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The following text is a 2015 re-publication of the concluding parts of my critical review
of a Danish report about design research in Europe and USA, Designforskning: en international oversigt (2002).
The review was published in Scandinavian Journal of Design History 14, 2004: 82-88.
The full text of the review can be found here.
of design research
with a short homage to the philosophy of
It seems that the ultimate goal of the report's quest for an objective design definition and an objective core of design research is to reinforce the identity and status of the profession. The author writes: 'It is a task for the practising researchers to penetrate to the very core of design research [finde ind til kernen i designforskningen] as well as the frontiers of their professional field in order to be able to establish a better and more conscious cooperation with other specialist research disciplines' (84) I read the sentence as suggesting that only when a unique core of design research is discovered can one proceed to legitimately claim a piece of design territory of one's own - and raise fences distinguishing what is ours from what is theirs, so to speak. Only in this way, so the logic seems to go, can designers claim that they truly differ from engineers, architects, ergonomists, cognitive psychologists, marketing people and other professions perceived as competitors. Of course, the more or less hidden inter-professional struggles going on among neighbouring professions for a place in the sun are all too real. But should design research aim at propping up the organisational status of the profession? Will this result in new insights and new knowledge about design - or in just another form of promotion? At any rate, the report's insistence on associating research with the borders, limits and frontiers of the discipline is very disturbing now that design research is still in its infancy. We can be pretty sure that the one true design definition and the one true core of design research which the report urges be uncovered will never be found, simply because the whole quest is foolish. But the very idea that such a quest is important will, I am afraid, linger on and will certainly be used to pester young researchers to toe the line whenever their chosen problems transcend the turf.
The idea that there is an objective core of design research and that this core ought to belong to designers only, should be seen for what it is: a flight of fancy. I do agree with the author's conclusion, however, that there is a need to focus on what the report loosely describes as design process. By this it means a need for more insight into what designers as designers actually do and how they do it (and I see that such a focus is important also in order to make design history more useful to design students). But this sensible focus must be seen as a matter of research choices, preferences, priorities and decisions - not something that constitutes a given, intrinsic, objective core of design research. Design research, I contend, has no core that exists independently of what a person or a group chooses to see as its core. To argue otherwise smacks of a monopolist, protectionist impulse. And as this impulse will tend to allow only card-carrying members of the profession into whatever will be described as the 'core', it is bound to hinder developments in the direction of a vibrant design research. (The rather sullen and unappreciative remarks found here and there in the report regarding the present journal, the Copenhagen-based Scandinavian Journal of Design History (SJDH), alleging that it is concerned only with aesthetic and stylistic aspects of design, can only be understood in the light of the above ideas: if there somewhere exists an inherent and therefore objectively valid definition of design research, it implies that all design research not covered by this definition, is somehow inferior. Only on the basis of this view can SJDH's considerable contribution - over one hundred sizeable research articles and some fifty detailed design book reviews published in the past 13 years - be either almost entirely ignored in the report or treated almost as an act of trespass. I assume that under more normal circumstances the fact that Denmark has been publishing the only Scandinavian design research journal, and that it is one of five or six such journals worldwide, would be a reason for a Danish design research report to rejoice.)
The idea of an objective design research core endorsed by the report seems to entail that what matters in research is being a member of a profession rather that having theoretical, intellectual, scientific ideas about, insights into, and interest in what design is all about. Had the former been the case, design research would have been booming for years. But there is no such thing. Among the practising designers in the English-speaking (or rather English-writing) world there have been some, such as David Pye, Eva Zeisel, Paula Scher or Koen de Winter, (3) who have made true contributions to a better understanding of what designers do by reflecting about what they do themselves. But these designers are exceptions rather than the rule, which perhaps suggests that the idea of finding and reserving a core of design research to designers alone, would hardly help.
That this report tends to embrace an organisational, administrative and ultimately bureaucratic perspective on design research is, I assume, an unintended result of the governmental research initiatives. It is a well-known fact that not very many practising designers read design literature or are interested in the theoretical dimensions of design. Designers, busy as they are, are inclined just like the rest of us to fall back on what we have learned at school rather than to question it. In general, design schools by their very nature tend to perpetuate the status quo. Left to their own devices, neither designers nor design teachers would then probably produce very much research. The report's presentations and discussions confirm that. After all, designers are first and foremost trained to design new things, or, when acting as teachers, to instruct students in ways of designing new things. They are not primarily interested, or trained, to produce new theoretical insights. Nevertheless, it can probably be expected that to develop a discourse and a research culture around that cluster of different things called design would in the long run help both designers and design teachers to do a better job. Commercial research funding tends to keep research securely in pragmatic channels. The government research initiatives on the other hand, devised to promote research at state owned design schools, have created a system of external pressures (research-dependent academic titles, research-dependent tenures) that tend to create a perception that the ultimate aim of research is to secure the school's budget by keeping the budget-controlling government departments happy. Like the Soviet planned economy of the past, government-initiated research pressures, too, may tend towards generating 'conspicuous production.' (1) This report is perhaps an early example of such a tendency. By all administrative standards it is an excellent result. It was concluded in time; it has collected quite a lot of information; it has presented a discussion of problems; its results were made accessible in the form of a book of two hundred pages; the publishers even succeeded in recovering some of its production costs through its sales. The CID did what its project promised, and the department can consider the initiative a great success. That the report also seriously distorts the idea of research by presenting, albeit unwittingly, the organisational and administrative perspectives on design research as if these were the only possible, or the only important ones, is something the governmental departments in charge would probably be the last to notice.
In the situation where administrative and organisational notions of research tend to get the upper hand, seemingly as a by-product of the fact that research requirements are being enforced from the top, it is imperative to find a perspective on research which would be able to counter these inherent dangers. Here I cannot think of any approach more suited to this task than the research philosophy of critical rationalism developed by Karl Popper, the late British philosopher of Austrian origin.
Popper, a great demystifier of science, claimed that science is not to be seen as a body of verified knowledge, as the general understanding has it, but as a body of theories, conjectures and hypotheses which are as yet not refuted. In his view all our knowledge is and always will be conjectural. He argued consequently that instead of attempting to verify our theories we should make a serious effort to find faults with them. A theory was in his view scientific if, and only if, it was possible to conceive of circumstances which would amount to its refutation. He did believe in growth of knowledge, however, and saw the possibility of free criticism as the cardinal precondition for such growth. He claimed that neither philosophy nor science has any special method apart from the critical attitude. He argued that problems can only be solved with the help of new ideas, not through arguing about the meaning of words. Popper reminded his students that they were not students of subject matters or of disciplines but students of problems. (2) Of course, research administrators have a need for subject matters and disciplines, and for borders between them, and this need is real. But it should be remembered that such organisational and administrative categories are latter-day by-products of antecedent research activities (and not the other way round) and that the already constituted disciplinary fields more often than not tend to limit the researcher's freedom to pursue the chosen problems, since research problems by their nature not only fail to respect disciplinary boundaries, but invariably cut across the established disciplines and traditional subject matters.
We need to curb our monopolist urges. Instead of searching for an intrinsic core of design research to be set apart for practising designers only, would it not be a much better idea to keep an open house? Why not invite anybody, from any discipline or profession whatsoever, who is interested in contributing to a better understanding of any of the numerous meanings represented by the term design, and the problems relating to these meanings? The present report documents persuasively that the number of various contents imputed to the term design, as well as to the term design research, is indeed great, and that this is a fact. Let that stand for the main finding in the report. Let us therefore wake up from the bureaucratic dream of arriving at one correct definition of design and one correct definition of design research.
After all, research is useful only if it helps us to distinguish between reality and wishful thinking.
Michael Polanyi, Towards a Theory of Conspicuous Production, Soviet Survey, no. 34, October-December (1960): 90-99; see also Paul Craig Roberts, Alienation and the Soviet Economy, Oakland, Ca.: The Independent Institute, 1990 [amazon].
Mark Amadeus Notturno, On Popper. London: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003 [amazon]; Steve Fuller, The Struggle for the Soul of Science: Kuhn vs. Popper. Cambridge: Icon Books, 2003 [amazon]; Mark Amadeus Notturno, Science and the Open Society: The Future of Karl Popper's Philosophy. New York, N.Y.: Central European University Press, 2000 [amazon]; Karl R. Popper, Unended quest: an intellectual autobiography, Fontana/Collins, London 1976 [amazon]; Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974 [amazon]. See also Rafe Champion's texts on Popper as well as the Critical Rationalism Forum.
David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968 [amazon]; David Pye, The Nature and Aesthetics of Design. London: The Herbert Press, 1978 [amazon]; Eva Zeisel, On Being a Designer. In Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry, 73-104. Montreal: Le Chateau Dufresne, 1984 [amazon]; Paula Scher, Make It Bigger. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002 [amazon]; Koen De Winter, Thoughts on Originality published in designaddict 2002.
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Other online reviews in English by Jan Michl:
S. Väkevä, ed. (1990) Product Semantics '89
S. Vihma, ed. (1990) Semantic Visions in Design
P. Lloyd Jones (1991) Taste Today: The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design
G. Widengren, ed. (1994) Tanken och Handen: Konstfack 150 ĺr
M. Aav and N. Stritzler-Levine, eds. (1998) Finnish Modern Design
For another Popper-related article, see Towards Understanding Visual Styles As Inventions Without Expiration Dates (2015)
All online articles IN ENGLISH by Jan Michl
The author's workplace 2017:
NTNU / Norwegian University of Science and Technology / Gjøvik, Norway