Some thoughts on design as practice and identity, and how this can impact collaboration and innovation

Posted on Oct 1, 2010 in Research Methodologies

In 1971’s Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek proclaimed that “all men [sic] are designers” and “all that we do, almost all the time, is design.” This understanding of design is broadly consistent with what I learned as an anthropologist; Homo habilis (“handy man”) was the first species of the genus Homo, originally distinguished by the design and use of tools. (We now know that pre-hominids developed tools.) Aligning design with some sort of innate creative ability or desire makes sure that it is placed within the realm of basic “humanness,” inseparable from everything that we do.

In contrast, defining design as a professional activity clearly separates particular aspects of this desire and ability, and ascribes them to particular people with particular kinds of training and jobs. As Guy Julier puts it in The Culture of Design,  some individuals and groups “have attempted to identify themselves and their practice as something which bestows things, pictures, words and places with ‘added value.’ Design becomes the range of goods, spaces and services that are shaped by the intervention of professional designers. It no longer refers to the countless objects which are formed and consumed within everyday life and which do not, of themselves, carry that level of cultural capital.” (p. 40) But these values and beliefs can be conflicting and contradictory. Professional designers, like Bourdieu’s new petite bourgeoisie, act as “cultural intermediaries” that create and perpetuate hierarchical distinctions and tastes consistent with consumer capitalism and social conservatism. And yet, like the new petite bourgeoisie, designers also “desire to maintain a more ‘creative’ drive, unfettered by procedures and hierarchies.” Together, these practices can result in a “self-marginalizing” professional and social identity. (p. 45)

In “Cultural Capital: A Thesaurus for Teaching Design,” Megan Strickfaden and Ann Heylighen describe how design educators rely on the use of examples from design practice and thought as a primary means of demonstrating their cultural capital in the classroom and, by extension, enculturing students into a shared worldview that reinforces design-specific knowledge and practice. Examples from outside design are also used in teaching, but usually only for inspirational purpose. The desire to “teach students to control and direct their inspiration, instead of passively waiting until they are struck by a bright idea,” (p. 127) can be seen to add structure or rigour to the more generalised creative process described above without rejecting the privilege of “free” creativity. This kind of reflexive agency is a distinguishing feature of professional design education, although how this differs from reflexive social science deserves further exploration.

What really concerns me is that when other domains of knowledge and practice are seen as things that can be controlled and directed, if not completely opposed or excluded, design tends to encourage asymmetrical and hierarchical forms of interaction and exchange. When this is the case, non-design knowledge and practice are only deemed valuable insofar as they reinforce existing design knowledge and practice or, put a bit differently, if they do not threaten the cultural capital of designers. All professions, to greater and lesser extents, are protective of what they consider to be their unique skills and contributions to the world. But it is only within design research that I’ve seen an explicit distinction made between research by design and research for design. In the latter, non-designers are most often relegated to the position of supporting cast; interesting and useful, but not to be confused with the lead actors. And when this happens, I believe that research collaboration and design innovation are effectively impossible. But more on that later…

Questions for further research:

  • What are the differences and similarities amongst research by design, research for design and research on design?
  • Is “good” design research something that only designers can do? Who decides?