Is it still design that we’re doing or is it simply using the designer’s toolkit?

By | August 18, 2021

It was sometime in the Spring of 2002 that I was looking for a metaphorical space that would accommodate me – an engineer, an MBA, with graduate product design education and the sensibilities and eye of a designer.

I’d spent the year on a Heinz Foundation Fellowship after my MBA to train with Dr Chris Capelli, an MD/PhD, then the Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Tech Transfer program. As a Katz Tech Fellow, I was his intern, and he never hesitated to teach me about the finer points of licensing agreement negotiations for patents, or how to evaluate the commercialization potential of a novel innovation from a university lab.

It was here that I’d begun experiencing dimly the cross currents when one is in a university engineering lab looking at a scientist’s prototype of an innovative ultrasound scanner, tasked with envisioning its entire future journey through product development into the market. All so that I could write up the evaluation and recommend that the University invest in its patent costs. My fellowship was due to end in a few months and I was looking for my next position.

Surely, there was a space where manufacturing and production engineering, product and industrial design, and strategies for new market development could come together for me?

It was then that I stumbled across an interview of Larry Keeley of Doblin talking about the intersection of human centered design and business, and the Institute of Design in Chicago. Back then, the disciplinary strand I was intrigued by was called Design Planning. Luis Arnal’s personal website had the only lucid explication of Design Planning I’d come across and it captured my imagination. It’s also the deeper, broader, richer version of what passes for design thinking these days – its a strategic approach for the fuzzy front end of corporate innovation and transformation that incorporates user research, usually exploratory, and a structured planning approach to address complexity.

This new field also seemed to promise that mythical space where engineering, design, and business overlap. I flew to Chicago thinking I’d just have to suck it up and see if I needed to invest in another Master’s degree right after completing my MBA, if I wanted to wholly nurture the sparks I’d experienced in UPitt’s Tech Transfer Office. The experience of visiting the Institute of Design in early 2002 is worth a blogpost in its own right so I’ll save the story for another day. The bottomline is that I ended up starting work in August 2002 as the Director, Graduate Admissions, head of the department of everything related to students from awareness creation through to graduation.

In the three years I was there, reporting each semester’s performance to a Board of Trustees that included Don Norman, Sam Farber, Larry Keeley, Sam Pitroda, Jim Hackett, as well as harassing faculty to rapidly facilitate my ability to communicate the programs and their benefits, as well as the school’s philosophy of design, not to mention taking their classes in the evening, I received an education that no paper diploma can fully describe or capture. I planned John Heskett’s three city book tour for Toothpicks and Logos as a recruiting event. I got to hang out with everyone, tbh. But this is nostalgic derails.

The point I want to make in this writing is to reflect on the discipline of design once its capacities expand beyond the traditional artefacts and commercial objectives that originally gave birth to industrial design, particularly in the post WW2 productivity boom era of the United States.

This blogpost is a setting of perspective, as I tried to trace how I came to push the boundaries of the applicability of design research methods for understanding household financial behaviour in rural low income locations in the ASEAN and South Asia from the perspective of informing the design of business models and payment plans for irregular incomes, first articulated as a letter of intent for a Small Grant competition in August 2008.

The global financial crisis of 2008 is referenced in the literature of design, particularly the subdisciplinary strands of participatory approaches and cocreation, as the turning point in the global North for the expansion of the capacities of design beyond commercial objectives to more complex, societal challenges (Vaughan, 2017; Anderson et al. 2014, among others). As an innovator in this space of conducting design driven research for non traditional design outcomes – mine, at that point in time, was a conceptual design of a payment plan for a shared asset or resource for a community – I find myself reflecting on this massive transformation of the discipline and study of design, drawing from both the literature I’m reading and my own recollections and lived experience.

More questions than answers

Is it still design if the outcomes push the boundaries that gave birth to the discipline? Koskinen (2016) attempts to answer this from the point of view of aesthetics, that which used to define the designer’s education and skills building at the start of their learning journey. In many programmes around the world, the portfolio or extensive tests are used to evaluate the applicants’ ‘eye’ – something I’ll have to write about another day – what happens to this legacy as design itself redesigns itself?

New social design has enriched design, but it has also led to losses in some of the constitutive vocabularies of design. In particular, when the attention of design shifts to social forces, aesthetic concepts tied to products lose a good deal of their relevance. There are no golden sections in social life; mass becomes detached from objects; and harmony becomes an ideologically loaded term. One ramification of this is that new social design is puzzling to designers who saw aesthetics as design’s differentia specifica but grew up with an aesthetic language of physical objects. For them, new social design raises the question of whether these new forms are still design. (Koskinen, 2016)

The struggles of designers in attempting to grasp the conceptual foundation of Koskinen’s ‘new social design’ and to ground them in the roots of design, as explicated in his concluding paragraphs are a reflection of my own struggles with the label of ‘designer’ for the most part of the past three decades since I left the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. It took me years of introspection and practice, even calling myself a design thinker at one point, before I found my way back to calling myself a designer – a shift that only took place in the past decade. If I was not giving form then was what I was doing design?

In the early years of this century, I took a lateral approach to this challenge by emphasizing my facility with the methods and tools of design rather than focusing on the outputs of it, unlike the majority of practitioners whose portfolios are filled with products and brands. This was a dirty backend job I was doing with little to show for it. Whatever it was, my years at the Institute of Design where I embraced Design Planning wholeheartedly gave me an outlet for the multidisciplinary nature of my thinking and approach, thanks to the span of my educational experiences.

Design planners did not need to display the same sort of renderings and mockups in their portfolio – often, process and strategy in the form of Vijay Kumar’s dynamic diagrams were sufficient to convey the thinking and creating that had gone into the back end before the formgivers would receive a design brief to create. Conceptual work, new product definition documents, and innovative business ideas were all the kinds of outputs this discipline focused on – it was the fuzziest of front ends, yet it leveraged almost every aspect of design’s skills, capacities, and sensibilities. You were still giving shape to something that did not exist after deep immersion in what did exist. Often, what you were giving shape to was complex and complicated, often conceptual and intangible, but well put together and defensible.

Is this, then, the aesthetics of an idea, in the way Buckminster Fuller has famously put it?

or, can we extend Fukasawa and Morrison’s concept of ‘supernormal design‘ to the intangible outcomes of Koskinen’s ‘new social design’ where the material as the object of design has been replaced by the social? As Koskinen himself says :

A new social design project does not have to obviously look like design; it can do its work in more subtle ways. (Koskinen, 2016)

Extending the capacities of design still needs designerly skills and thinking

Scholarship demands one situate one’s work, regardless of its ambiguity. Yet, comfort with ambiguity is considered to be one of the key qualities of a trained designer.

It is also now widely recognised that design problems are ill-defined, ill-structured, or ’wicked’.xviiThey are not the same as the ‘puzzles’ that scientists, mathematicians and other scholars setthemselves. They are not problems for which all the necessary information is, or ever can be, available to the problem-solver. They are therefore not susceptible to exhaustive analysis, and there can never be a guarantee that ‘correct’ solutions can be found for them. (Cross, 1982)

If the pre-2008 era of design scholarship sought to contextualize their research on the practice of design in the scientific roots of academic literature (see Cross, 1982; 2001; Owen, 2007), then it seems to me that the recent literature struggles with retaining their legacy within the bounds of design even as all the legacy and roots of design bifurcate and diverge and diffuse themselves due to the transformation of the past decade and a half.

The Institute of Design created the first PhD program in Design in the United States. Design as a scholarly activity is much more recent than other scientific disciplines. It has always been a practice more than a theoretical discipline. It is only in recent years that those who taught design were not drawn from the practice but from the doctoral programmes. These conversations on how and where to contextualize and situate it have been happening in my lifetime and in my own experiences at two entirely different graduate programmes of design on two different continents, yet interestingly, both drew upon the same legacy of the Bauhaus.

Let me look at the practice of design using the case of a few recent projects to explore what makes them design projects versus ambiguous problem solving activities. I will begin by going back to the beginning of the conversation on what is design as a scholarly discipline (and not just practice), and extract certain relevant boundary criteria for Designerly Ways of Knowing (Cross, 1982):

  • [Design encompasses] the application of ‘the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing’
  • At its core is the ‘language’ of ‘modelling’; [That is, visualization of a concept, tangible or abstract]
  • [Its methodology] includes modelling, pattern-formation, synthesis
  • [Its values] are practicality, ingenuity, empathy, and a concern for ‘appropriateness’

Seen in this light, the aesthetic component that shapes the form and the outcomes, addressed by Koskinen (2016) as a concern with regards to ‘new social design’ is less relevant to the core of the design discipline, although the ‘language’ of ‘modelliing’ that is at its core (Cross, 1982) is in itself the aesthetic. A diagram can be simple straight lines, or it can subtly distinguished to improve its visual manifestation. For instance, the below two can  be distinguished easily as a designer’s output versus the design researcher’s first visualization of the complex micro-system of informal trade.


Here, one can ask if this output was codesigned by the design team’s members, each bringing their different capacities and skills to the work, or whether one is the design of the concept and the other merely a visualization or illustration of it?

Within design teams, such a question rarely arises, as everyone works on the project together.

The issues of aesthetics, as raised by Koskinen (2016) in context of ‘new social design’ – that which is concerned with the social – here, the interactions between the trader and her interdependent web of suppliers and customers and service providers – is thus a variable one rather an absolute one.

Not every project has a visible aesthetic component, not if we take Fuller’s point of view. Nor may it always be distinguished as a designer’s contribution, if we take Fukasawa and Morrison’s philosophy of supernormal design.

What matters is how well it – the social design project – does its job.

So, is it still design?

Cross (1982) is oft quoted for setting the standards on what constitutes a designerly way of knowing and thinking. His earliest attempts to distinguish it from the natural and social sciences emphasizes such aspects as synthesis rather than analysis, pattern-formation (impossible without pattern recognition skills), and the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing.

If the core of design education is to teach us how to navigate the complexity and ambiguity of problem spaces with a solution-focused mindset that seeks to synthesize the context in order to distill a holistic understanding in the non-linear process of solution/problem/solution/problem until best fit for purpose is arrived at “to satisfice” (Cross, 1982), then, to apply these designerly capacities and skills to complex societal challenges is clearly a form of design.

How one does it is upto each designer – distinguishing themselves the way form givers do. Who is not able to recognize the hand of Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles Eames in some tangible manifestation of their designerly approach? If they’re too famous and their works well known, then how difficult is it to spot a Muji product, with their emphasis on good design anonymously presented?

I approach the problem as a designer trained in design, although I may draw upon the lessons from engineering or business school in the process of arriving at a solution.This informs the project’s design, and the process as well as the tools and methods used.

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