Fallman on design and design research

Thursday, March 12th, 2009 | Design and research, General, Theory

The 8 pages long paper ‘Design-oriented Human-Computer Interaction‘ by Daniel Fallman takes on quite a comprehensive task when it addresses what design ‘is’, how design is related to HCI, and what the relation between design and research might be in HCI.

Even if Fallman takes on an impossible task for such a short paper, he offers very interesting concepts and arguments. The paper is written from the perspective of HCI, not design as such. However, he argues that HCI has emerged as a design-oriented field. Many of the arguments and concepts presented should be relevant for design research in general.

3 accounts on what design ‘is’

Fallman presents three accounts from design theory on what design ‘is’. He calls these the conservative, the romantic, and the pragmatic.

  1. The conservative account sees design as a rational process that aims to convert an undesired situation into a desirable one, by going through rational and structured methodological steps. This account assumes that there is a ‘problem’ to be solved. Design is thought of as a scientific or engineering endeavour, and the focus is on normative design methods and generic design principles. For this account, references are given to H. Simon, C. Alexander, J. Löwgren and E. Stolterman.
  2. The romantic account gives prominence to the role of the designer, which is seen as a mastermind or creative genius. Here, imagination and creativity is seen as key abilities rather than abstract reasoning and rational problem solving. Rather then a focus on the process, the focus is on values, taste, quality and aesthetics. Art is the role model here, rather then science. References are given to R. Coyne, E. Stolterman, and P. Louridas
  3. The pragmatic account holds that design always is carried out in a specific situation, where the designers iteratively interpret the effects of their designs on the situation on hand. Design can therefore be seen as a hermeneutic process. This view draws on pragmatism and may see knowing-in-action as a specific and important kind of knowledge. Since every design situation is different, the ability to deal with different situations is more important than theories and methodology for guidance. Reference is given to D. Schön and D. Ihde.

I do not currently have the necessary overview to evaluate these categories, though I wonder if they may be a bit simplified and exaggerated. I do not think many designers (my self included) would position themselves in either one of these categories. In practice, it seems to me that design may sometimes include rational problem solving, sometimes ‘mysterious’ creativity, and most often the specificity of the situation at hand. The emphasis will vary from field to field, from designer to designer, and from project to project. However, such categories provide us with means for discussing what design ‘is’, which is essential in a theoretical inquiry. This understanding may further influence the way design education is conducted, and how the role of design and designers is understood at a general level.

Sketching as design thinking

To get closer to what design ‘is’, Fallman considers the role of sketching as an archetypical design activity. He argues that designers’ thinking is mediated by sketches and prototypes. The materials ‘talk back’ to the designer in an ongoing dialogue between the designer and the sketch.

…design involves the designer in a necessary dialogue with the materials of the design situation, from which the design problem and its solution are worked out simultaneously, as a closely coupled pair. (page 231)

In this unfolding process problem setting and problem solving (Schön) are seen as intertwined activities, in a search for a coherent, well-balanced whole.

[Design] … must not simply be seen either as a question of problem-solving, as an art-form, or as a bustle with reality: it is on the contrary an unfolding activity which demands deep involvement from the designer. ” (page 231-232)

Rather than seeing design as a hybrid discipline between art and science, design should be considered as a tradition guiding action and thought, which spans across many disciplines.

Design-oriented Research vs. Research-oriented Design

Fallman proposes a new way to distinguish research activities in HCI that involve design production.

  • Design-oriented Research has knowledge of some sort as the main contribution. This is the conduct of academic researchers, and should be conducted when the knowledge would not be attainable if design production was not a vital part of the research process. Here, the designed artefact is considered a means to an end, for example for exploring possibilities outside a current paradigm.
  • Research-oriented Design has production of new artefacts as its main motivation, not the production of new knowledge. Nevertheless, this production may relate to research in many ways. I suppose what is normally considered development would fit within this category.

Fallman argues that Design-oriented Research should include problem setting as an important part, while Research-oriented Design most often has problem solving as its main component.

Relating this to my own work, it is clear that doing a PhD entails scholarly and academic research where the aim is to produce new theoretical knowledge. The production of artifacts is subordinate. However, I think the production of artefacts can play an important role not only in informing theory, but also in embedding, presenting and visualising theory. In a social-cultural view on artefacts, the artefact does not in itself have a determined meaning. Nontheless, an artefact may play an important role in the dispersion of knowledge, as long as the theoretical argument is made clear and apparent.

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