Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Design is not a profession or a discipline

At a recent design research conference I heard many statements beginning with "we designers..." or "the profession of design...". Almost all these statements are based on the idea that there are certain people that are designers and then others who are not. In many cases participants talked about the design profession  (in most cases meaning "those of us who are educated in design schools"). It is as being a designer is a stamp and when you have the stamp then you are a designer.

The way design has developed over the last three decades has made it almost impossible to argue that design is a profession and/or a discipline, but still it seems to be a prevalent belief even among those who know more about design than most everyone else.

I like to make the comparison with other human approaches, for instance, science. Very few would state that being a scientist is a profession or even a discipline. Science is a way to approach the world with the purpose of creating knowledge. The scientific approach can be "used" in any profession and discipline. People engage in science. People engage in design. [Of course, there is the same issue in science, people who believe they are scientists and that science is a profession.]

Architecture has nothing to do with design unless people in architecture engage in design. Architecture can be exercised in a fashion that employs no designerly thinking or activities. Architecture can be performed as a scientific activity or as a process of art, or as a process of randomness and chance. Architecture is not in itself a design profession. Neither is graphic design, interaction design, or any other field. These words however do denote professions, that is, areas where professionals have the task of developing certain types of artifacts or services. They are in many cases also academic disciplines, but that does not make them into design disciplines.

Designing is an human approach for inquiry and action well suited for bringing change into the world. But it is not a profession or a discipline. A person is not a designer, but a person may use a designerly approach to fulfill their goals.


Unknown said...

I don't understand why you think it needs to be an exclusive or. I will refer to math (or science) as I think I can speak more authoritatively there.

Clearly math is a way of thinking and a tool which can be used to model the world. Many, many people do math on a daily basis (often without realizing, and I don't mean basic calculations for computing tips and taxes), but there is still clearly a definable profession of mathematicians: namely those who are paid to do mathematics. This typically, but not universally, implies that the professional in question is rather good at mathematics, when compared to the average individual who is not. There are, of course, the Ramanujan's of this world who act as shining counter-examples. Nonetheless, we could go around calling people amateur mathematicians, and on occasion it happens, but mostly it is nerdy so it doesn't. If we think about athletes, there the term professional becomes clear, many of us consider ourselves athletes, but we recognize that we are not professionals, and so we have the very specific term of professional athletes.

Why is design different. I don't think there is anything wrong in people saying they are designers. When Wittgenstein worked on the Haus Wittgenstein, he was working as a designer, even though he wasn't a professional. Although I'm told his radiator is quite the piece of work.

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Unknown
Thanks for your comments. Well, I did not really try to make an argument about professional versus amateur. I made an arguement about a "profession". I think it is possible to argue that mathematics is not a profession, at least not one that is well defined. If you would tell someone that you are a mathematician, they would probably ask " so, what do you do with math". That is, to what and where do you apply the approach of math. The same goes for design. I have no problem with people saying that they are "interaction designers" since it tells people what they work with (interactions) and how they approach is (designerly). I am against those who argue that a designer is something existing in itself and particularly when people argue that it is only in certain areas where "real" designers work.

Harold Nelson said...

This is an extremely important point that emerges from recognizing design as a 3rd culture of inquiry. An interesting blog discussing this in some detail can be found at; http://www.advanceddesigninstitute.blogspot.com/2014/01/design-is-it-science-or-is-it-art.html

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