Sunday, October 02, 2011

How to define design

I have mentioned here before that all signs are telling us that our reality is becoming more complex. While we humans spend more and more time making our reality into something that resembles or fulfills our dreams, it becomes more connected, more intertwined, more complex. The question is if this new reality, this complex mess, is easier to understand and to design for than the old "natural" and "simple" environment.

It is clear that complexity is quickly becoming the new research front in many disciplines. Complexity is the new challenge. It seems to emerge anywhere and all the time. There are of course also many ideas on how to approach complexity in a way that can "tame" it and make it manageable, maybe even possible to manipulate and work with (for a good discussion of the "nature" of complexity see Donald Norman "Living with complexity"). This is all good and well as long as the purpose is to study, describe, and maybe predict the structure and behavior of complex "things". But when it comes to design, complexity has a different meaning and practical consequences and has to be dealt with in a different way.

In the article "The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research" I argue that there is distinct difference between what is commonly seen as complexity in a scientific way and what can be labeled design complexity. I also develop the argument that we make a huge mistake if we try to solve design complexity by applying the methods used in science. In the article I show why a design approach is needed when we attempt to design for and within complex systems.

One reason why a scientific approach does not work when it comes to design complexity is that by reducing a problem at hand to something possible to deal with, with the general principles of the scientific approach, we will not reach a rich enough understanding of the whole "system" from a design perspective. There is no possibility to be comprehensive in design or science, which of course mean that we always will deal with some unpredictability. The more we try to handle complexity by making it "tame", contained, or less complex the more we might end up designing based on an understanding of reality that is way too simplistic.

Design is always about the whole, it always involves all possible aspects of reality. It can never be reduced or limited in order to be more precise or "correct". A designerly approach to complexity is therefore very different from the scientific. This insight seems to lead to many definitions of design where design is described as the opposite to the scientific approach, that is, what it is not. This is why we can find so many definitions of design that defines a design approach as not rational, logic, and linear. This is very unfortunate. Design is rational. Design has a logic. Design is linear. That is not the difference. The difference is that design has a different rationality, a different logic and linearity. To advocate design  should instead be done in a positive sense, that is, what it is. In the article mentioned above, I make some attempts at doing that.

I is definitely possible to define the logic of design and the rationality of design. It is also possible to define what validity and rigor means when it comes to a design approach. Any designer knows that you have to be rigorous in your approach. More work needs to be done to formulate design as a rigorous, logic and rational approach.

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