This post is on chapter 1 of the 2nd edition of The Design Way by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman. It caps two previous ones on Jonathan Baron’s search-inference framework and rational action. In them I explained how rational action follows from the application of prescriptive models or theories of thinking and how these are related to descriptive and normative models or approaches. The descriptive is about human bias (the real) and scientific research (the true,) whereas the normative is about the ideal. This reminded me of my post on design judgment of just over 4 years ago, which was part of a cycle of six posts on ‘The Design Way’. I should add that Nelson has been a student of C. West Churchman (1913-2004), a widely admired American systems thinker, whereas Stolterman is originally from the Department of Informatics of Umeå University, Sweden, which is also the home of Prof. em. Kristo Ivanov, a great admirer of Churchman (see also his video interview with Churchman, here). The common denominator in architecture (Nelson), interaction design (Stolterman), and the systems approach (Churchman) is ‘design’, which is increasingly coming on its own as a highly practical subject of study (see Wikipedia article here).
Design definition “Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction” (from above Wikipedia article). An object could be a house or a skyscraper, a system could be an information system or a (knowledge) management system, human interaction is, for instance, what takes place between a software program and a user or between a pilot and a plane. The definition speaks of a ‘plan or convention’. A convention is a set of rules for making a plan, so it is design at a higher level of abstraction. Human interaction takes place in or with designs (e.g. houses), but is itself also designed (e.g. organizations).
The true and the real On p. 34 of the first edition of The Design Way is a figure that shows design as a process of moving from the universal and particular, which is a more general form of design, down to the ultimate particular, which is the specific design. Combustion is a true, abstract, scientific discovery; prehistoric fire is a real, concrete, complex design as is made clear in Arthur Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Space Odyssey’. Of course, there never was a ‘featureless black monolith’ from outer space, but the design acts of fire and weapons from bones did give the hominids considerable power of action over nature and their fellow hominids. Somehow, these design acts are embedded in the human or hominid capacity for social interaction, which may or may not have design elements in it. This whole complex is what could be called human agency. Thinking about design, designers, the design of design is making human agency self-reflective, which holds the promise of the human gaining power over him- or herself without going haywire or getting totally lost. That’s why 2001 is such a great film. That is, as a startling statement of the ultimate challenge of modernity.
Science for truth The scientific method has been very successful over the past 400 years or so. It is an extension of human inquisitiveness. It comes in many forms. The scientific method is special in its rigorous skepticism, precise measurement, testing of assumptions or hypotheses, controlled observations, use of logic, induction, statistics, mathematics etc. Science is very good at discovering general and universal truths, but it takes a great deal of model building to come up with anything somehow resembling the complexities of reality, let alone with anything good enough to serve as a basis for decision-making. Science has been so successful that many people have difficulty distinguishing the true from the real. In part, this can be explained by the fact that science has always attracted the greatest intellectual talents and continues to do so.
Intentional change … is a term in the subtitle of The Design Way. It points to the essence of design, which is to create a change in reality in order to further a goal or set of goals. Design is purposive. The trouble is that not everything is clear. We have some facts, but facts can be contradictory. Moreover, reality is complex, so there is the problem of unpredictability. Or we don’t have the time and means to increase the probability of success. And then there is another thing, the ideal, which guides us in learning what we want to achieve. The ideal may well be a deliciously cooked steak you have some memory about. The question is: how do you arrange your fire in such a way that it becomes a possibility. And, what else may be needed for a wholesome meal? The ultimate question is: how do we break up this whole process to make it more manageable?
Design judgment At the center is something that could be called ‘design judgment’, which is not a homunculus but an abstraction, a process in our brain. Something sets ‘it’ in motion (which makes it a bit concrete), then ‘it’ starts sifting through signals from the true, the ideal and the real (which are also abstractions) with the purpose of designing a change, which has two main aspects, a process model and a model of the end result. They are models, because they are imagined and lack the complexity of reality, except hopefully in the most relevant sense. And not all of it is necessarily conscious. Nobody (or nothing) could possibly keep track of what’s happening in the 86 billion neurons (Azevedo 2009) in the whole of our brain and what it could all mean. That is, if it means anything without self-referencing to images of the ideal, which are also created or maintained in our consciousness. How else could I think that a deliciously cooked steak is some form of ideal food? That’s enough ideal food for thought, I suppose.
That-which-ought-to-be Ideals often have one or two aspects: the normative (or ethical) and/or the aesthetic. The first is ‘that-which-ought-to-be’, the second ‘that-which-is desired-to-be’. A great deal of civilization and human strife is about the tension or complementarity between the two. Liberalism (2a) is about the freedom of each person to pursue ideals (e.g. happiness) according to his or her own best judgment. Some religions are easily classified in terms of what ought and is desired to be. For instance, Islam cultivates the desire for ought (and ought-not), Buddhism cultivates the ought for transcending desire, Christianity transforms desire, qualified as ‘love’, into ought (Great Commandment), while Judaism cultivates the desire for learning (‘lernen’) the real and true meanings of ought.
That-which-can-be … is another type of knowledge. It falls in the category of the true, which can be dealt with by science. It only makes sense to pursue things-that-are-desired-to-be if they fall in the category of things-that-can-be. There is no point in building castles in the sky, except if they fall in the category of things-that-maybe-somehow-can-become-true, i.e. the category of contingent possibilities. Now we come to the essence of the notion of judgment, which means “the evaluation of evidence to make a decision” in relation to a person’s quality of cognitive faculties and adjudicational capabilities. Design judgment has everything to do with handling uncertainty and unpredictability, things ‘the real’, being complex, is full of.
Inquiring systems The quality of an inquiring system will determine to a large extent the justifiability of a judgment. The word inquiry is one of many (systems, critical, analytic) ‘thinking’ words that became part of our languages (English, Dutch etc.) as a legal term, meaning “a judicial examination of facts to determine truth.” An inquiry means almost by definition an investigation of the complexities of the real, which means that it is very difficult to proof anything ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ (another judicial term). One could say that an inquiry is nothing but a series of questions in the hope to find out or discover some truth.
Heuristics The noun ‘heuristics’ denotes methods and processes to discover things or find them out. We all remember Archimedes crying “Eureka!” when he had found out a way to determine the volume of an irregularly shaped body like his own body or that of a golden crown. We all use heuristics in various forms. They often come in the form of more or less open questions, such as “What if everyone did that?” There are many more complicated heuristics and more are invented all the time. Some are generic, others are more specific in nature. I suppose Baron’s search-inference framework could qualify as a very generic heuristic. It can even help design or refine other heuristics.
Compound inquiry The Design Way proposes a very general heuristic of its own. The authors advocate “design [.. as] based on a compound form of inquiry, composed of true, ideal, and real approaches to gaining knowledge.” Or, in slightly different words, “design is a compound of rational, ideal, and pragmatic inquiry.” The truth-seeking approach produces facts, the reality-seeking approach has ultimate particulars as its outcome, while ideal-seeking inquiry gives us desiderata to work with. “Design thinking, to be accepted in part as a legitimate decision-making process and foundation for leadership, needs to be grounded in scientific truths – but not to the exclusion of the strategy of judgment making based on subjective as well as objective influences, or to the exclusion of the desiderata of the ideal.
Significance The significance of the real-true-ideal framework of design inquiry is as a more general form of Baron’s descriptive-prescriptive-normative framework of human behavior. Both can be used to explain Baron’s search-inference framework for thinking processes, the first at a more general level than the second. It is also possible to look at all three frameworks as explanatory of each other. The reason is that a more general framework tends towards the abstract, which requires substantiation in order to be in any way meaningful. I hope I am still making sense to the poor reader. If in doubt or confusion please consult:
- Baron, Jonathan (2008) Thinking and Deciding (esp. chapters 2 and 3 or my posts)
- Nelson and Stolterman (2012) The Design Way (chapter 1 or my posts on design
- Nelson’s video lecture “Designing Stuff: Lame Gods in the Service of Prosthetic Gods”