Dec 1, 2017

the performing of a very complicated act

John Chris Jones’s 1992 book, Design Methods has a selected historical list of the definitions for design work. Jones offers us these, gathered from the era just after the 20th century’s post-war boom in industrial production and therefore the real professionalization of designers. What’s it about?

Finding the right physical components of a physical structure. (Alexander, 1963)

A goal-directed problem-solving activity. (Archer, 1965)

Decision making, in the face of uncertainty, with high penalties for error. (Asimow, 1962)

Simulating what we want to make (or do) before we make (or do) it as many times as may be necessary to feel confident in the final result. (Booker, 1964)

The conditioning factor for those parts of the product which come into contact with people. (Farr 1966)

Engineering design is the use of scientific principles, technical information, and imagination in the definition of a mechanical structure, machine, or system to perform pre-specified functions with the maximum economy and efficiency. (Fielden, 1963)

Relating product with situation to give satisfaction. (Gregory, 1966)

The performing of a very complicated act. (Jones, 1966)

The optimum solution to the sum of the true needs of a particular set of circumstances. (Matchett, 1968)

The imaginative jump from present acts to future possibilities. (Page, 1966)

A creative activity—it involves bringing into being something new and useful that has not existed previously. (Reswick, 1965)

Jones tells us to note how distinctive these are from one another, in more ways than you’d expect. Not even a lot of shared words! Even if we were to take a more contemporary survey, I suspect there’d be as much range. This is what makes design such an interesting place to work—from the very transactional and specific to the very meta “performing of a very complicated act.” (Predictably, I love this koan-like zinger.)

Later he’s asking why designing is difficult, and here’s his assessment:

The fundamental problem is that designers are obliged to use current information to predict a future state that will not come about unless their predictions are correct. The final outcome of designing has to be assumed before the means of achieving it can be explored: the designers have to work backwards in time from an assumed chain effect upon the world to the beginning of a chain of events that will bring the effect about. If, as is likely, the act of tracing out the intermediate steps exposes unforeseen difficulties or suggests better objectives, the pattern of the original problem may change so drastically that the designers are thrown back to square one …. This instability of the problem is what makes designing so much more difficult and more fascinating than it may appear to someone who has not tried it.

All of this is true, and I haven’t read Jones’s entire book. But I wish there weren’t always such a tinge of the relentlessly forward to contemporary kinds of claims like these. I want to say: this is why designers need history—not just design history but history, proper. It’s not always—maybe not even that often—that you’re anticipating the next thing, ex nihilo. Even if the means you’ll use to deliver goods and services are technologically new, you’re equally charged with recovering, rescuing, reclaiming from past practices and values that have been lost or traded off to give us the present. As all good historians like to say: continuity and change. Or as Bruno Latour has said: Perhaps all design is redesign.

(I’m correcting my own lack of history by reading through various selections in the Design Studies Reader, alternating with classics in disability studies. Follow along if you like, and do please correct me where I’m hopelessly naive!)