“Design is…”: Art or Science?

The discussion on “Design is…” in CMU’s “Design Thinking” seminar this semester got me thinking about the word “design,” and how it is different from “design thinking.”  “Design” seems to be broader (vaguer?) than “design thinking,” which to me implies some sort of principled or methodological approach.  Distinctions are important: language is based on distinctions, and thus according to some, human rationality is as well.   How can we move beyond the personal definitions and observations: “for me design is…”?  Research, reading, writing, discussing.

Where to start?  I am a historian, interested in change over time, the slippage of meaning, and the historical contexts in which the word was used.  I am intrigued by the shift in the definition of “design” over the ages from a more purely artistic vision about composition and message, to a more purely rational, even scientific form of “problem solving,” sometimes with attention to artistry. A selective history helps highlight the notion.

The term “design” derived from the Italian disegno and the French dessin, both meaning ‘a drawing.’  In the Renaissance the word carried a notion of the “total imaginative concept of a work of art,” often related to a divinely inspired idea.  Art that emphasized “design” was distinguished from one that focused on (mere) colorism.  In the 17th-century, this divide was accentuated in the French painting academy, where a more intellectual, Platonic, and idealist approach to art was distinguished form a more experiential, Aristotelian, and expressive one.   Design was associated with ideals and more universal values.

This notion continued to be challenged by the advent of fleeting “fashion” in the 19th-century that drove fleeting consumer taste.  Beginning in the early 20th-century, with people like Peter Behrens, “good design” continued a strong connection to universal values, even as it was harnessed by corporation and big business to deliver profits.  Modernism’s emphasis on rationality, logic, and universal methods accentuated axioms such as “form follows function,” and “truth to materials.”

First ruptures to this system happened at the Ulm College of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung).  There Max Bill at first promoted a heroic vision of a designer as “form-giver,” very similar to Behrens and the Bauhaus, with emphasis on technology and materials.  But in the mid-1950s some Ulm professors began to emphasize analytic methods encompassing sociological, economic, psychological and physiological considerations.  Among them was Thomas Maldonado, who saw the design process as a system embodying both scientific-based and intuitive-based thinking. He speculated that design was a kind of art, but that the designer was not solely an artist.   He proposed a new philosophy of design education as an “operational science”, a systems-thinking approach which embodied both art and science.

It is during this period that Horst Rittel began his work, first at Ulm, then at Berkeley, translating ideas from sciences and engineering to the design professions.  He called this new field of reinventing design: “design methods.”  Design began to be seen ever more as the working out of “solutions” to various kinds of “problems.”  But in the 1960s, alongside the social movements of Berkeley and the world, Rittel began to see the fallacy of a purely scientific basis to design (which he called 1st generation design).  He revised his ideas and now claimed that design is “creating arguments” that are inherently political, and power based (he called this 2nd generation design).  It is in this phase that he posited the existence of “wicked problems” that could be “tamed” by throwing enough people and research at the process.   Design went from being art, to science to politics.

Beginning in the 1970s, Postmodernism criticism further eroded ideas of “good design”.  Principles of “good design” were for the most part rejected in favor of playful eclecticism and colorful ornamentation for its own sake.  The emphasis on “design” as “individual,” and a translation of “personal experience” that were mentioned in our first seminar seem to be part of this view.

In recent years, particularly when in recession, much of the industrial design and computing professions also seems to retain an emphasis on “problem solving,” perhaps a kind of neo-modernism.   Design in this guise is pervasive: anything and everything is design, done by serious “professionals,” as well as wonk amateurs.

But what design as pure artistry?  CMU’s “School of Art” and “School of Design” are both in the College of Fine Arts, but in many ways fundamentally different.  And they teach “design” over in CIT and engineering, and in “Entertainment Technology”.  What is “design” that it is related to all these?  Are they all doing “design” work?  Different kinds of “design thinking”?  Different definitions of the same word?  I am reminded of how pervasive the word “architecture” has become: from software, to buildings, to ideas.  Anyone can “build” a solid “foundation” for a “structure” and become an “architect” of ideas, institutions, or events.   What about when science acknowledges the importance of “play” and creative free thinking, sometimes over and above “rational thought”?  Perhaps Design comes full circle with the earliest definitions of “art,” which meant little more than “skill” (ars), and was divided into the “liberal arts” and the “mechanical arts,” which encompassed craft and technique.

What is “design”?  Is it art or science?   What does “Design” have to do with “Design Thinking,” the name of the blog and seminar?  Let’s keep talking, reading, writing…

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2 responses to ““Design is…”: Art or Science?

  1. Design is more or less an accidental discovery made by someone who is in a certain state of mind.. A successful design process is essentially a process that increases the possibilities of “happy accidents” while one is consciously holding on to a certain problem in their mind.

  2. Pingback: “Design is…”: Art or Science? « innovdesign

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