Yes, but what kind of design are we talking about?

Every industry from software engineering, to business, to professional services, consultancy and professional development, seemingly uses the word design in some form these days. And that’s aside from its more traditional artisanal and professional disciplinary use – fashion, graphic, product etc. – as well as within educational discourse. Indeed, within industry, asking ‘what do you mean by design?’ (Meron, 2020 p. 114) would be a commonly required clarification. The same is less often the case within academia.

Within academia, an additional lack of clarity has arisen from the attempt by a core of (predominantly non-designer) theorists at the end of the 20th century and early 21st century, to try and establish design as a discursive pedagogy in its own right. For example, Nigel Cross advocated for design as a kind of third pillar of educational discourse, to be situated alongside the arts and the sciences (Cross, 2006). 

This approach was scaffolded by theorists such as Peter Downton, Bryan Lawson and Donald Schön who framed design as a mode of activity, or a generative thought process (say hello to ‘design thinking’), from which new learnings can be produced. Design thus becomes a kind of ‘practice’ – aimed at harnessing those learnings into design research as academic discourse (Downton, 2003; Lawson, 2004, 2006; Schön, 1983).

Beneficial outcomes from some of these approaches, include the elevation of designers as more than functional artisanal creators, as well the identification of designers’ difficulty in explaining their practices (Buchanan, 2001). Something that appears most acute among among graphic designers (Brumberger, 2016).

However, an unfortunate gap chasm in much of this series of discourses, is the almost wilful disregard for definition of design as anything more than academic homogeneity. While acknowledging that design research is heavily weighted towards specific disciplines (such as architecture and product design), Cross (2011) suggests that the same approach to design thinking is equally applicable across all areas of design.

Partially, this points to an academic–professional practice divide. Perhaps indicating the lack of professional design practitioners (especially from graphic and communication design) within academia, as well as the number of non-designers involved in design within industry – in particular, what has become known as ‘design thinking’. Indeed, Lisa Grocott points to the paradox of design research being largely located outside of professional design practice (Grocott, 2010).

So, design remains a broad, often appropriated and elusive term; used, misused and abused. Maybe that doesn’t matter in itself – language and usage changes over time. But clearly definitions, usage and disciplinary demarcation needs to be, at the very least, acknowledged and tightened within both professional practice and academia.

Brumberger, E. R. (2016). Making the Strange Familiar. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 21(4), 376-401. doi: 10.1177/1050651907304021

Buchanan, R. (2001). Design Research and the New Learning. Design Issues, 17(4). 

Cross, N. (2006). Designerly Ways of Knowing. London: Springer-Verlag London Limited.

Cross, N. (2011). Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work: Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Downton, P. (2003). Design research. Melbourne: RMIT University Press.

Grocott, L. (2010). Design Research & Reflective Practice: The facility of design-oriented research to translate practitioner insights into new understandings of design. (PhD). RMIT, RMIT University. 

Lawson, B. (2004). What Designers Know. Oxford: Architectural Press.

Lawson, B. (2006). How designers think: the design process demystified: Elsevier/Architectural.

Meron, Y. (2020) Coke and Design. In: Crawford R, Brennan LL and Khamis S (eds) Decoding Coca-Cola: A Biography of a Global Brand. Routledge, pp.111-124. doi: 10.4324/9781351024020-7

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.