a theory of designing

the voice of reason asks ten questions:

1. Is there a theory of design?
2. What is the essential skill of designing - can it be described?
3. What are design methods?
4. How do you use them (design methods)?
5. Is scientific research useful in designing?
6. Is it scientifically possible to discover the nature of designing?
7. How to design complex systems?
8. How to solve or to avoid major problems created by the culture we create and inhabit?
9. How to redesign the designed culture?
10. How to teach this view of design - what are the principles?

to which the voice of intuition gives these spontaneous answers:

1. Is there a theory of design?

There are many but there is no accepted theoretical frame of reference that I know of, only the ability of the human mind and nervous system to react creatively, informedly and collectively in order to change things and situations (for the better, we hope). The basis is 'people' - not abstractions or reductions of what it is to be alive. To design is to trust people and the unknown, as we are, as it is. Henry Dreyfuss (1955), in his book Designing for People,was one of the first people to act on this idea.

2. What is the essential skill of designing? Can it be described?

I guess you mean the ability of people to arrive at new designs that are noticeably better (more imaginative, more inspiring, more useful, more profitable, less damaging) than what exists. A seeming magic.

This is at present a mystery and possibly it will remain one. The paradox is that human minds, both individually and in collaboration, can, when appropriately informed by design activity, or methods, somehow conceive of and evolve new things and situations that go beyond, and 'improve', what exists. Yet 'what exisits' is their only ingredient. How is it done?

At its best creative activity works by identifying large parts of each person's bodymind with the new design itself - the distinction between designer and designed is thus weakened as the mind identifies with the world and the thing designed takes on the character of mind. Beyond that I can't say very much and don't feel the need to explain it - only to do it - as in breathing or in thinking or any in other activity!

It is more difficult than it looks: for instance, to compose this brief writing defeated me for several weeks - until I was rescued by the arrival of these rational questions... Then I wrote my answers straight out, between midnight and three a.m. Why was that? I cannot say. When we do the things we do we often do not know how we do them. I did not anticipate that sentence, nor this.

3. What are design methods?

Techniques which enable people to design something, to go beyond their first ideas, to test their designs in use or simulated use, to collaborate in creative activity, to lead design groups and to teach and to learn designing. A method can be anything one does while designing: sketching alternative designs 'on the back of an envelope', calculating what are assumed to be the main parameters, formal brainstorming (and classification of the result), taking a rest, issuing a questionnaire, evaluating preliminary designs in 'affirmative groups' and, most importantly, observing and experiencing for oneself the use of existing or new designs (in real life or in simulations)... A design method is any action whatever that the designers may decide is appropriate.

Test it! (said Christopher Alexander long ago) is the best design method there is.

But what aredesign methods you might still ask, hoping for a more theoretical definition or description. In reply I would say that the usefulness of a method (or the purpose of a whole design process, consisting of several methods in a chosen sequence or in parallel) is to provide an adequate way of 'listening to' the users, and to the world, in such a way that the new design becomes well fitted to people and to circumstances.

I sometimes think of designing as a meta-process, occurring before the product exists, that can predict enough of the future to ensure that the design can have the same quality of rightness that we see in natural organisms, in things that have evolved naturally, 'without design'.

I'd like to correct a misconception: when in the 1970s I criticised and appeared to leave design research it was not because design methods had become rigid tools that inhibited the imaginative skills of individual designers - it was because I was angry, and still am, at the 'inhumanity' of abstract design language and theories that are not alive to all of us as people, or to actual experience - and which threaten to reduce the reality of life to something less than human.

4. How do you use them (design methods)?

It is difficult to use formal design methods, but not impossible. One danger is that of drowning in the large amount of information that most methods generate - or otherwise losing one's way and losing confidence. In any creative process, what some of us call the intuition (or the imagination) must have priority. Reason (and science) must be used to support, not to destroy, this essential confidence and vision. Otherwise, the intuition, or creativeness, which does not perform to order, will 'fly out of the window'.

One essential is to reserve part of the design time and effort to 'navigation': the choice of methods and of evaluating them both by external results and by one's spontaneous feelings as the process proceeds. And in this, a key part of designing, we have to trust our informed intuitions, and the world, and other people, and our self-awareness (which is only available when we stop designing for a moment).

5. Is scientific research useful in designing?

When it comes to finding out how people experience and use existing or new designs, objective information is helpful, even essential - provided that the rigours of the laboratory and of scientific proof are not allowed to over-ride well-informed intuitions but are used to replace ill-informed ones. Scientific methods, like all others, must be subject to an intuitive meta-method of navigation, such as I described in the previous answer. Without that they can be unproductive or destructive of insight and of life. There is no objective way to prove what is right.

6. Is it scientifically possible to discover the nature of designing?

There is a huge difficulty here. It seems that scientific research is suited only to observation, inductive theory, and experiment in relation to things that exist and that are separate from the people who are doing the research. Studying creative thought processes, such as design, is I think better done directly by introspection, by empathy and by conversation, etc.

The underlying difficulty of studying design is that it is concerned with the whole of something and 'the whole' is not an objective reality - it is a fluctuating scheme or state of the bodymind, perhaps more akin to religious inspiration than to science or to technology (William James, 1901-2). One can be totally involved. And what I am calling the bodymind includes not only the brain and body but one's conceptions of both body and of world. These are not external objects but they are surely realities.

(At last I feel that this writing is flowing well - the complexity of life is at last entering into the argument!)

7. How to design a complex system?

I've read much about complexity, and I am more than aware that complex design problems - such a urban traffic, or the provision of medical care to all who need it - are unsolved in any city or region. Adequate designs for such situations call for social changes that are presently resisted and are perhaps beyond us, as yet (Jones, 2000).

I am also aware that it is not possible to measure complexity - all entities are as complex as each other - and the definition of what is a 'thing', 'system' or an 'entity' is essentially arbitrary, as is any word. Word is a word and so is this. The words of a theory of design are also designs - there is no way to step outside of 'oneself being the world' but unfortunately the teaching of science as objective method gives the impression that one can... (Is that it?)

8. How to solve or to avoid major problems created by the culture we create and inhabit?

I suppose you are thinking of problems such as global warming (and to know how much of it is or is not the result of human activity), urban terrorism, global poverty, globalisation (is it good or is it bad for people and for the natural environment?), etc. The Encyclopedia of World Problems, 1994, lists several thousand such problems, and strategies for solving them - but in practice they are mostly unsolved.

I believe that the way to tackle these is to change (with the help of computernets) to a non-specialist culture in which computers are the specialists and all people are enabled to play creative parts in the continual redesign of the industrial culture as we live it. I call this (as yet unclarified) idea 'creative democracy' (Jones, 2000). It is intended to replace representational democracy by continual voting and by responsible action by everyone (in place of work as a specialist, paid to attend only to parts of the whole but not to it).

9. How to redesign the designed culture?

It is evident that these large design problems of the time cannot be solved without changing the culture so that everyone plays a part in re-creating it - in a continual process I call 'designing-as-living'(Jones, 1993). If this is to happen it will I think be necessary for design and design research to be unified into a single process of which they are complementary parts. That is I believe the first move, from which others could follow.

But how could that be done?

I see three changes as being necessary.

Firstly designers would be paid not to design only individual products but the whole experience of each of us as we endure or enjoy the succession of products that we encounter each day - and to forsee and to design the combined effects of new designs on their surroundings.

Secondly professional design researchers would be paid to seek answers to any questions that arise in the course of designing 'the whole experience' of modern life and the effects upon the environment (which of course includes 'the mind' and all artifacts, seen as products of natural beings). For this, 'objective' research methods are I think inadequate.

Thirdly, designers and researchers would be required to relate their activities firstly by practicing and learning each other's skills, and then by integrating them within their own minds and in ways indicated by my answers to the other questions.

A fourth stage is to involve all the people who experience the effects of new designs in the design process. Eventually this could lead to the ending of design and research as specialised professions as everyone becomes a designer-researcher, in part, working through software in which the describeable parts of each activity are embedded in software accessible to all... But this is in itself a large and complex design that is perhaps beyond the scope of these questions and this discussion? If there is an answer I expect it to resemble the operation of the 'open source movement' in the spontaneous and collective design of the internet (Naughton, 2000)

10. How to teach this view of design - what are the principles?

I don't see this as a set of principles but I do have some suggestions arising from experience:

Firstly that the teacher (if there is one) carries out the same design tasks that he or she sets for the students - and is willing to discuss the doubts, and the often fragile imaginings, that underly his or her creative work. This should encourage the students to do likewise.

Next, both teacher and students, collectively and consciously, choose appropriate methods to suit both the design problem and their varying states of mind as designer-researchers (or artists of science?). And they change methods at intervals, accordingly.

Thirdly, each designer begins to learn how to transfer the creative task, or opportunity, to the people who will use or inhabit (or otherwise experience or suffer) the design, using appropriate methods (such as designing only parts, not wholes - like words, bricks or computers) - from which people can improvise imaginative and flexible designs according to unpredictable situations arising.

I could make other suggestions but perhaps that is enough to show how UNprincipled and flexible is designing, at its imaginative best - as a joy, not a problem - as it changes the variables!

(Intuition thanks reason for her questions - without which this theory would not have appeared.)


Henry Dreyfuss, 1955, Designing for People, out of print but a second-hand copy can sometimes be found at www.amazon.com.

The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, 1994-5, volumes 1-4, ISBN 3-598-11165-7, 4th edition 1994-5, edited by the Union of International Associations, Brussels (initiated by Anthony Judge). There are printed and online versions:
http://www.uia.org/uiapubs/pubency.htm and http://www.uia.org/data.htm

William James, 1901-2, The Varieties of Religious Experience: a study of human nature, Gifford Lectures, Edinburgh 1901-2, and in several editions including Fontana Library, Collins 1960.

John Chris Jones, 1993, 'Designing as Living?', Information Design Journal, volume 7, number 2, 1993, pages 142-148.

Creative democracy is tenatively described in my recent book the internet and everyone, John Chris Jones, 2000 - a summary of the relevant pages appears on my website at http://www.publicwriting.net/2.2/creative_democracy.html Descriptions and proposed solutions to the urban traffic problem and the future of medicare appear on pages 46-50 and 491-501 respectively.

10. John Naughton, 2000, A brief history of the future: the origins of the internet, Phoenix Paperback, Orion Books, London 2000 - it includes the best account I know of the open source movement.