Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Epistemology of Design

Note: this is probably the most speculative and uncertain thing I've posted yet; I'm not sure I believe it myself, but it's where I am right now. These ideas are partly a response to the Journal of Architectural Education's decision to classify their manuscripts into two categories: the Scholarship of Design, and Design as Scholarship (I mentioned in my post last Sunday that I'd comment on this decision). I'd appreciate any and all thoughts you have on this one. And my thanks to my partner, Nora Rubinstein [Ph.D., Environmental Psychology], for spending some of a weekend thinking about it with me.
I’m part of an academic organization called the Council on Undergraduate Research, which works to support students and faculty members in undergraduate settings as they engage in collaborative research. CUR was founded about thirty years ago by a small group of chemists working at primarily-undergraduate colleges, who wanted to be able to compete with scholars at big research universities for publications and grant funding even though they didn't have massive labs and an army of graduate-student lab assistants. In the subsequent years, CUR branched out beyond chemistry to bring in geoscientists, physicists, experimental psychologists, and members from other fields of science.

About ten years ago, though, there was a move to launch a social sciences division, and that caused a fair bit of consternation among the CUR community. It wasn’t because social scientists were bad people, or even because our work wasn’t seen as worthwhile or productive. The problem was that the inclusion of interpretive scholarship challenged the organization’s identity as a research-oriented group, because it included intellectual activities that scientists couldn’t easily describe as “research.”

CUR’s social science division is now pretty healthy, and we’re well accepted within the larger organization. In fact, things have gone so well that we’re probably going to launch a Humanities and Fine Arts division pretty soon. But the mission of the organization has had to change somewhat in order to accommodate a broader array of academic members: the term “research” in CUR’s mission statement has now been broadened to “research, scholarship, and creative activity.”

I think that this precision of terms has some merit when we try to think about the nature of design and how it fits into the world of intellectual endeavor. Research and scholarship and creative activity and (I think) design are fundamentally different activities, in part because they have different ends but also in part because they rely on different understandings of what it means to know. (Hence the title of today’s post; epistemology is the branch of philosophy having to do with knowledge.) Here’s my first pass at thinking about what these words mean.

Research is the empirical investigation into what is true within a circumstance. Chemists do research when they describe what happens when A interacts with B, or when they learn the innate characteristics of some compound. Historians do research when they look through the personal letters of a prime minister to learn his private feelings during the war. The action is one of discovery, and the appropriate terms of criticism have to do with accuracy and methodological correctness.

Scholarship is the interpretive activity of what facts mean, what their context is, what social importance they have. Historians do scholarship when they interpret what a social movement meant in the context of its political and economic era; literature scholars do scholarship when they offer a new interpretation of a novel. The intellectual action is one of argument, and the terms of criticism have to do with internal consistency, familiarity with prior scholarship, and control over language.

Creative Activity is the bringing about of something that did not previously exist — a new play, film, string quartet, dance — through studying and experimenting with the medium of expression. That is, a dancer understands (and challenges) the capabilities of the body; a painter understands (and challenges) the characteristics of the paint, canvas, and brush. The intellectual action is one of exploration, and the terms of criticism have to do with craft, novelty and coherence.

I’ve spent much of the weekend working on this, and I increasingly think (though I’m not yet fully convinced) that classifying design as a knowledge act depends entirely on what we include as “design.” The statement of the problem is a knowledge act. It is an integrative exploration of the multiple domains to which the ultimate product must successfully respond — the economic, the legal, the social, the cultural, the aesthetic, the contextual, the physical — and the setting of the terms of success in each domain. The problem statement is the component of design work through which knowledge is created.

But what we usually think of as design, the response to that knowledge to craft a noun (an object or a process or a condition) that satisfies the problem’s components, doesn’t actually create knowledge of any sort. It relies on knowledge, and its outcome can be tested through knowledge-generating acts of research, scholarship, creative activity and problem-setting. But the act of moving from program statement to drawn plans does not create knowledge.

If we think of the academic world as having the fundamental purpose of generating knowledge, then design as we typically teach it — the response to a problem — is not correctly placed within the academic domain. What we should be teaching (and learning) instead is more thoughtful and humane ways of stating the problem, of understanding the multiple criteria for successful resolution, and of testing the outcome object against those criteria for later improvement. If design and design education were configured that completely, I'd be much happier, because I think we'd learn more and do more responsible work. We'd actually be accumulating created knowledge that could be tested and challenged and used to inform the work of new generations of design students.


Eric Randall said...

This is a pretty heavy post, Herb, and I think its one that could spurn a whole semester of debate and discussion just on its own. I've been spending quite some time thinking about this post since I first read it, and I have several angles I could discuss so I'll just touch on a few to spark a conversation or two.

I have been keeping a running mental track over the last several days to really try and quantify how much of my day to day activities are actually classifiable as "design" activities, and, surprising to me at least, I would estimate that to be less than 20% of my time - and I don't think that is really out of the norm for folks in my profession. I agree with your thesis, completely, that design itself doesn't create the knowledge, but I think I would take issue with:

But the act of moving from program statement to drawn plans does not create knowledge.

Now maybe you didn't mean it as literally as I'm interpreting here, but I would argue that there is a decent amount of synthesis of information (not dissimilar from your defintion of "scholarship" above) that occurs from problem statement to construction documents. So maybe its not the noun version of design that generates the knowledge, but instead its all the verbs that lead up to the generation of the noun where the knowledge is created. And now as I read your post it looks like you said that in so many I think the sentence of yours quoted above maybe is ok, its just a paragraph out of place.

I'm finding graduate school design studio to be an entirely different level of difficulty than undergraduate studios were - not that I think it is considerably more challenging or that I have become a worse designer over time - (on the contrary I think I'm much better than I was 15 years ago), but instead I am constantly wanting to apply all of my "real world" practical knowledge to the design problem - i.e. where does the truck dock go; how could one possibly waterproof something like that; It will never get zoned; too expensive. Maybe design studios shouldn't even be taught at undergraduate level - or at least more emphasis should be placed on practical, real world applicable knowledge.

I'm reminded of the very start of my undergraduate studies: I had planned to be a mechanical engineer (and after 2 semester, realized I wasn't quite a bright as I thought I was and promptly switched majors), but in all of the homework problems each began with "Disregarding the coefficient of friction..." I always wondered at what point in my studies would I need to start incorporating the coefficient of friction? me crazy, but that seems like a mildly important factor. So at the very least, maybe each studio problem should start out with the disclaimer "Disregarding coefficients of zoning, budget, practicality, building codes, social, context, accessibility, and buildability..."

Herb Childress said...

Hi, Eric.

I like your "disregarding" disclaimer to design problems. I think it would be a useful mental tool for the designers of the studio challenge itself -- they'd actually have to go through their own mental checklist and say explicitly "I want students to worry about A, B, and C, but not about L, M, N, or O." So much of what we do is based on tacit knowledge (which the philosopher Michael Polanyi says is things we know but cannot say); it's often important to make our knowledge externalized so we can examine it.

As a non-practitioner, I have a question. Do you prioritize some elements of the program and just make the other ones work as best you can? For instance, I can imagine that the design of a supermarket would privilege the marketing, storage, and parking functions; the truck dock and Dumpster just have to go wherever they end up. That seems to me to be a meager way of working, because the small decisions might be able to add up to some larger whole if we were able to keep them all in mind together. But it's probably the way a beginning designer might work (or an experienced designer feeling particularly constrained by something). You could start with the elements of the problem that are most crucial for its success (in your terms and your client's terms), or you could start with the elements of the problem that are least able to be changed (zoning and building codes, climate, etc.).

It would be very useful to have a body of case studies of the ways that particular designers approach their work. What are the first questions that arise for them when they learn of a new potential project? How do they begin to work with the client? How would they talk out loud about their decisions and evaluations when they were doing first-sketch work? Which decisions do they insist on being involved in, and which do they pass on to their junior staff? There are a few of these closely detailed ethnographic studies of designers at work, but they don't exist in any common place that I've yet discovered. That would be the subject of a great course (or series of courses).