The Basis of a Broadly Applicable Discipline
Chris Conley, Professor | Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology
What are the core competencies of design? When asked, many designers and design educators might respond, “Creativity;” “Helping others innovate;” “The ability to draw;” “Making things work well and look good.” There is some validity to each of these statements and the others that could be cited given a bit longer to come up with a list. However, as I have dealt with this question over the past 15 years, first as a design student, and then as a design educator, these suggested core competencies do not seem to capture the essence of what designers really do. Some of them are far too general, like “creativity.” All disciplines require creativity—design does not hold a disciplinary right to it. Other suggestions are often skill based, like “the ability to draw.” Certainly designers need this skill, but drawing itself does not constitute design competence. Young designers may be able to draw, but their ability to design remains lacking. What then does constitute the ability to design? In this paper, I propose seven competencies that are at the core of design expertise. Currently, they are based only on reflection of design practice over the past 15 years. I have presented them in a few informal gatherings of design educators and practitioners and they have been well received. Their value lies in the degree to which they remove the mystery associated with “creativity” and the lack of depth suggested by craft-based competence such as “drawing.”
It is important to establish how we define design in this paper. To paraphrase Herbert Simon who wrote the seminal book, The Sciences of the Artificial, design is “devising ways of turning existing situations into preferred ones.” Design is far broader than the architectural, industrial and graphic design traditions embodied in the majority of design programs around the world. For example, design would include the areas of engineering that are concerned with conceiving of new systems and technologies. This broader definition of design pushes us beyond the strong visual bias of the traditional design disciplines to include any activity where the specific form and arrangement of elements is used to create value.
Why do we care about the notion of design competencies? Is it really necessary to identify whatthey are? Isn’t part of the power of design its mysterious ways? The impetus to identify design’s competencies grows out of the shallow rhetoric that exists around design’s value to the world in general and business in particular. Ever since entering the field, I have observed designers and design advocates argue for an expanded use of the field. They have argued that design should be used more frequently, more broadly, and more strategically. Yet, when asked why, there is little to support the argument except for case studies that have often been selected because design was involved and the initiative was successful. Design advocacy currently rests on the very thin ground of “use it and they will come.” To be more credible, design must understand its successes and, perhaps more importantly, its failures. “Understanding” means that principles and causality can be developed. Unfortunately, there are many in the design field who argue against the possibility of understanding or characterizing design in certain terms. This is dangerous and destructive thinking. As long as those who advocate this position are leaders in the field, the
discipline will continue its glacial pace of growth and be at a significant professional disadvantage.
The benefits of understanding design and having a clear articulation of professional competence are significant. It will lead to significant growth of the discipline and achievement of goals that the field has argued for so long with little success. In spite of the last decade of decent growth, design remains a small discipline. Consider other fields such as marketing and computer science. They have the same or shorter histories than design and yet have grown and become central to the economy. One could argue that computer science was simply a benefactor of the invention of computers. One could argue that marketing is a clearer outgrowth of the field of business. But both these arguments would be missing the essential mechanism that led to their growth. It is because marketing and computer science sought to develop disciplines that they flourished. In spite of its name, computer science is no more a science than design. Have you noticed how bad software starts out? Have you noticed all the ways computer science has tried to make programming better and more reliable? Science does not guarantee certainty but, rather, the desire to understand a commitment to ways of working that lead to explanation.
Marketing, with its focus on understanding customers, markets, and competition, has no more or less potential as a discipline than design. Yet since its development shortly after the World War Two, marketing has flourished as a discipline. There are tens of thousands of members in the American Marketing Association and an equal number of companies. There are departments of marketing in every business college and robust graduate programs. Significant journals report on research in the field. New work and professional exchange happen at a variety of conferences around the world. These are the standard indicators and activities of an established discipline. Unfortunately, design is just getting started. It took until 1992 to establish the first PhD program in design, when the GE Foundation funded its development at the Institute of Design in Chicago. It is over a decade later and PhD programs continue to struggle for significant funding and growth. Discussion of the slow development of the design field is beyond the scope of this paper. However, the historical stance of design as being beyond understanding and explanation needs to be challenged. Design’s goals of growth, broader use and relevance can only come from the belief in and development of a vibrant field of study.