By Robert L. Sandusky, Architect
To anyone who is serious about design, the answer to the question, “Is design science, or is it art?” has to be a resounding, “Yes and No!” How can this be? Well, let’s start at the beginning and discuss Art and Science as they relate to design.
It is pretty obvious, that Art has been around long before what we now call Science. So, in that context we’ll begin with Art and design. In these instances, we’ll use the capitalized noun to make a distinction between the field itself, Art / Science and the lowercase noun, art / science, to indicate a particular instance in the field. “Art”, for example will be the generic term for the discussion that follows and “art” will be a specific work or kind of art within the greater field. At the beginning of a sentence, the bold letter will signify the field.
Homo habilis, roaming the earth about 2 million years ago, was categorized as a hominid with skills in making things. His categorical nomenclature meant, “handy man”. This Stone Age predecessor to modern humans was already a competent designer but not yet an artist. These early humans conceived of making tools to aid their lives. They designed stone implements and crafted them by hand using tools & techniques that they developed to carry out their design actions. They were the early designers that establish the case that Design preceded Art and Science. The dating of the first Stone Age implements and the age of their makers is not without controversy, but the oldest dates when they were created precede works of art by at least one million years. That begs the question, what is it am I calling Design?
Design in the Stone Age probably began by a gradual refinement of knapping a stone to shape it into a useful tool or implement. This evolutionary design probably didn’t begin with an inspirational flash or an “ah-hah” moment. Even so, generations of intentional effort to make and refine from rocks a conceived object like a flint-knapped arrowhead, gave birth to the Design era.
It is pretty obvious, that Art has been around long before what we now call Science. So, in that context let us begin by comparing Art with Design. Paleolithic evidence clearly shows that the expression of thoughts, activities and feelings through Art, came at a later stage in human species development than did Design. The first attention given to Art began to show in the detailing of stone implements. Some arrowheads for instance were made from selected stones and beautifully detailed and crafted beyond the utilitarian necessity. Later examples of the expression of Art were things like deer bone whistles, amulets & jewelry, and cave paintings; these all being made real about 60,000 years ago. By this time Homo sapiens was the dominant human species on earth, and their lifestyle was more advanced and more sophisticated than their Homo habilis predecessors. The aesthetics of implements, tools and weapons became part of the technology as Stone Age people advanced. They made obvious efforts to create objects that had aesthetic qualities beyond what simple utility required. Art was being incorporated into the designed objects as well as having an expression of its own. But Design did not become Art, nor did Art become design.
Science didn’t enter the scene until relatively recently; coming into full form out of the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason in the mid 17th Century. Of course, the precursors to Science probably began long before when Homo sapiens developed wonderment and curiosity about the world around them. The Egyptians, Sumerians and Chinese around 4000-3000 B.C. were advanced enough in making and recording observations and mathematical measurements to have been creating the conceptual foundations of Science. And the Greeks, notably Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, advanced Science by their philosophical methods of inquiry. As a result today we see Science as seeking to find the truth about the nature of things; searching for cause and effect in an effort to determine what and how outcomes can be predetermined.
The “is/ought paradox” is one of the central philosophical tenants and a crucial feature that distinguishes Design from Science. Hume’s Law, as it is sometimes known, was postulated by David Hume the Scottish philosopher (1711-1776). The aspect of this concept critical to differentiating Science and Design can be illustrated by the difference between Positivistic statements and Normative statements.
Positivistic statements are Scientific and are about describing that which is. In other words, positivistic statements are descriptive statements about those things which can be observed or experimentally proven to exist.
Normative statements are ethical claims about how things ought to be. Kant and Aristotle asserted normative statements have cognitive content and can be rationally discussed; that they are more than just expressions of emotion. Normative statements are about having that which should exist because it is the good or right thing to do.
Design begins within the realm of “Desiderata”, (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012) combined within a normative statement context, and can emerge within the positive statement. Design may emerge as a Positive statement once a design becomes a particularized outcome. It can be seen as a Positive statement because it can be modeled, examined, and analyzed. At that stage a design can be in part described scientifically. But prior to the emergence of a positivistic design concept, there is nothing there to be described analytically. At the beginning, Design as a concrete addition to the world is in the process of being created, but it does not yet exist.
Design originates out of a notion, a need, or a desire (desiderata) for something that isn’t yet a reality. That is not Science because you cannot make a positive statement about something that doesn’t exist – something that isn’t even fully formed in the imagination. You can, however, make a normative statement about something that ought (ethical declaration) to exist. But, a particular design does not have to be morally or ethically good to be created. An example of this would be the economic system based on the free labor of slaves. That was a design that was good for many who were not slaves, but horribly bad for those who suffered under the yoke of oppression; thus the focus on desiderata.
I would submit that discussing Design requires the introduction of yet another “statement” to be fully understood. That would be the postulate as to what might be, or something that would be desired to be made to exist. In the beginning of the Design process, there is nothing, and there is everything. Anything is possible until it is put through the rigors of becoming a reality. Until a design is conceptualized, it isn’t real. A design begins before it is even an idea. It doesn’t begin as a scientific fact, it begins as a potentiality. The Design statement is about creating that which “might” exist or is desired to exist without any moral or ethical attribute required. That quality arises out of the judgment of the designer in service of a client.
This is not to say that Design does not have moral or ethical intent or outcomes. It does. It also has emergent qualities and unintentional consequences that cannot always be predetermined. This is not unique to Design. Art and Science too have negative as well as positive consequences, but they are handled in different ways unique to the particular discipline. Negative effects can become real aspects as a design becomes actualized. It is the responsibility of the designer to exercise judgment throughout the Design process to mitigate the unwanted effects. But it is impossible to foresee them all.
One of the ways designers can mitigate unwanted effects is to design with, within, and without systems. This is what Dr. Harold Nelson and others call “Systemic.” What this means is design has an attribute of systemics that is integral to it. Understand it and use it, or not, that attribute will be a part of anything a designer does. Using and understanding it enables the designer to give consideration to the systems that are affected and the effects of those systems upon the design. Systemic Design does not mean the “design of systems”. Systems Design is the term that is commonly used to describe that. Design obviously can be used to create systems of all kinds from digitalized technology to analog modeling as well as social systems, organizational systems and so on. The term Systemic Design is intended to mean the concept of how Design interacts with systems that embed the design, systems that the design creates and uses, and systems upon which the design has influence and relationships which in turn influence the design itself.
“Design within systems” means creating with the intention of being aware of the systems around the design which can be judged to have significant influence and interaction. This means not only systems that actually interface with the design but also remote systems and adjacencies as well. An example of this would be using science and technology to reach out beyond the design itself. Another would be to use art for historical reference or meaning.
“Designing with systems” means designing the systems that are incorporated into the design system itself. An example of this would be using structural design system for the supporting framework for architecture. Another would be the use of artworks to enhance the interior spaces of the architecture.
In Designing with systems and Designing within systems it can be seen how Art and Science are two systems that are essential to Systemic Design. But neither Art nor Science fully encapsulate nor define the universe of Design.
“Design without systems” has a triple meaning. Firstly, it means not considering systems at all in the design. This is not possible to do with any complex design because the systems are such an integral part of the process, and it may not be possible to do with any design even though the systems relative to simplex designs may not be readily apparent. Secondly, it means to design for intangibles that are not real systems, like future generations and non-represented entities. Thirdly, “Design without systems” means to be designing from the spaces between systems. Designing from the spaces between systems is a more difficult concept. So, before discussing this, it would be helpful to create a schema of a whole Design system.
Visualize a froth of bubbles, occupying space in all directions. Each individual bubble represents a system that is in some way individually categorized. Deep within this froth there exists a bubble that represents the design. In the beginning stages the design bubble is tiny and because of its size, the number of adjacent bubbles that can have contact with it is few. As the design begins grows its perimeter boundary increases in size. The number of contacts the design bubble makes with adjacent bubbles increases as the larger surface boundary of the design bubble expands. Some of the bubbles adjacent to the design bubble become a part of it as the boundary film between bubbles disappears. Or in some cases, whole bubbles occur inside the design bubble, and literally change the content of the design bubble. When the design is complete, the bubble froth has changed from its original form. Some bubbles have joined with others in different configurations. Some bubbles will have changed size and some will have been incorporated into bigger bubbles. And, some bubbles will have popped! These changes of the froth are a metaphor for the emergent qualities and the unintended consequences of the environmental system which itself is represented by the changed froth which still contains the design bubble.
The environmental system is delimited by the intentional creation of a system boundary. In a universal sense, the froth of systems has no boundary. But to bring the Systemic Design bubble into reality, a limit has to be imposed upon the infinite froth of systems for the design process to take place. That boundary can be open or closed; allowing the change of the system bubbles in the froth to respond accordingly. But at some point the bounded froth of systems has to become finite in order for the design bubble to emerge. Otherwise the design bubble will just continue to change as the environment adjusts to its growth. Ideally, the limiting boundary will be closed when only negligible effects are caused. Putting a boundary around the froth of systems would be analogous to creating a Whole System. So then how does this help explain the concept of designing “without systems?”
Designing “Without Systems” in the third instance mentioned above is to grasp the meaning of the spaces between systems. Again consider the froth metaphor of systems. Each bubble has a boundary. Boundaries between bubbles interface with each other when they make contact and the boundary itself becomes part of each. But the boundary itself is made of “something.” In the actual application of boundaries of systems, part of that something is the criteria used by the designer when using Design judgment and wisdom in creation of the boundary. Other attributes of the boundary layer are the quality, kind, and extent of the interface among systems. And the boundary interface represents the effects of the systems on one another.
With this image as an aid, one can begin to understand how Whole Systems and Systemic Designs are composed. The relationship with systems is one characteristic of Design that identifies it as being different from Art and Science. Even though they both have their own relationships with systems they are different to each particular field. The systems in the environment of each field are themselves varied and different. Yet, nearly always Art and Science interface with Design and they become systemically connected together.
Returning then to the original inquiry, “is Design Art, or is it Science?” the paradoxical answer remains the same; yes and no. Each; Art, Science, and Design is a unique field of human endeavor having its own individual characteristics, protocols, outcomes, and intentions. And each is systemically interrelated to the other. Design is Design and as such it engages with both Science and Art incorporating aspects of both while wholly belonging to neither. But finally, Design is very different and unique from Art and Science and is more than both. It is Design.
Nelson, Harold G. and Erik Stolterman. 2012. The Design Way, Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World, 2nd ed. Pg. 106-112. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.