The Science of Design & the Design of Science

Glasgow Science Centre (by bruce89, used under Creative Commons Licence)

As the holidays approach I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time looking at a field that has become my passion: design. Design is relevant to my work in part because it frequently deals with the complex, requires excellent communication, and as Herbert Simon would suggest, is all about those interest in changing existing situations into preferred ones.

Yet for all the creativity, innovation and practicality that design has I find it lacking in a certain scientific rigour that it requires to gain the widespread acceptance it deserves.

This is not to say that designers do not employ rigorous methods or that there is no science informing design. For example, architecture, a field where design is embedded and entwined, employs high levels of both rigour and science in its practice. The issue isn’t that these two concepts aren’t applied, they just aren’t applied to each other. I was heartened this week to see Dexigner profile a new pamphlet on the science of design. Although true in spirit, it wasn’t what I expected to see as it largely profiled ways to assess the quality of design projects from the perspective of design.

What if we could assess the impact of design on a larger scale, a social and human scale?

Interaction designers speak of this need to connect to the human in design work. The emergent field of social design exemplified by groups like Design 21 who aim to produce better products for social good. All of this is important, but it’s important largely because we say it is so. Rhetorical arguments are fine, but at some point design needs to confront the problem of evidence.

Does “good” design lead to better products than “bad” design?

What components of design thinking are best suited to addressing certain kinds of problems? Or are there simply problems that design thinking is just better at addressing than other ways of approaching them?

What methods of learning produce effective design thinkers? And what is effective design thinking anyway? Does it exist?

What is the comparative advantage of a design-forward approach to addressing complex problems than one where design is less articulated or not at all?

These are just some of the many questions that there seems to be little evidence in support of. A scientific approach to design might be one of the first ways of addressing this. In doing so, a scientifically-grounded design field is far more likely to garner support of decision makers who are the ones who will approve and fund the kind of projects that can have wide-scale impact. Design is making serious in-roads to fields such as business, education, and health, but it represents a niche market when it has the potential to be much larger.

Roger Martin has argued that the reliance on scientific approaches to problem solving runs counter to much of design thinking. This assumes that science is applied in a very detached, prescriptive manner, which is common, but not the only way. Micheal Gibbons and colleagues have described two forms of science, which they call Mode I and Mode II science. The first Mode is the one that most people think of when they hear the term “scientist”. It is of the (usually) lone researcher working in a lab on problems that are driven by curiosity with the aim of generating discoveries. For this reason, it is often referred to as discovery-oriented research.

Mode 2 research is designed to be problem-centred and aimed at answering questions posed by practical issues and has a strong emphasis on knowledge translation. This is an area more accustomed to the designer.

Design presents the opportunity to transcend both of these Modes into something akin to Mode 3 research, which I surmise is a blend of the abductive reasoning inherent in Roger Martin’s view of design thinking and the discovery-oriented approach that goes beyond just the problem to create value beyond the contracted issue. A design-oriented approach to the science of design would involve leveraging the creative processes of designers with some of the tools and methods accustomed to researchers in Mode 1 and 2 science. Can we not do detailed ethnographic studies looking at the process of design itself? Is there any reason why we cannot, with limits acknowledged and in appropriate contexts, attempt to do randomized controlled trials looking at certain design thinking activities and situations?

If design is to make a leap beyond niche market situations, a new field must dawn within design + science and that is the science of design and the design of science.

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