussion about ethics in design, but in comparison to codes of conduct in, say, anthropology, architecture, and medicine, one would be forgiven for finding them undeveloped.
Miller makes two key distinctions between design and policy making. The first is that policy making is usually carried out by democratically-elected representatives. That is, the policy "design process" is done by people who have been elected and can be de-elected if the design outcome is not the one the citizens want. Design, on the other hand, is more often about making decisions for people or, at best, on behalf of them, but not as their elected representatives, regardless of what we believe about how much we try to walk in their shoes.
The second point takes note of the range of horrors and threats that arise through armed conflict:
These are real, grown up issues that need real, grown up attention by people who are committed—professionally—to trying to figure out what is wrong with their own ideas, and not what is right about them. Designers are worryingly not involved in that process. Design is trying to prove itself, rather than disprove itself. It is the latter, though, that will serve the social good.
Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, design researchers and educators have become discipline specific. Much like the towers of medieval San Gimignano, academic careers are built by adding layers to one's own discipline tower while attempting to demolish those of others. Trying to prove ourselves wrong may seem counter-intuitive to a field that is trying to gain credibility outside of its usual place in the food-chain, but it is also the mark of self-confidence.
If design, as a broad field, really does want to start doing some good in the world, it is essential that design develops a clearer voice in public discourse. We need to argue the case for design's importance throughout education as an integrated practice and be rigorous in understanding the context in which we operate. That means looking outward, not naval gazing. A glance through the abstracts of a great deal of research journals and conferences points to the latter. This is a terrible irony given the fact that many of us practice human-centered design research that expressly aims to avoid the effects of designing from within ivory towers.
I realize I am writing from a European viewpoint here, especially as Core77 recently reported both Fast Company and Dwell bringing out special issues on United States design. I would like to hear the experiences of those in other countries on this matter.
[Update 11.11.11: Just to note that a version of this was presented at the International Symposium for Design Education Researchers in Paris and the proceedings are available as PDF from the Design Research Society website.]