Why talk about design?

Why talk about design?

This website is devoted to design. We seek to question and understand the many ways in which design plays a role in our lives. We discuss the complex, zig-zag process of design as well as the products of design, be they artifacts, processes, experiences, systems, and culture. You can learn more about the framework that drives this work or just scroll down to explore…

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On the 4th floor and through two high glass doors, the scheduler ushered us into a conference room overlooking a street framed by palm trees. “He’ll be with you in a minute,” she said, adding with a tinge of apology, “He’s always running a bit behind.”

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, agreed to meet with us to help us explore a project on the scope of design. We were a gaggle of graduate students and a professor interested in the intersection of design and education. We believed that design expanded far beyond the traditional design fields like architecture and industrial design. We were writing a book that explored a broader perspective on design in general, and design in education in particular. We were linking small design with big and hoped Michael Crow could help us understand how he was redesigning something big, something cultural: The New American University.

Though we came to the project with a variety of expertise in education, technology, and design, Michael Crow was not the only person we interviewed. In fact, we interviewed other designers—designers of the small and designers of the big—from escape room creators who craft immersive experiences to architects who design physical structures. We’ve spent the past year developing our ideas and theories about the scope of design and what it means for education. Now, we believe it is time to share our project with the world.

“The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Robert Frost

In this project, we talk about design—all kinds of design: designs of tangible things but also intangible things, of stuff you can see and touch but also stuff you can only imagine. Our talk ranges from a focus on the artifacts around you, such as the website that you are reading now, to the culture of the workplace. We anchor our ideas in education, reflecting our backgrounds as educational practitioners and researchers. Overall, this project explores the diversity and relationships of designed things.

“Design is to design a design to produce a design” John Heskett1

Because the word “design” has so many meanings, it can quickly become a word that offers more confusion and ambiguity than it does clarification and specificity. In fact, in his book Design: A Very Short Introduction, John Heskett compared the ambiguity offered by the word “design” to the confusion offered by the word “love” and points to how the meaning of “love” radically changes depending on who is using it, to whom it is applied, and in what context. To avoid confusion, we have settled on a single definition, borrowed from Herb Simon: “To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” 2

To not avoid confusion (as you’ll see, we do love ambiguity), we talk broadly about the designed world. We see the results of design everywhere–from artifacts to cultures. In fact, we came up with a framework we call “The Five Discourses of Design in Education,” which helps us talk about design across all aspects of education. We argue that there are five spaces of design activity: artifacts, processes, experiences, systems, and culture. We talk about the knowledge, practices, elements, tools, and judgments—which together make up what we are calling a discourse—of each. In other words, here we talk about the scope of design and what that means for education.

Our hope is that through this ongoing project in which we talk about design, we can explore design in its richness.

1Heskett, J. (2005). Design: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford Press., p. 3

2Simon, H. A. (1969). The sciences of the artificial (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 11