A new liberal art

Richard Buchanan’s 1992 paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” is some of the best scholarship I’ve come across. Buchanan argues that design is neither art nor science but its own way of understanding aspects of the world: a new liberal art of technological culture.

Buchanan’s aim is to further the understanding of design as a new liberal art of technological culture, and part of this hinges on the word “technology” which Buchanan argues has a richer meaning than “hardware”.

“Most people continue to think of technology in terms of its product rather than its form as a discipline of systematic thinking. They regard technology as things and machines, observing with concern that the machines of our culture often appear out of human control, threatening to trap and enslave rather than liberate. But there was a time in a earlier period of Western culture when technology was a human activity operating throughout the liberal arts.”

Buchanan says that every liberal art had a technologia, a systematic discipline. “To possess that technology or discipline of thinking was to possess the liberal art, to be human, and to be free in seeking one’s place in the world”.

“Design also has a technologia, and it is manifested in the plan for every new product. The plan is an argument, reflecting the deliberations of designer and their efforts to integrate knowledge in new ways, suited to specific circumstances and needs. […] Argument in design thinking moves toward the concrete interplay and interconnection of signs, things, actions and thoughts. Every sketch, blueprint, flow diagram, graph, three-dimensional model, or other product proposal is an example of such argumentation.”

Akrich made a similar point, in the same year as Buchanan, in one of my favourite quotes about designers:

“Designers thus define actors with specific tastes, competencies, motives, aspirations, political prejudices, and the rest, and they assume that morality, technology, science, and economy will evolve in particular ways. A large part of the work of innovators is that of “inscribing” this vision of (or prediction about) the world in the technical content of the new object.”

Possible, necessary, contingent…

Buchanan argues that different design professions use different kinds of argument. He says that industrial design

“tends to stress what is possible in the conception and planning of products; engineering tends to stress what is necessary in considering materials, mechanisms, structures and systems; while marketing tends to stress what iscontingent in the changing attitudes and preferences of potential users.”

These different modalities, Buchanan says, are why these three imporant professions, which all use design thinking, are often “irreconcilably different from each other”.

…and impossible

But, he also says that

“the new liberal art of design thinking is turning towards to modality of impossibility. It points, for example, toward the impossibility of rigid boundaries between industrial design, engineering and marketing. It points toward the impossibility of relying on any one of the sciences (natural, social or humanistic) for adequate solutions to what are the inherently wicked problems of design thinking.”

And, says Buchanan, “that what many people call ‘impossible’ may actually only be a limitation of imagination that can be overcome by better design thinking” which is not a new technological solution, but “new integration of signs, things, actions and environments that address the concrete needs and values of human beings in diverse circumstances”.

He concludes:

A common discipline of design thinking—more than the particular products created by that discipline today—is changing our culture, not only in its external manifestations but in its internal character.

I’ve been working through this paper for several weeks now. I’ve barely scratched the surface of Buchanan’s argument in this post. I’m not sure I completely agree with Buchanan on every point he makes, but I think I’m beginning to understand what he says.

The idea of a technologia is interesting and worth following up. Buchanan’s descriptions of how the arguements designers make are costrucuted through placements is very interesting. I’m not completely sure that design is as much a way of understanding the world as it is a way of turning understanding into arguments. And I’m not clear about how much of Buchanan’s design thinking takes place in the designers head and how much takes place in the doing of design.

Nonetheless, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” is the best argument, description, and exposition I’ve come across that tries to describe what exactly design is. If you’re interested in any aspect of design, consider this my recommendation to you.


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