Definition of Design (Drafting a better introduction...)

The following is a very rough first draft of rewriting the introduction to my thesis. The summaries of Kant and Hume are a little too brief, I guess I'll have to flesh them out eventually. Anyway, here goes:

The problem with writing about design theory is that by and large designers and artists are mistrustful of theorists. Too often theorists narrow their focus to the point where they can only discuss the trivially true, or they try to oversimplify the design process until they are imposing unnecessary limits on our understanding of what design is about. To attempt to avoid this, we will proceed from first principles, rooted in the ideas of the philosophers Kant and Hume, and proceed, by way of a discussion of human perception, to a discussion of each of the major movements in design theory, attempting to integrate their teachings into a single framework, a model for understanding how we think about design and how we can make better designs.

We won't belabour the teachings of Kant and Hume. The thesis presented here was developed without having read either of these philosophers. It was only years later that their presence as the underpinning of the ideas presented here was pointed out to me.

Hume presented a problem to philosophers. He proposed that no true knowledge, that is knowledge which is absolutely and unarguably true, could be based upon the information provided by our senses. In other words, there could be no objective truth which relied upon a perception of a human being, as our perceptions are fundamentally non-objective. Thus, there could be no universal ideal of beauty or morality, nor could we necessarily derive any universal laws governing the operation of the universe by examining the universe. All statements about the real world were contingent, flawed and fallible.

Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, set forth a proposal that obviated much of the difficulty in Hume's proposal, while accepting its core thesis. Though we cannot make judgements about the real world based on our perceptions because they are often fallible with respect to the “objective” truth, we can discover truth of a sort based on our perceptions. While we cannot necessarily know what the objective world is like, our own mental model of the world can be used just as readily for making judgements regarding “truth”, as long as we always keep in mind that we are discussing truths related to our mental model of the world, not the world itself. While Hume made it impossible to discover a universal bedrock, Kant provided a life raft of sorts.

For designers, the shift brought about by Kant and Hume was fundamental. While previously designers could believe in an absolute truth, a perfect proportion, an ultimate style, in the wake of Kant they were faced with the idea that anyone's perception of “good” was just as valid as anyone else's, that there could never be a universally “good” thing, only things that were good for those who share a particular perception.

This state is not particularly comfortable for designers, or indeed for anyone who likes simple, rational, absolute situations. Cast into the sea of relativism, some have tried to lash together various rafts of common perception in order to build a stable foundation on which to build. Van der Laan, for instance, explicitly constructed a theory of “absolute” beauty through proportion (the Plastic Number) based on perceptual experiments. Le Corbusier, by contrast, simply ignored Kant and Hume and constructed a proportional scheme based on absolute ideals inherited from the renaissance. Aestheticians try to argue Kant down to finding a “perfect” beauty with headache-inducing logic, discovering little of value from a practical standpoint.

I propose, instead of clinging to the idea of an ideal, that designers and artists become comfortable with thinking directly in terms of altering human perceptions, that we embrace Kant not as a bridge back to the absolute past, but an opportunity to create more vibrant designs.

Taking Kant as a guide, let's try to describe what we mean by “design”:
Design is the process of creating some thing in order to affect a user or users perception of their environment in some way.

Now, obviously any time you try to define design, you get into trouble, so let's try to address a few of the obvious complaints about this formulation up front.

First up is the question of functionality; does this formulation allow for certain types of design where the product has to accomplish a task, such as architecture, or industrial design? It does, but it can be non-obvious as to how. While we normally think of “perceptions” in fairly limited “seeing where we are” terms, we are here using the broader definition which includes our understanding of our own needs and desires.

Following from Hume, we cannot really know our environment, all we know is what we perceive of the environment. So while it is practical to say that a house must keep the rain off the user's heads, it is as correct to say that the house must eliminate the perception of rain falling on our heads. Almost; the house should also eliminate the perception of pneumonia which tends to result if we, for instance, merely render our users unconscious so that they cannot feel the rain. In effect, we have here a set of consequences which we have learned, we know from experience that long term exposure to rain in cold climates will tend to cause pneumonia. Our mental model of reality tells us that to avoid pneumonia a home must keep the rain off of its occupants. We perceive this connection between cause and effect as a need; a condition that will bring about a desirable result.

Needs are part of our perception of our environment. Similarly, the feelings and promptings of our body feed into our perception of our environment. When we satisfy needs of any type, we are changing the user's perception of their environment. Thus functionalism is an approach to design which tends to focus primarily on the satisfaction of physical needs.

What about the question of “pure” art; is art which is created solely for the creator of the piece of art, with no attempt to accomplish any task, a form of design under this definition? The “user” in the formulation above does not need to be another human being. The creator themselves can quite readily be the “user” of a design, as could be an animal, or even a deity. Regarding the lack of a task, altering the user's perception of their environment is not limited to satisfaction of physical needs; communicating ideas or allowing expression and contemplation of thoughts are all ways of altering perceptions. Thus such “pure” art is a form of design, as would be “art therapy”.

What about “performance art”; does design exist if there is no structure created? The “thing” described in the formulation above is intended to include the ephemeral just as much as the concrete. A “thing” is something which can be perceived, whether it be an event, a physical object, sound, light, scent, heat, taste, or texture. The “thing” being created may be the event of “destroying” something else. When we act to affect perceptions we are designing.

Doesn't that make everything a form of design; what sets design apart from any other action in this model? In the formulation above, the key words are “in order to”. Design is action taken to effect a change in perception. It is a planned effect, based on our understanding of how humans understand their world, it attempts to change those perceptions. To be clear, though, the plan may be half-unfinished, the eventual goal unknown or ambiguous, yet there is an intention to change something through an act of creation.

There are likely other obvious objections to the formulation, but we will take it as a functional definition for now, and move on to discussing the nature of perception.


  1. Andre S C

    Andre S C on 11/01/2005 1:01 p.m. #

    hmmm, interesting perspective, will have to re-read when more time, i'm pondering related issues very preliminarily, and not as educatedly at, maybe we should chat?<br />
    <br />

  2. Mike Fletcher

    Mike Fletcher on 11/04/2005 2:42 p.m. #

    Chat away!

Comments are closed.


Pingbacks are closed.