Rosan Chow



By Rosan Chow


The traditional ways of theorizing design activity as applied art or applied science are challenged and seen as outdated by quite a number of design thinkers including Alan Findeli. Findeli argues that design activity is neither applying artistic or esthetic theory to practice nor a logical deductive exercise from scientific facts. Findeli in his efforts to pull the design activity out of its intellectual rut, calls design "involved," "situated," or "embedded" science. In his words,

"Such a model considers that the scientific inquiry and attitude are carried into (instead of applied to) the field of project and of practice, so that the former are modified by the latter, and vice versa. Donald Schön's concept of "reflection-in-action" thus is transferred from its mainly methodological to the epistemological realm. Better said, the distinction between the methodological and epistemological realms no longer is necessary " (bold and brackets in original text). {Findeli 2001 #531}.

Findeli is certainly not the first or the only person who tries to find a place for design activity or who tries to situate design in relation to science. But I chose to cite Findeli because he has started to characterize design activity in a way that I think I can take a step further but in a different direction, quite a different direction. Findeli points out the inadequacy of seeing design as applied arts or applied science and identifies a need for a new conceptual model. This is the first step that he guides me. However, I wish that before he aligns his ideas with Schön's, he would tell us more about what happens after or during scientific inquiry and attitude are carried into the field of project and of practice. What modification takes place, what is the nature of the modification, and why such a modification? Does carrying the scientific inquiry and attitude into the field really make it a design activity necessarily? To my mind, the essence of design activity is not identified fully unless we give some thoughts to these questions.

The objective of this essay is to help characterize design activity by projecting a fringe view on the relation between design activity and knowledge, scientific or non-scientific. I hope that this fringe view may help us to see design activity from a different perspective and open up a new line of discussion. That is to see the methodological and epistemological discussions on design tend to muddle the conception of design as a distinct activity from science. Also to see that the continuous discussion and research on design activity as a way of knowing distinct from scientific way of knowing tend to distract us from getting at the true nature of design activity. My hypothesis is that an essential difference between scientific activity and design activity has to do with the way they treat knowledge.

When I started to think about design activity rather seriously a couple of years ago, I remember having been very attentive to the distinctions that people had made about science and design. I can run the list of distinctions very briefly: is versus should be, true or false versus good or bad, 'value free' versus 'value laden', descriptive versus prescriptive, abstract versus concrete, analytic versus synthetic, deductive reasoning versus abductive reasoning, detached observing versus embodied observing, language/symbol versus visual model. I was convinced for a while to use these detailed characteristics to distinguish design activity from scientific activity. But the more time I spent thinking about it, the less the list seemed to mark the distinctions of design activity clear enough for me. The reason for this uneasiness is that these distinctions refer to a matter of degree rather than differences in kind that are supposed to exist between design activity and scientific activity. In other words, we can use all these characteristics to describe design activity and scientific activity in some way. They fail to tell me satisfactorily the essential characteristics of design activity: what is it about design activity that is different from scientific activity? I reckon the difference can not be found in the epistemological or in the methodological realms for we will find there many overlaps between the two. However, one possible distinction that can be made is about their goals and thus their treatment of knowledge.

Science is an art in the sense that it is a creative human endeavor. However, the reason, the purpose and the goal of science is distinct from other types of human endeavor. The immediate goal of science is to build explicit theoretical knowledge. For science, it is meaningful and accurate to discourse about knowledge application, modification and (re)production because knowledge is its substance. These terms quite succinctly characterize the scientific procedures and products. Through various scientific procedures, knowledge is applied, modified and produced. Scientific activity begins with knowledge and ends still with knowledge, period.

For design activity, it is less accurate to use the words 'apply' or 'modify' to signify the relation between design and knowledge, theoretical or tacit. This is not a hair-splitting exercise but what I consider a critical language use that circumscribes the way we think of design activity. When designing, one doesn't apply, modify or produce knowledge as a process or as a goal. When knowledge is 'carried over' into design, the design activity is a process of destroying it and turning it into something else. The immediate goal of design activity is to do with that something else. Therefore, whatever outcome of design activity may be, and whatever traces of evidence of knowledge that may be found in the outcome, it is no longer knowledge. It can't be. While the activity of science builds knowledge, the activity of design destroys knowledge. The nature of design outcome is completely different from the nature of knowledge. If modern science is the art of theoretical knowledge (re)production, then design is the creative art of knowledge destruction. It has to.

I know the destruction of knowledge sounds a bit unpleasant because knowledge is such a precious 'thing'. And it may also seem to run contrast to the current views on seeing design activity as a demonstration of possession of knowledge, a way of knowing and knowledge building. But I will contend that not only the metaphor of destruction fits into the scheme, but it also adds to what other views have not been able to guide us to see. Knowledge destruction requires that the designer must have the appropriate knowledge, the knowledge to destroy and the knowledge to be destroyed. But we must resist the temptation to sort out what this knowledge is at this point if we want to move forward and out of the beaten tracks. I believe that we have been stalled by the many arguments that make distinctions between design and science based on ways or types of knowing, (knowing as cognition or as a set of activities). They have become more confusing than helpful because they block us from seeing the truly essential difference between design activity and scientific activity is not the thinking style involved or the practice but rather the purpose and the outcome. The discussion about the type of knowledge that designers need to have or through which way designers know in order to design tend to misguide us to think as if design activity were about knowledge when it is not. Therefore, I believe to see design in the methodological and epistemological doesn't help us to conceptualize design completely. Unless we go beyond these two realms, we are likely to go in circle and once again find more similarities than distinctions between scientific activity and design activity.

Replacing 'application' and 'modification', with 'destruction' helps us to think about the relation among science, knowledge and design in a different and maybe more constructive way. The metaphor of destruction of knowledge points us to see that it doesn't matter if this knowledge is theoretical or tacit; or through which way it is obtained, 'reflection-on-action' or 'reflection-in-action'; their relation to design is the same. It must be turned to be something else. To me, the essence of design activity lies in the ontological realm and how it affects the way we are that is different than how science or for that matter other activities do. To assert that design activity destroys knowledge redirects our attention to the important and unique role design activity plays in this world in relation to science and other creative human activities. It pushes us to think hard about the contributions that design activity should be able of making.


About the author

Rosan Chow is a HongKong-Chinese-Canadian pursuing a Ph.D. in design in the North Carolina State University in the U.S. She holds two degrees in Visual Communication Design from the University of Alberta, Canada. She has practiced design for several years until one morning she found no more motivation to go to work. She returned to graduate school in 1996 for some soul searching, and still searching. Being the youngest in a working class family of seven children, she learns early on to share and to fight for her fair share. She also holds very strong working class values: being honest, hard-working and critical of all authorities.