Design Judgment

Intentional change for adding value to complex realities

The Design Way     Nelson and Stolterman wrote The design way (TDW: 2012, 2003) to expand our understanding of design as a profoundly human tradition of inquiry and action. In TDW they merge several intellectual traditions, including Churchman’s systems approach. TDW offers not a recipe for design practice but a formulation of a design culture’s fundamental core of ideas. These ideas – which form “the design way” and one of which is judgment – are applicable to an infinite variety of design domains, from such traditional fields as architecture, technologies and graphic design to more nontraditional design areas as organizational, educational, interaction, healthcare design, and ways of thinking. The authors believe, as do I, that ‘a well-nourished design culture allows us to become self-consciously reflective world creators’. This perception has wide-ranging implications for our meaningful engagement with the world, including “the design of your own life.”

For the full concept map of this blog post click here

For the full concept map of this blog post click here

Truth, reality, ideal, and wisdom     TDW uses the concepts of truth, reality and ideal to situate design. Design is intentional action, which uses critical judgments to make (something) reality. Not just any reality, but a reality that mirrors some kind of ideal. Design judgment differs from other forms of judgment (e.g. intellectual, scientific, ethical, systemic, professional judgments) in that it is powered by design volition, i.e. the will to achieve desired ends. These desired ends start as ideals and are transformed by judgment to become reality. In this sense, judgment adds value to reality in a way that exhibits design wisdom. And ‘wisdom is the ability to increase effectiveness [SH: the importance of which cannot be exaggerated]. Wisdom adds value, which requires the mental function that we call judgment’ (Ackoff).

Design’s deadly enemies       Reality is always particular, concrete, whole, systemic, and complex. Truth, in contrast, is general, abstract, and partial. Judgment deals primarily with reality, so it cannot be about truth. Yet, scientific knowledge can support judgment. The urge for scientific judgment can hamper design in two ways: (1) by information paralysis; and (2) by ignoring the immeasurable, especially key unquantifiable aspects, including values. The first leads to leaving out environmental factors, which in turn leads to “environmental fallacy”, the second to dehumanized technologies, bureaucracy, technocracy and endless chains of intermeshing wicked problems. It is worth emphasizing that the ubiquity and pervasiveness of wicked problems in all domains are vastly underestimated by most of us, that is, if we consider them at all.

Judgment can be learned       TDW emphasizes that design judgment can be learned. It may not be about scientific truth – in fact, it eludes codification -, it is not totally intuitive either. We can learn things about it that can improve our faculty of judgment. TDW helps us do this in two ways: first it explains what design judgment is, next it outlines how design judgment works and what is involved in it. Judgment must also be learned Already by the end of 2012, I had become convinced that systems thinking – and by extension design, including judgment – is something that ought to be mastered by professionals and laymen alike in all walks of life and should be taught in secondary school and in higher education worldwide. Sadly, its actual application lags far behind its potential relevance.

Sources of knowledge       Good (design) judgment adds value by enabling sagacious action. It takes into account the tremendous richness of reality’s complexity, which characterizes life and informs our subconscious. Good judgment involves both tacit knowledge and our subconscious, which are inseparable of the knower. For this reason Churchman prefers to define good judgment as a well-substantiated belief, which can be based on an inter-subjective boundary critique (as proposed in Wicked Solutions). For real improvements, i.e.. those exhibiting wisdom and beauty, judgment must be fed by creativity and innovation. The two final sources of support for good judgment are scientific (i.e. verifiable, non-personal) knowledge and experience.

Kinds of design judgment       TDW makes a clear distinction between client judgment and design judgment, recalling Churchman’s client and planner categories. The client judgment concerns mostly: the approach (e.g. design or not), desiderata (i.e. that-which-is-desired i.c. by the client; the desiderata define purpose), and worth (e.g. qualities, systemic consequences). Designer judgment is more complex. First of all the designer formulates framing judgment – based on the initial client judgment – to orient the design process. (This recalls the framing step in Wicked Solutions, but there are more parallels). During the actual design process, the designer uses most if not all of 10 design judgment types: default judgments, off-hand judgments (cf. Rittel), appreciative judgments (cf. Vickers), appearance judgments, quality judgments, instrumental judgments, navigational judgments, compositional judgments, connective judgments, and core judgments. The latter link design to core values of the designer and the client. Mediative judgment balances and apportions the different types of designer judgments.

Judgment as a process        Client judgment is an initial necessity, but continues throughout the design process. Client judgment and designer judgment influence each other. Client judgment instills accountability, especially concerning systemic effects. Client judgment is affected by increased understanding, new ideas, and creative insights gained throughout the process. Framing judgments not only determine but also involve relationship building to enable the formation of a well-functioning design team of diverse individuals. Mediation brings together individuals and judgments in a holistic way. “This is not a process of averaging or compromise, but of instrumental intervention between absolutes, ideals, and creative ideas,” which passes back and forth from inquiry to design. (In Wicked Solutions Option one-and-a-half is used as final step to combine the best of both the actual and the ideal world into an innovative, realistic design.)

Note:Wicked Solutions” in this blog post refers to Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems, published by Williams and Van ’t Hof in 2014 and available from These references point to the insight that TDW provides the foundations, fundamentals, and metaphysics for understanding and assessing the limits and worth of Wicked Solutions. Bracketing indicates that the blog post can also be understood without considering the references to Wicked Solutions.

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