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.