Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Producing knowledge by design for design

The field of design, particularly the philosophy and theory of design, is evolving fast today. Over the last thirty years there has been a plethora of writings about the relation between science/research and design. One of the most contested questions has been to what extent design as a process of inquiry and action also is a legitimate process of knowledge production. It is not strange that the question arises. Science and design have distinct and different purposes as approaches. Jonas Löwgren says it clearly in his recent ACM Interactions article when he writes "The essence of research is to produce knowledge, and the essence of design is to produce artifacts." This is a clean and simple distinction, even though we know it is possible to find examples that makes this definition more complex, but Löwgren states that even if there are other purposes involved in research today, "the knowledge-production purpose is primary".

The same can be said about design of course. Design can have many different purposes but at the core it is all about the process of imagination and production of artifacts (systems, symbols, services, etc), or with other words, it is all about changing reality. Even though the discourse around design as a valid form of knowledge production approach has grown, it is not until lately that we are seeing some real advances. Unfortunately, a lot of energy has been devoted to develop definitions that are compliant with the existing understanding of knowledge production as it is practiced within the scientific tradition.  This has led to an outsider perspective on design, that is, design is seen through the scientific definitions, understandings and concepts of knowledge and method. Less energy has been devoted to start from within, with the ambition to develop an insider perspective--a perspective that takes it starting point in a real and deep understanding of design as its own tradition and not seen as "not science".

I made the argument in my article "The nature of design practice and implications for design research" (ref below) that one of the common mistakes done when it comes to design theory is to use an outsider perspective (particularly with a stance in science).  Anyway, it is clear to me that we are entering a more productive stage in the development of design philosophy when the insider approach is becoming more common. For instance, the article in ACM Interactions by Bill Gavers and John Bowers on "Annotated Portfolios" and Löwgren article mentioned above are great examples of this emerging realization that design has a real role to play in knowledge production and that the formulation of what that role is has to be done from within design grounded in a deep understanding of design. 

A new understanding of design as a knowledge producing approach can be established  but not by trying to make design into something it is not. This means that the road forward is not to make or force design to become more scientific or to use scientific methods, instead it means that we have to acknowledge and externalize what the core strength of design is. This is what Gaver, Bowers and Löwgren is doing so well. Löwgren states this well in his article when he concludes:

"To conclude, I strongly support Gaver and Bowers in claiming that design practice has a place in HCI research today, and that the researcher can add knowledge value by providing annotations in addition to the artifacts. My own contribution here is to recognize the proposal for annotated portfolios as an intermediate-level knowledge practice among other such practices. To me, those practices appear to be promising paths toward fruitful academic discourse and collaborative knowledge production that accommodates the nature of design practice without undue “scientistic” reduction."

This is exactly the way forward. However, this is also a challenge of magnitude since it requires anyone who engages with this issue to be equally well prepared in the philosophy of science as well as in the philosophy of design. Even if we are making progress, there are still few who have the ability to make thoughtful contributions based on such double competence, but with a new generation of thinkers who see it as natural to be equally competent in science and design there is hope.

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Löwgren has a great list of references in his article. To me, these selected references are examples of this new and growing understanding of design as research. I am pleased to see my own writings among the ones I selected :-)


Gaver, B. and Bowers, J. Annotated portfolios. interactions 19, 4 (2012), 40–49.

Stolterman, E. The nature of design practice and implications for design research. Int. J. Design 2, 1 (2008), 55–65.

Gaver, W. What should we expect from research through design? Proc. Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM Press, New York, 2012, 937–946.

Höök, K. and Löwgren, J. Strong concepts: Intermediate-level knowledge in interaction design research. ACM Trans. Computer-Human Interaction (2012).

Stolterman, E. and Wiberg, M. Concept-driven interaction design research. Human-Computer Interaction 25, 2 (2010), 95–118.

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