designing considered domain-independent

At lunch I sat next to C*— a well known roboticist. We began to chat.  He said, “You’re an architect, aren’t you?”  I said, “No, not really; but I am a professor in the School of Architecture. My main interest is design.”  He asked me, “you mean building design, or graphic design, or what?”   And I replied, “Actually, I’m more interested in the process of designing, in general, than in design of any particular kind of thing.  I think there’s something to be learned about how design and designing works, that’s more or less independent of the specific domain — buildings, electronic circuits, whatever.”   “Foo!” retorted C*, “you can teach everything there is to know about design in one semester; the rest is domain-specific.  And actually, design is nothing more than what used to be called ‘proper thinking’”. Dismayed at this turn of the conversation, and not knowing what to say next, I turned back to my pudding.

Now, C*— is known to be a smart fellow, so I don’t reject what he thinks out of hand.  Moreover, as a roboticist, he has quite a lot of experience designing, engineering, and building robots, which as we know, are fairly sophisticated machines.  So his opinions about design are worth taking into consideration, even if I think at the outset that he’s wrong. But I do think he’s wrong.

It’s certainly true that to be a good designer of anything—rocket engines, hydroelectric dams, water purifiers, software, elections, posters, or poems—you must know a lot about your subject.  And surely, you can’t expect a rocket engine designer to design a computer unless they take the time to learn about computers.  In any serious design domain, you need a lot of specific knowledge about the class of thing you are designing.  But I would also argue that designers share a common expertise.

Most people are not naturally designers; good designers learn a set of skills and ways of working.  Architects spend years to acquire those skills as they also learn domain-specific knowledge about making buildings.  What makes studying architecture (or any of the explicitly labeled “design” disciplines like industrial design, product design, graphic design) different from studying engineering is that you learn both the specifics of the domain as you practice the general skills of designing.  So by the end of the three or four of five years that an architect studies in school, she’s not only mastered the domain-specific business of assembling materials on a site, planning for people’s activities and movement, accounting for weather and climate, heating and ventilating, and so on.  She’s also had three to four years (8-10 studio courses) of continual practice designing.

This is remarkably different, by the way, than how we teach engineers.  For most of the past sixty years, until the 1980s, engineering was taught almost entirely as an analytical discipline.  Engineers learned the laws of nature as they applied to the specific domain they were studying, and how to analyze the behavior of specific artifacts: the electrical and magnetic performance of a circuit; the kinematics of a mechanism; and so on.  As a consequence, when they went out into the world to practice engineering, they had to learn on the job how to apply their theoretical and analytical knowledge to the business of actually making something.  Then, in the 1980s, under pressure from ABET (the accreditor for programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology), engineering departments began to put design back into their curricula.  So nowadays, they involve students in design exercises during their first year (for example, the popular egg-launching assignments that one sees everywhere on college campuses), and again in their senior year students take a “capstone design” course in which in groups on a design problem, often for a client.  So even with this newly design-infused curriculum engineering students spend time in at most two courses in their four-year degree programs actually doing any design.

What are the advantages of the intensive design education that architects and other kinds of designers get?  For one, they learn to look at whole problems, and to engage in task-setting behavior for themselves, rather than being given a tightly circumscribed problem and working within those bounds.  They learn to generate alternatives quickly, and they are less prone to the tunnel-vision syndrome in which a designer picks an approach and then develops it without looking at alternatives.   There are other things too, like the experience of making good use of criticism; an integral part of learning to design is being critiqued by others.  Those who survive learn to listen and to apply the critique in their work.

I’ve worked with both kinds of students, and I’ve found that it’s much easier to for someone who has studied design through architecture to learn the basics of mechanical engineering than for a mechanical engineer to learn to design. I’m not sure why that is; maybe it just takes longer than one semester.  Perhaps the domain lens is so powerful that once you learn to look at the world through it, it’s hard to see things any other way.

There are other reasons to think that there’s more to designing than common sense. Herb Simon devotes a chapter of his book “Sciences of the Artificial” to what he calls “the Science of Design”, and in it he describes a set of topics that make up this intellectual agenda.  Forty years have passed since he gave those Karl Taylor Compton lectures; still much remains to be done to realize the vision he articulated there.  And NSF recently decided that it might be smart to study “science of design of software intensive systems.”   But science of design and software engineering is another story.