DESIRED QUALITIES OF DESIGN KNOWLEDGE
by Gülay Hasdogan
Undergraduate design education is traditionally based on a practice-oriented structure where the studio component is situated at the centre with surrounding elements of multidisciplinary knowledge base. Experiential nature of studio practice, despite providing highly effective means of learning, renders its resulting products case-specific, thus less capable to provide shareable knowledge. The subject matter of multidisciplinary components of knowledge made available to design students are usually devised at elementary level, fail to provide adequate links to each other, fail to offer a required degree of applicability when specific design tasks are to be taken, therefore retain their secondary position in the hierarchy of educational objectives of design curricula. This paper will contemplate on the desired qualities of design knowledge by taking above premises as a motivation. In search of the desired qualities of knowledge in design education, one needs to question how we make use of our knowledge while designing.
Domination of experiential knowledge
Design seeks to adapt technology to daily life through creating desirable, accessible and usable artefacts. Science seeks to generate widely applicable principles and theories from generalisable facts of daily life. Scientific principles are abstracted from real-life facts. Widening the applicability of those principles requires the facts to be purified (Jonas, 2000) from their inherent association with their context. We learn and remember facts by building associations with our own experiences. As entities and facts are isolated from their context, they loose their capability to make sense. Although daily life is complex, scientific principles are simplified; it is easier to make sense of and remember the former. In an educational context, during the design activity, the student's closest reference is his/her past experiences relevant to the design problem. The elements of multidisciplinary knowledge base, provided by design curricula, usually in purified form, may fail to take their place in the student's complex mental representations of past experiences.
As far as the design practice is concerned, one significant type of design knowledge, available to designers in the form of reference books, is mentioned by Simon (1996) as their 'external memory'. It is often claimed by designers although they rarely make use of such knowledge; they do cope with the complexity of design problems by their common sense and imagination. The author's Ph.D. study conducted in England and Wales revealed that industrial designers most favourably used scenario building as a spontaneous and informal method in exploring and foreseeing needs of the user in the design process (Hasdogan,1996).
The kind of information the designer needs is rarely contained in reference books. Designers rather prefer retrieving and using the information in their memory, stored as fragments of reality, scenarios, which may also be considered as parts of their own experiences. Such fragments of everyday life although they may be short, can contain immense amount of data and complex information well associated to each other. Just like watching a film and telling it to a friend in detail a few days after. In a film, if it can drive our attention and evoke our curiosity we can remember the events in their right order, peculiarities of the characters and even the small details belonging to the context, because they are all associated with each other. We remember the film as a whole, as we remember our experiences. Whole contains complexity; if we recall the right associations we can retrieve the information in simpler form as we need, and easily cope with that complexity.
The introduction of new subjects and domains of knowledge to the design area during the last two decades brought new methods and approaches to design curricula, which made improvements in keeping pace with the experiential nature of the design process. Design management introduced extensive use of case studies, which allowed investigations to retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events (Yin, 1994). Case studies allow us to learn from experiences of others in detail. Ergonomics and Human Computer Interface introduced user scenarios, which made it possible to understand the needs and behaviours of different type of users in using a complex interface.
The problem of situation-specific knowledge
The long lasting effect of learning from rich experiences is widely accepted by educational scientists. Edgar Dale (1959) characterised "direct, purposeful experience" as rich full-bodied experience that is the bedrock of all education. At this point one needs to ask whether permanence in human memory is a desirable quality of design knowledge. Can the long lasting memory of one's own experience of designing be at the same time blocking when a completely new design task is to be taken which demands a fresh approach to the design process?
Bruce Archer (1995) characterises research through practitioner's design activity as a type of action research. He notifies that action research "can hardly ever be objective" and is "almost always 'situation-specific'", because it is "pursued through action in and on the real world, in all its complexity, its findings only reliably apply to the place, time, persons and circumstances in which that action took place". Although the outputs of action research through the design experience can be highly informative, their contribution to other designers' experiences may be limited, because, by its nature, each design process requires the creation of a novel output. Therefore can domain specific practical knowledge cause fixations in the creative process?
In one of their experiments, Purcell and Gero examined the fixation problems in design studios by giving a design task to undergraduate final year student designers in mechanical engineering and industrial design departments. They showed the participants pictorial representations of existing designs and tested whether or not such examples made a fixation effect on their designs. The outcome of the experiment showed that mechanical engineers became fixated in the traditional sense when the example they are shown embodied typical principles, which are characteristic of the knowledge base of the discipline. Industrial designers appeared to show no evidence of fixation under similar experimental conditions. Purcell and Gero's thoughts on the possible reasons were that, because creativity has a central importance in design education comparing to mechanical engineering; the areas of knowledge that make up industrial design are more diverse than those studied in mechanical engineering; and many of these areas are associated with less well articulated bodies of knowledge than those that make up the knowledge base of mechanical engineering (Purcell and Gero,1996). Therefore how should domain specific knowledge be shaped to be able to nourish the creative activity in design?
Designers are well informed to be cautious when using the knowledge made available to them as well as their experiential knowledge. They need to refresh and reconstruct their memory of experiences in each design task in order to create new experiences and novel ideas. To go along with this activity, multidisciplinary design knowledge made available for design students should also bear the capability to reconstruct itself. Aren Emre Kurtgözü (2001), in his PhD thesis, introduces genealogy, an approach inaugurated by Nietzsche, as a perspective for a critique of design. He suggests genealogy as an approach for design history: a critique of the present, aiming to open possibilities for the enhancement of life and creative activity.
A personal experience
It was the author's first instructional experience when she was involved in the design of a "manufacturing materials" course for the second year undergraduate industrial design students at Middle East Technical University in 1988. In its first year the course followed a basic textbook aimed for engineering programs in which the basic properties and behaviour of materials were explained by their atomic structure. Due to low participation of students during the classes and poor reflection of given knowledge on their design projects, the course was redesigned for the following year.
In the new course, an audio-visual archive was formed involving examples of designs especially if the material selection was a significant part of their design concept. Where possible, samples of materials and products were also included in the archive. During the classes, each material was introduced by showing several examples from the archive and the students were encouraged to discuss why such a material was chosen for those particular designs. The answers were automatically revealing the significant properties of the material. After the discussion, the basic properties and manufacturing processes of the material were introduced. No mention was made on the atomic structure of the material. After introducing all the materials specified in the course outline, exercises were devised encouraging the students to redesign a given object by altering its material. During that semester, a notable increase in voluntary participation was observed in the class sessions. An increased reflection of acquired knowledge on students' design projects was also noted.
In this particular course it was aimed to enable the student, understand the subject matter by situating it in a practical context rather than basing it on universal principles offered by classical educational methods. In order not to constrain them with the persuasive power of selected cases of design solutions, they were required to alter the cases by their design intervention.
Design is an activity that requires an active connectedness with real-life problems of society and individuals, awareness of existing potentials for a possible change in the environment and confidence to create the change. In order to build up such an awareness and confidence, the closest reference of the designer is his/her professional and daily-life experiences. Designer's mental representations of past experiences are modified if and when new knowledge is associated with them. Mental representations of experiences are complex, detailed, contextualised and they are reconstructed when appears a motivation to create a change.
In order to keep pace with and nourish the design activity, design knowledge in educational curricula should bear the capability to
- provide a dynamic context with a vision to foresee future changes in the society and technology;
- provide active associations with the complex nature of real-life situations;
- demonstrate self experiences may differ from others';
- reconstruct itself in each new opportunity to create a change by design.
Archer, L. Bruce. "Nature of Design Research" Co-Design 2, 2 (1995): 6-13.
Dale, Edgar. Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching. Revised Edition. USA: Henry Holt, 1959.
Hasdogan, Gülay. 'The Role of User Models in Product Design for Assessment of User Needs', Design Studies, 17, 1 (1996): 1-33.
Jonas, Wolfgang. "Design The Basic Paradox Foundations for a Groundless Discipline" 2000. The Basic Paradox. Online. Internet. 26 Feb. 2002.
Kurtgözü, Aren E. Putting Genealogy into Perspective: For a Genealogical Critique of Design and Designers. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Bilkent University, 2001.
Purcell, A Terry and John S Gero. "Design and Other Types of Fixation" Design Studies 17 (1996) 363-383.
Simon, A. Herbert. The Sciences of the Artificial. Third Edition. The MIT Press. 1996.
Yin, Robert, K. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. London: Sage Publ., 1994.
Ideas presented in this text, are mainly based on my personal experiences as an educator in industrial design (1986-.), at graduate and undergraduate level both on studio tutorial basis through students' actual process of designing, and on lecture basis in forming their knowledge base for design at Middle East Technical University, Ankara where I also serve as the head of the Industrial Design Department (1997-.). The origin of these ideas goes back to the findings my Ph.D. study at the Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design in London (1989-93).