Holger van den Boom



by Holger van den Boom (translated by Meike Asbach)


Many years ago, towards the beginning of last century, the field of mathematics was overcome by a crisis concerning its fundamental principles. That is the only case known to me in which serious concerns arose about the foundations of a science. The problem hanging over mathematics was that logical contradictions had appeared within and of which the subject had to be cleansed. It is obvious that a discipline based on proof would be threatened in its very substance if there were ever to be any contradictions in its canon. The mathematicians resolved the problem, in that they went about their proofs using even greater "strictness" as well as pressing on with formalised axiomatics; theorems were traced back to their underlying axioms.

Design is not an axiomatic science, design is not a science at all. Design is a practice. In a wider sense however, a number of other, theoretical aspects are usually added to the canon of design, which are described as 'theory' or 'science' of design. And it is said that in a certain way such theoretical statements constitute the "fundamentals" of design, in other words its theoeretical or scientific foundations. It is according to the same pattern that the subject of medicine constitutes the foundation of the medical profession. Medical treatment based on a scientific foundation creates trust, at least within the vast majority of the population..

But design based on scientific foundations? The vast majority of designers would be deeply suspicious of such an idea. Structural engineering on a scientific basis, fair enough. But why on earth assume the same scenario for architecture? And even more abstrusely, design? As soon as we believe ourselves able to pass our own judgement about the result of a practice, we are not bothered whether scientific knowledge has played a role in the process or not. If I like the chair, what do I care about science? But then someone comes along and starts talking about ergonomics. About the proven link between the kind of seating one chooses and the back pain one is likely to experience as a result. The chair appears in a new light. Am I sitting healthily? And how can I tell? If I can't find this out by myself, maybe it would have been nice after all if the designer had taken into account the science of ergonomics in the first place.

The mythology particular to designers stubbornly claims to know that there are, for example concerning colour, certain theories which emerged from science and can be 'applied' in the practice of design. As a matter of fact, the whole breadth of cognitive psychology seems to have a reputation of being applicable to design. If this is true, there is no harm in knowing something about the social context. And so on and so forth. That is the classic domain of " referential sciences". They are hardly of any use, but don't do any harm either. At best, they find their way into the 'recipes' using which designers 'cook up' their ideas.

All this has nothing to do with foundations. A real foundation would be conditio sine qua non. Is this the case in design ? If it were not so, we would suddenly find ourselves in difficulties; we would not know how to go on and indeed would not progress.

But it is so. The conditio sine qua non is the answer to the question: What is design? If design is everything, we don't have to worry about foundations. If design is freely interchangeable, we don't have to concern ourselves with the question of foundations either. But if design is something specific, things look entirely different. If we knew what it is that makes design specific, then we would have a solid foundation, then we would know : design is what we do, and we would not have built upon sandy ground. Nothing can happen to us. Design is this and that, in other words, it is precisely what we have been doing all along and it will stay that way; now we can worry about the details.

If a designer is mistaken in what he believes to be the nature of design, well, then the commisions could go to other designers. But maybe he is lucky: what he does, does find an appropriate commission, regardless of whether it is actually design or not. The whole situation only becomes precarious when we promise someone to teach him or her to be a designer, but design turns out to be something entirely different from what we say and do.

Today it is no longer a secret, that the vast majority of jobs in design are carried out using a computer, be they in graphic, communication, industrial or media design. What was a rather obvious prediction twenty years ago has thus (and naturally!) since become reality, but met with a storm of indignation when it was first pronounced at the Braunschweig HBK . My current prophecy is that in another twenty years time, when our current students will have gathered fifteen years or so of professional experience, the computer will have radically changed the way in which designers, ( or those who then still feel themselves to be genuine designers) think. The storm of indignation which my latest prophecy has provoked is no less than the first time round: No, the fundamental way of thinking, the foundations of design, will never change!

There we have the foundations. The foundations are never going to change? I am saying: precisely they are going to change!

People say: If the foundations change, we are no longer dealing with design. This sounds strangely familiar. It is like the complaint of a former swiss watchmaker who feared that once the measurement of time had changed from mechanical to electronic, we would no longer be dealing with a watch. In case you're interested, this watchmaker is now earning his living with Swatch watches.

What I would like to bring to attention is that in the future, the design of hardware (even a poster qualifies as such) will have to comply with the design of software. The rule will be: Only those who can design software, are able to design hardware. The other way around has lost all its validity!

And that is because for software design, the compliance with science is indispensable! What we today still paradigmatically call design, does not really want for scientific support. The fact that in the twentieth century design was taught at scientific institutions called universities, was an anticipation of the twenty-first century. There was no better anticipation conceivable.


Biographical notes...