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Design Studies
What Is it Good For?
Cameron Tonkinwise
is Director of Design
Studies at Carnegie
Mellon University,
and Chair of the
School of Designs
Ph.D. Program. His
research and teaching
are primarily in the
field of Sustainable
Design Studies, with
a focus on service
design for systems of
shared product use.
Cameron has recently
edited The Sustainable
Design Reader
with Abby MellickLopes (Bloomsbury,

Abstract This article treats the rise, and

perhaps fall, of Design Thinking as a prompt
to ask: What is Design Studies? or rather,
What could Design Studies be? Using the
heuristic of a SWOT analysis, it is argued
that recent shifts in cultural theory toward
material practices afford Design Studies
opportunities to expand beyond a mere
liberal arts supplement to the education
of designers. However, Design Studies is
facing challenges from shifts in both the
discipline and business of digital interaction
design. It is consequently concluded that
Design Studies needs to move beyond its
current pluralism.
Keywords: design studies, design thinking, design history, thing theory, practice theory, interaction design

Apple shares may be sliding but design still seems to be

considered the key to higher value innovation. Design is
up. Higher education, by contrast, is down. Austerity in

5 Design and Culture DOI: 10.2752/175470814X13823675225036

Cameron Tonkinwise

6 Design and Culture

Cameron Tonkinwise

overnment-funded systems and growing inequality in nongovg

ernment-funded systems would suggest that the future is STEM
MOOCs. At the same time, the need for critical creativity in relation
to complex and wicked problems like climate change and peak everything, crisis-prone democratic and economic systems, overburdened health and transport systems, etc., persists if not increases.
And Design Studies is? What is it good for? What is Design
Studies? Where is it at and where is it going?
How, for example, does Design Thinking relate to Design Studies?
Whatever your views of this term, it does represent a mainstream
interest in design.1 Moreover, that interest concerns not the kind of
designing involved in the technical expertise of crafting form, but
instead design as a kind of strategic problem-reframing process. The
designing of Design Thinking is a source for breakthroughs whether
in the domain of new business or social challenges. Design Thinking,
as creative applied research, is a source of power,2 management,3
and governance even.4 Is it not Design Studies that provides the
horizontal component to the much sought after T-shaped person,
that is the person who has depth, but can also move across fields
(Brown 2009: 27)? Design Studies provides the breadth that allows
design(ers) fearlessly and creatively to traverse domains of specialized knowledge as disciplinary bricoleurs. And so, was not the rise
of Design Thinking also Design Studies moment, the opportunity for
Design Studies to step into a position of leadership? And I say was
because it looks like that moment is already passing.5 If Design
Thinking was ill-conceived and misdirected, should it not also have
been Design Studies that rose to the fore as its strongest critic?
Either way, did we blow it?6
The obstacles were substantial. Design Studies remains more a
domain of teaching than a field of research: the research of the field
of Design Studies tends to reflect merely whatever work or study
those teaching Design Studies do, when they can. To this extent,
Design Studies remains supplemental to Design. I mean this in
the Derridean sense7: Design Studies is both necessary to design
education, completing it, and yet on the other hand it remains extra,
outside of the core learning in studios that skills up practitioners.
As such Design Studies is precarious, often protecting itself (at least
in the North America) by identifying as the not-immediately-practical
liberal arts components that regulations stipulate must be in all
(pre)professional degree programs. Stepping out of its role as an
educational subsidiary to design, and stepping into the opportunities
or challenges represented by memes like Design Thinking, would,
therefore, be difficult, even though the connections were strong.
And yet, given that Design Studies is only two to three decades
old,8 it is surprisingly well established, at least within higher education.
It could be more influential, indeed it should be paramount, given the
design-entangled nature of the problems our societies currently face.
But the time has come for us to take stock of Design Studies.9 Using

Design Studies What Is it good For?

Figure 1
A Design Studies bookshelf No. 1. Photographer: Charlee Brodsky.

the missed opportunity of Design Thinking as heuristic prompt, and

in that same businesslike spirit, I would like to undertake a SWOT
analysis, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of Design Studies
to date, then look at shifts in other disciplines that present opportunities for Design Studies, and finally survey some shifts in the nature of
design practice that are threats to Design Studies.

By Who and What and For Who and What

n Research into design written critical interpretations or histories

of designs.
n Research through design reflective practitioner documentation
of action research via studio projects innovating materials and
n Research for design investigations (not formally research,
Frayling feels), contextual or instrumental, in preparation for making. (Frayling 19934)

7 Design and Culture

Design Studies is many things deliberately; the editors of Design

Issues name a belief in pluralism as their second editorial policy,
the first being to ensure a mixture of history, criticism, and theory
among our articles (Buchanan and Margolin 2001: 2). This survey
of Design Studies is not comprehensively empirical. It is therefore
important to at least indicate the model that is being used to make
sense of, and evaluate, the field of Design Studies.
My overriding assumption is that Design Studies, as primarily
a domain of design teaching, has been and mostly remains for
Design. This is meant in the sense of Chris Fraylings categorization
of kinds of design research, a categorization that also tried to clarify
a practice that was allied to design without necessarily being part of
designing proper:

Cameron Tonkinwise

Design Studies is most definitely not what Fraylings ambiguous categories meant by for design. Rather, Design Studies would seem
to fall into the first category, that is research into design. Note that
Fraylings account of into design ignores what is in fact a significant
discourse of Research of Designing, strangely enough dominated by
an association with Design Thinking in its title11 and a publication with
the title Design Studies.
To take stock of Design Studies today is to ask not only what
Design Studies is, but what is it for. If Design Studies is only research
into design in Fraylings sense and it is certainly more than that,
even without trying to get to a better sense of what design means
in that phrase we could still ask, to what end?
Consider, for instance, the questions that Wayne Booth and
colleagues in The Craft of Research suggest graduate research
students not yet clear on their focus ask:

8 Design and Culture

1. Topic: I am studying .
2. Question: because I want to find out what/why/how ,
3. Conceptual Significance: in order to help my reader understand
4. Potential Practical Application: so that readers can better .
(Booth 2003: 66)
These questions about significance and practicability, what research assessment systems call impact, cannot be answered
without also specifying who the research is for, what kind of reader
(if the research takes the form of writing) is being implied. Design
Studies teaching did seem to be only for designers; but as interest
in design, or at least Design Thinking, has grown, Design Studies
is often called upon to teach non-designers about design. On this
it is worth asking why Design Studies departments tend to be colocated with Design and not within a humanities or social sciences
college, separate from where designers learn designing in arts,
creative industries or technology-oriented colleges.12 Further, Design
Studies departments no longer have the monopoly on teaching and
research in Design Studies. As I will examine below, Design Studies
is increasingly being done in computer science departments (via
research-based humancomputer interaction design), media studies
departments, and even geography departments.
Nevertheless, who is the intended audience for Design Studies
research? If it is for design, it is not so much for designers as for
design students. In fact, as with much academic research, students
are less the primary target than other researchers in that same
domain who will then (hopefully) incorporate that research into what,
and how, they teach. Design Studies research is rarely directed at
non-design disciplines but it is sometimes meant to be consumed
by a wider public. However, even the larger project of raising general
design literacy could also be considered for design inasmuch as

it facilitates the being of service (Nelson and Stolterman 2012:

Chapter 2) at the heart of designing through client education. It is
exactly this kind of pro-design, or on-behalf-of what-design-couldbe, that should have warranted Design Studies participating more
actively in the discourse of Design Thinking.
If Design Studies is then a kind of research into design that is
nevertheless still for design, can it also be research through design?
For Frayling, research through design seems to generate knowledge
epiphenomenally; while iterating designs, designers make discoveries beyond the specific situation being negotiated. For Frayling, this
was mostly knowledge of a technical nature, so on both accounts
what is discovered and how this seems like the kind of design research that is not Design Studies. However, Daniel Fallman suggests
that the knowledge produced by design might also be about human
nature. He differentiates research-oriented design from designoriented research. The former is defined as where design is the
area and research the means the creation of new products and, in
that process, answering to the problems and real-world obstacles
that are faced in that process, is the primary objective (Fallman
2007: 195). I would prefer to call this research-based designing,
which is what I take Fraylings for design category to mean. Fallman
defines design-oriented research as where research is the area
and design the means as a conduct that seeks to produce new
knowledge by involving typical design activities in the research
process (Fallman 2007: 195). Though this more design-based research is like Fraylings through design, the knowledge outcomes
are wider than Frayling identifies: Studying an artefact to gain some
new knowledge is hence as much a question of understanding
people and context i.e. looking into and trying to grasp now and
how this now changes when a new artifact is introduced as it is to
develop and study technology.13
Fallmans revisions of Frayling indicate that something like the
research project Design Studies undertakes when doing research
into design (history or culture) that is, coming to know significant
new things about the human condition (vis--vis design, the human
as conditioned by its built environments for instance) can also be
done not only by designing, but by designers. Since Frayling wrote,
a diverse set of practices have arisen developing designs that refuse
to be conventionally, or at least marketably, useful, instead enabling
interactions that affectively pose questions. This kind of research
through design is less about knowledge generated through creative
processes than about completed artefacts that (dys)function pedagogically. Nevertheless, these critical or speculative designs seem
better understood as creative practice-based Design Studies. This
is evident in the way North Americans are categorizing these kinds
of projects as Discursive Design.14
A model for Design Studies then might then involve hybridizing
Booths research questions with updated versions of Fraylings

9 Design and Culture

Design Studies What Is it good For?

Cameron Tonkinwise

Table 1 Design Studies Matrix



In Order To

Manifesting As



Research of designing

Increase design

Research report

Design academics

Academic articles
and books

Design students


NGOs, agencies


Research of contexts of

Research of a
Media studies design(er)s current
of technology

Research of a
design(er)s histories

Teach how to
design better
Change design

Nonacademic articles students
and books


ategories. Design Studies should be defined as: By Whom?; Is

Doing What?; In Order To What?; Manifesting As What?; For Whom?
To explain this matrix, Design Studies tends to involve picking one
entry from each column:
n A design academic doing research of a designs histories in order
to increase design literacy via a nonacademic article aimed at the
n A design practitioner doing research into designing in order to
teach how to design better via a documentary for design students about different design practitioners.

10 Design and Culture

More controversially, is it still Design Studies when:

n A geographer does research into the contexts of designing,
say aging-in-place, in order to change the design practice via
a research report targeting design practitioners engaged in the
redesign of suburban homes?
n A design academic researches a designs ecological impact in
order to understand how we are being conditioned to be unsustainable by design, by creating a deliberately excessively wasteful
Discursive Design to be experienced by non-design students?
The question heuristically motivating this survey is whether Design
Studies should have engaged with something like Design Thinking.
Nevertheless, this matrix is not just descriptive but prescriptive: who
should be doing Design Studies, and who should be receiving it?
What kind of researching is being done and is it manifesting in the

Design Studies What Is it good For?

right way given its intended rationale? I have already mentioned that
even with respect to its own internal rationale Design Studies is
for Design via the supplemental teaching it does of designers the
model indicates some problems with selections across the matrix
why is Design Studies manifesting as academic articles to be
read by design academics when its in order to is to teach how
to design better? If Design Studies could and should be changing
design practice, would this mean doing more contextual research for
designing, for instance?

Strengths and Weaknesses

In what follows, I will outline three ways in which Design Studies
relates to Design primarily via design education: history, evaluation,
and expertise. In all cases, we will see that Design Studies strength
is tied to aspects of its weakness.

1. Making History

Art History In many schools, a comprehensive knowledge of the

history of Western art to the extent of being able to pass a slide
test remains a requirement of any designer and therefore a core
component of Design Studies faculty teaching (and research). But
few ask why this is necessary and what it is meant to do.
At the least, art history is important insofar as designs modern(ist)
birth came from art. Long before relational aesthetics, early modernists (the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Werkbund) saw the need
for art to leave the gallery and glimpsed the vastly significant canvas
that was emerging consumer products and their built environments.
Significantly, the Bauhaus curriculum deliberately contained no (art)
history in order to break with Beaux Arts tradition; but every design
student today learns that the Bauhauss break was an important
aspect of the way modernism in fact represented the continuation of
the project of Western art, now moving from the gallery to the living
room. Designers learn art history, according to this myth of designs
founding, because it gives them their rationale.18
The more cynical version of this story is that designers are creative, with a diversity of aesthetic precedents in their head taken
from the history of art, somewhat to inspire them (Bhaskaran 2005).
Knowing art history also allows designers to vouch for their originality, checking back with the slide library of art from cave painting
to Koons to make sure that their propositions are not unwittingly
replicating moves already made by the avant-garde at some point.19
When art history is rendered this functional reduced to a pattern
book for form givers is it still a liberal art?

11 Design and Culture

The least requirement of Design Studies departments has been to

preserve and disseminate historicity to design students. This is why
many Design Studies faculty members have to date been historians.
What is this history for, or is it only a liberal art?17

12 Design and Culture

Cameron Tonkinwise

Design History These issues are even more present when the
obligatory history course offered by Design Studies faculty to design
students is a history of design (as opposed to art). Normally these
cover a more limited period of history, from the nineteenth century
to the present.
But why should designers know their design history (rather than
it being merely a field of basic research)? In few other professions
is the history of the profession useful. There is only rarely merit for
contemporary medicine knowing how previous doctors, more or less
incorrectly, identified and treated illnesses. Lawyers, like designers,
rely on the precedents of previous judgments, but in some ways the
extent of their historical knowledge need only be the latest precedent
in any particular area of the law. Since technology is supposedly in a
state of constant improvement and since those improvements often
involve quantum leaps to wholly new systems, there is little merit
in understanding steam engines for example, for advancing digital
innovations. If in any of these examples just given, you can identify
situations in which new developments were derived from historical
study, the latter mostly serve only as an inspiration that could have
come from anywhere nature, a science-fiction fantasy, a random
bisociation. The value of the historical example has nothing to do
with its historicity.
Design ideas can be appropriated, translated, displaced,
combined; however, designing concerns itself with slower-moving
problems. Designing focuses on the interactions between people
and things, and people and (non-digital) things change only slowly.
Most of the non-digital furnishings and equipment in any household
are several hundred years old in basic form. We feel like we cycle
quickly through iterations of digital devices, but most of the major
categories of electrical devices have existed for half a century.20
When things are digital, websites or mobile devices for instance, the
designer, as opposed to the writer or the coder, focuses on what
is less changeably thingly about what is being designed. Thus,
designers are concerned with the text-image-relations-on-screenas-paper or the physical interactions between hands and fingers
and screens and buttons. In this way, the concerns of designers
have, if not ahistorical qualities, long now-ishness. This means that
historical kinds of interactions can still be very relevant to the present
even if the infrastructural technologies between then and now are
completely different.
Further, because design is concerned with interactions that are
not necessarily historically specific, designers often encounter situations without the constraints of this or that technology. As John Chris
Jones noted, once you break with physical trial and error and can
instead virtually prototype with sketches, creative leaps are possible
without limit. The question then becomes how to decide; if anything
is possible, what is best (Jones 1992)? Designing does this with reference to precedents; these are not necessarily this or that precedent

Design Studies What Is it good For?

in the legal sense, but rather precedent patterns, heuristics derived

from similar situations that occurred previously.21 What makes them
forceful as design guides is their historical mass; knowing what
has proved productive in the past, what can handle similar kinds of
interactions and using already successful affordances. In this sense,
design history is central to the know-how of designing if, and only
if, that design history comprises cases of previous designs as used.
As Jeffrey Miekle once noted (Meikle 1998), and Jan Michl corroborates (Michl 1992), design history must be taught via the handling
the artefacts what is of interest is the interaction precedent, not the
form as photographed for a slide collection.
As this last point suggests, there are qualities to the history that
comprises Design Studies that are irrespective of content art or design. These qualities concern how the field is taught. Every teacher
of history knows that it is important to make history come alive,
contextually, in order to reveal just how different moments in the
past were. The ultimate aim of history teaching is to feel historicity, to
have an avid sense that things change, fundamentally, between one
historical moment and another.22 This is always the danger of any
history of X, whether that X is art or design or even medicine:
already in the title is the assumption of some ahistorical category as
if the mere existence of a term a century ago, or more, means that
what it refers to today was also the referent back then.
More than most other professionals, designers are creators of
preferred futures; they must see the world as changeable. In a
very fundamental way, designers must understand that the way
things are now is not how they have always been. Therefore, it is
not how they need always be; better, or even just different, is, as it
always has been, an option. This is an important strength of Design
Studies, a crucial contribution for Design, but one that is too easily
weakened by particular dominant versions of history art oriented,
developmental or particular manifestations not experienced as
tangible interactions to contextually specific conditions.

Samer Akkach pointed out that the Arabic word selected for design
tasm m (design)[in] current usage, however, seems to be based
on tasm m as determining, making up ones mind and resolve to
follow up a matter. Thus in linguistic terms design is an act of determination, of sorting out possibilities, and of projecting a choice. It
has little to do with problem-solving, the prevailing paradigm, as the
designer (musammim) seems to encounter choices, not problems,
and to engage in judging merits, not solving problems. It is closer to
decision-maker (Akkach 20034).
Designers have to make decisions about preferred futures in situations that lack clear criteria. The identification of wicked problems
by Horst Rittel was a precise self-articulation of what designing
entails (Protzen and Harris 2010): negotiating the open-endedness

13 Design and Culture

2. Making Evaluations

Cameron Tonkinwise

14 Design and Culture

Figure 2
A Design Studies bookshelf No. 2. Photographer: Charlee Brodsky.

and variability of people, without its own stable techniques and tools
or disciplinary constraints. It always includes a view to change and
so includes what is possible, rather than already the case. Design is,
therefore, the art (as opposed to a science) of evaluating what is to
be done.
Donald Schn described the process of micro-judgments that lie
at the heart of designing. Designers make evaluations of each move
they make while designing, sometimes wanting to be surprised
(a glimpse of something new), and sometimes wanting not to be
surprised (the development of that newness toward something
materializable and usable) (Schn 1983). Designers acquire the skill
of being reflective practitioners by osmosis: the constant critiques of
first the studio master, and then ones peers, eventually becoming
internalized as the habit of constant self-critique. Schn argued that
these self-critiques are not self-rationalizations because designers
always project themselves into the materials and peoples they are
designing with and for.23
Nevertheless, there remains a danger of self-fulfillment in the
Schnian way designers create through critique. This is why there is
a vital need for inputs into the process of making; evaluations above
or below the situation must be designed for. And Design Studies is
often the vehicle for these externalities.
Critique as Judgment Design Studies often involves design criticism. However, again the model has been art. Students learn not only
the history of (modern) art but also the discourses that accompanied

Design Studies What Is it good For?

(Visual and Material) Cultural Studies The criteria for critique is expanded more by Design Studies classes that are essentially cultural
studies for designers. The initial logic for these kinds of classes is
that designers are creatives contributing to the culture of our societies that extends from formal cultural artefacts to the everyday values materialized in practical artefacts.26 However, because cultural
studies emerged from reactions to Marxist critical theory the aim
being to reveal more micro-level resistances to cultural values being
cast as hegemonic the discourse normally taken up by Design
Studies tends to be explicitly political, diversifying the criteria with
which designers can make evaluations. Students, therefore, learn
not only about everyday lifestyles (in fact to some extent this not-yetpoliticized more anthropological approach is rare in Design Studies
I will come back to this in relation to practice theory and design
ethnography) but a list of cultural difference theories or isms:
class, gender, race, species.27 The expectation is that designers
now have a set of cultural theories to draw on in their evaluations of
the designs they and others develop. However, in relation to issues
of how Design Studies manifests, there are always questions of
whether, and if so how, students migrate what they learn in their
more theoretical seminars to their less wide-ranging studio projects.
If the way students learn to design crit tends to privilege aesthetic judgments, the way designers learn to do cultural critique
tends to privilege identity politics. Beneath both is what could be
called semio-centrism, a legacy of the linguistic turn in the structuralist and poststructuralist cultural theories.28 The problem here is that
while design, especially in consumer societies, plays a pivotal role
in the symbolic economies of how we represent ourselves to each
other, design has another realm that differentiates it from all other
forms of culture use.29 In most cases, a design will only be bought
and therefore exert its symbolic value if it functions; or rather, if a
design is purchased because it has (marketed its) symbolic value in
excess of its functionality, it will not be able to incorporate itself into
the buyers everyday life over an extended period if it is not useful
and to some extent usable.30

15 Design and Culture

those movements, evaluating them and thereby prompting shifts in

the nature of practice. Students learn hopefully both how art has
been evaluated and how to evaluate it on their own.
At some point, sometimes because in its history art itself turned
toward popular culture, there is a shift in these kinds of Design
Studies courses from evaluating high and mostly visual art, to criteria for evaluating more everyday cultural artefacts. The emphasis
remains, however, on assessing the quality of designs in terms
of their appearance or their affect24 rather than their function; the
model remains Kantian, foreclosing on usefulness by insisting on
disinterestedness, though this is being challenged in the field of
interaction design.25

Cameron Tonkinwise

16 Design and Culture

In the reaction to Marxist critical theory that was cultural studies,

analyses of labor power and use value were displaced with a focus
on sign economies.31 This may explain the disconnect between
cultural studies for designers and design critiques: the making focus
of the latter is almost entirely absent from the former (except in
relation to consumer hacking). Thus, when the focus of desk crits
in design studios is on functionality, it is a very impoverished, instrumental version. It does not question the underlying valorization of
productivity (convenience). Moreover, it tends to employ a reductive,
static version of the human i.e., neo-behaviorist in terms of
capabilities and needs.32 The absence of Design Studies engagements with questions of use value would appear to be evident in the
gap between the small field of design criticism and the much more
extensive domain of consumer reports and even customer reviews
of products. Exactly what should be Design Studies strength, a
critical account of use value, remains underdeveloped.
The Value of Sustainability More recently, as new criteria of judging
design propositions have arisen in society, the question in design
education has been where to locate them. Sustainability, whether a
concern for the viability of ecosystems or the equity of social systems,
is sometimes embedded in studio programs and sometimes handed
over to Design Studies. To some extent it depends on whether
sustainability is understood as a technical exercise. Something that
is dependent merely upon having adequate knowledge (of life cycle
assessments for example), can be put together with the skill needed
to apply such detailed information into complex design situations.
Alternately, sustainability can be a value, a decision about what to
sustain, and is an outlook that needs to be argued to some level of
consensus among stakeholders.33 Although Design Studies curricula
do often become the home for sustainability courses, particularly
those apportioning blame mostly to consumerism since this fits with
the cultural studies approach to design history, there is a level of discomfort here. Ecological sustainability seems to re-essentialize nature and reinstate the Grand Narrative of the progression of positivist
technoscience.34 With the arrival of post-normal science (Funtowicz
and Ravetz 1992), this situation is changing. Nature, culture, and
technology become entangled in the Anthopocene (Steffen et al.
2007) the recognition that the qualities of this planetary era derive
more from human activities and artefacts than merely natural systems and especially in what Ulrich Beck calls the Risk Society35 a
society defined as much by the distribution of bads as by goods.
Related are the emergence of ecohumanities discourses such as
ecocriticism36 and sociologies of socionatural phenomena (for instance White and Wilbert 2009).
Sustainability raises the question of when Design Studies is merely
supplementary to the field or if it should become the repository of
courses in non-design knowledge that are deemed necessary for

Design Studies What Is it good For?

Critical Design and Future Studies When Design is critical of a situation, it creates an alternative rather than writing a critique. In some
ways, this paradox explains the gap between Design and Design
Studies. But it also represents two opportunities for Design Studies.
The attention being garnered by Discursive Design more generally
represents a chance for Design Studies to claim its place in the design studio. The briefing in speculative design studios can be done
by designerly cultural theory. This is the space in which the outcome
of Design Studies should be provocational products. Objects that
engender criticality refuse to interact with users in a normal manner.
Issues of use value and productivity are, therefore, always involved in
such designs, even if the focus is some other domain.37
Often Discursive Design is used to explore impending design
situations prior to their arriving as commercial realities. This points
to the importance of futures as a counterpoint to the emphasis
on histories in Design Studies. As an area of study, futures encompasses trend forecasting or extrapolating from history through
present conditions to possible futures given a range of options. But
it can also include backcasting or establishing a multi-stakeholder
consensus on a desirable future and then planning a pathway from
now to then. There is clearly an overlap here between designing
through imagined use-cases and what the pan-European SusHouse
Project called design-orienting scenarios (Vergragt and Green 2001).
The latter is accomplished first, in order to decide what should be
designed. The former attempts to evaluate a design on the desirability of anticipated design contexts. Futures thinking need not only
be about determining desirability; these kinds of design fictions can
also be cautionary, anticipating negative consequences of current
design trends.38 In either case, a Design Studies version of futures
means creating criteria for evaluations. These are not necessarily
ones based on deontic principles but instead on a case-based
moral imagination. This makes them not only for design but by

17 Design and Culture

designers to grasp. Ecological sustainability, for instance, demands

a certain level of science literacy and, perhaps, in some situations a
facility with economics. Designers have always had to know scientific
and economic things in relation to their design practice, but the fact
that sustainability is only a recent concern is significant. This indicates that sustainability represents a new set of knowledge or more
precisely a new quantity of scientific and economic understanding
expected of designers, in addition to whatever technical aspects of
their practice they learn in their studio. When sustainability becomes
a curriculum force, it leads to zero sum games with credit hours in
conventional skill-oriented studios, on the one hand, and traditional
design studies lectures/seminars on the other. Unless sustainability
is recast as something that can be magically integrated into the
entire curriculum, this will not change.

Cameron Tonkinwise

3. Making Experts

18 Design and Culture

It is common to insist that no book can teach you to ride a bike

or swim in a current: rules can be extracted from a practice, but
there is no getting from those abstract rules to practice. There is
an interesting aspect to this proviso, quite apart from its seeming
anti-intellectual sentiment. It manifests a commitment to embodied
material practice, to the fact that knowing does not reside only representationally in your head, but is distributed through(out) your body
and also in/with the devices or environments that are incorporated
in you when you undertake such practices.39 All this is becoming
increasingly important, as a faith in the algorithmic capacity of processors revives dreams of artificial intelligence and the automation of
all aspects of our lives.
At least two arms of Design Studies engage the nature of design
practice. Within their own domains, these are robust and extensive
activities. But they remain marginal in the wider of discourse of
Design Studies.
Research of (Expert) Designing It is difficult to explain why the
previously mentioned Design Thinking Research Symposia and the
journal of Design Studies, each engaged in research of the design
process for two and three decades respectively, are not so prominent within the publications and teachings of Design Studies. It may
be that the positivist frameworks like cognitive science dominate
there. Cultural history and critique, the two predilections of Design
Studies as I have characterized it so far, tend to be exactly the sorts
of variables that need to be controlled for the empirical and even
experimental work conducted in this field. But this is a caricature
the research in either forum is diverse so it may have to do with
the focus on designing (making usefulness) rather than designs
(signifying things).
The primary concern of this field has been identifying the nature
of expert design practice, or as Bryan Lawson titled his books, How
Designers Think (2012a) and What Designers Know (2012b) (see
also Lawson 2009). This is done often through comparisons between masters and novices, between experts in one field of design
as compared with another, individuals as against teams, and the use
or omission of certain design tools. Accounts are both observational
and intrusive provoking designers to think aloud while designing.
Validated research findings point to important insights about the
way expert designers design, habits of practice that novices do not
have and take time to acquire. The question with which we opened
this section then returns: while research of expert designing should
generate clearly actionable outcomes for professional designers
wishing to hone their practice, are these same findings at all useful
for teaching students how to design? The reflective practice nature
of not only design but design education, as identified by Schn,
suggests that having markers as to what you should be looking out

Design Studies What Is it good For?

for as you begin to practice design could be very helpful. It is not that
you can simply follow the rulebook of research of designing to learn
to design, but you can certainly be more astutely self-critical when
correlating how you design against the findings of these researchers.
Theories of Design There is a strong tradition of theoretical writing
by designers and/or about design in Europe that remains under-represented in the work of Anglo-American Design Studies. The writings
of scholars associated with the Hochschule fr Gestaltung Ulm for
instance, even when translated into English, remain relatively uncited.
Overlooked theorists, for instance, include Otl Aicher, Gui Bonsiepe,
Tomas Maldonado, and Abraham Moles.40 The work of Vilem Flusser
is only now being translated and published extensively, primarily
because of media studies current interest in the German-Brazilian
designer.41 Related Italian thinkers, who are part of a tradition of
thinking about design that was central to the Domus Academy and
extends to figures such as Andrea Branzi and Ezio Manzini, remain
more prominent in architecture than Design Studies.42
This may have to do with the divide between more sociopoliticallyoriented Continental philosophy and more analytic Anglo-American
philosophy. The latter has only recently begun to ask where the
quality of a things capacity to be used as lies. This line of thought
asks if design is socially imposed or is it inherent to what things
are43? While more analytic in approach, this work connects with the
Dutch and Danish tradition of affordance-centered designing.44 One
consequence of this growing interest is the introduction of design
back into the field of philosophy of technology.45 All this is happening in the background of more prominent work in the sociology of
technology that will be discussed below.

Toward Post- or Neo-Design Studies?

As indicated at the outset, there are a number of non-design disciplines that are shifting in ways that are drawing their attention to
phenomena such as design. As they move toward design, they
necessarily pass through the sphere of Design Studies. In this way,
Design Studies is being transformed. It is, in turn, changing its relation to design, with respect to both the education of designers, and
design in its expanded field.

A Design Ph.D. remains relatively rare in North America, whereas it

has become expected in Europe, Scandinavia, and Australasia. Here,
quality assurance systems associated with government funding for
the higher education sector required a Ph.D. of all disciplines. New
entrants in the creative industries arrived from polytechnics and proceeded to develop a discourse that established the rationale for creative practice-based research.46 They looked for ways of researching
that make use of the processes and outcomes of professional

19 Design and Culture

1. Practice-Based Research Turn

Cameron Tonkinwise

practice. Nearly two decades later, these initiatives remain mostly

absent in North America, where an MFA remains the terminal degree expected of the Design faculty. But they are now arriving.47
While it would appear at first that a practice-based research
allows designers to earn a Ph.D. by circumventing Design Studies,
in fact no programs maintain that the production of creative artefacts
alone suffices as evidence of researched knowledge production.
As a result, all practice-based research, within and after a Ph.D.,
involves critical reflections and articulations in keeping with the imperatives of Design Studies. In turn, practice-based research does
give Design Studies a series of rich practice contexts in which to
work. Practice-based research is precisely an opportunity for applied
Design Studies, by and for designers.

20 Design and Culture

2. Sociotechnical Turn
For some time sociologists, or more precisely anthropologists, studying the activities of scientists revealed the ways in which knowledge
is constructed out of their laboratory practices (Latour and Woolgar
1986; Pickering 1992). This work paid attention to the tools and skills
of scientists undertaking experiments and writing up the results.
The social constructedness revealed by these studies lent itself to
being extended to the practices of technologists (Latour 1996). The
resulting actornetwork theory (ANT), based in sociology of technology studies (STS),48 depicted design processes without necessarily
naming them as such.
These case histories of technological designing, showing the
fitful coevolution of sociotechnical regimes, offers Design Studies a
much more direct way of coming to understand the changeability
yet obduracy with which design struggles. For instance, users are
not fixed entities that can be brought in to test modifiable products
for instrumental usability. Instead, they themselves modified and
are modifiable.49 When Lucy Suchman deconstructed the photocopier user-testing regimes being deployed by Xerox as an applied
researcher at PARC, STS was doing what a critical Design Studies
should and could (Suchman 2007).
But ANTs relation to criticality is ambiguous. As a mode of
analysis, ANT uses an ethnomethodolgical commitment to grounded
theory; the descriptivist50 methodological imperative is to merely
follow the actant. Thus, no theoretical framework can be imposed
on or abstracted from a case unless those frameworks are being
materialized as aspects of the case.51 Importantly, good ANT research reveals how frequently grand narratives are present in
the documents and artefacts of technology development: in the
story Latour recounts of the personal rapid transport innovations
attempted in France in the early 1980s, a nineteenth-century faith in
engineering is derailed by the politics associated with issues of the
safety of women commuters. Nevertheless, this grounded theory
approach is explicitly opposed to the critical allopathic distance of

Design Studies What Is it good For?

the social theory-based approaches that Design Studies conventionally has drawn upon.
However, according to Bruno Latour, descriptivism points to a
postcriticality. This position is, in fact, a direct correlate of when
Design Studies constitutes theories as designs; in other words, it is
a form of Discursive Design. An ANTical reading of how scientific
knowledge or a technological innovation gets assembled can be a
demythification of such black boxes. But it does not make that
knowledge any less forceful or that innovation any less functional.
What are made available are nodes and trajectories in the assembling that can be taken up and engaged with. What Latour calls
compositionism (Latour 2010) is a performatively critical project
taking advantage of the fact that in a flat ontology, the analysis of
a project is not at a level distinct from the project; the analysis is,
or at least can be, in the same material network as that which it is
analyzing. In this way it also has available to it, if the ANTical analysis
is successful, intervention points, locales for alternative designs that
would redesign the networked assemblage. In this way ANTical STS
discourses (and artefacts) are very designerly. They also demand of
Design Studies that it have closer, productive relations with studiobased designing.

The ongoing sociological battle about where agency lies has recently
produced what has been called the practice turn (Knorr Cetina et
al. 2000). This perspective, drawing on Heidegger, Bourdieu, and
Giddens primarily, claims that the basic unit of society is neither
individual (intentional acts) nor structural (delimitations on what can
be done) but practices. A practice is a set of actions chunked
into a semiconscious everyday activity. That chunking gives those
practices what Theodore Schatzki calls teleoaffective coherence,
which means that there is one overriding functional aim that, when
accomplished, provides satisfaction. Practices tend to be identifiable
by verbal nouns like laundering, shopping, getting to work,
handling a social work case, etc. This coherence that practice
theorists find in practices is a key to understanding the way society is
organized (Nicolini 2013): practices are changeable, but tend toward
being inertial, establishing regularized timespaces as Schatzki calls
them (e.g., the laundry and washing day, malls and mallrats)
(Schatzki 2010).
The significance for Design Studies is that practices are understood as constellations of skills, meanings, and devices. Laundering
requires a washing machine, connected to mains pressure water
and perhaps a water heater, as well as laundry detergent and perhaps specialized stain removers and fabric softeners, and a laundry
basket, etc. Laundering also requires the skills to operate all these
devices, to select the right water temperature, to separate whites and
coloreds, delicates and woolens, etc. And all this skilled labor and

21 Design and Culture

3. Social Practice Turn

Cameron Tonkinwise

22 Design and Culture

Figure 3
A Design Studies bookshelf No. 3. Photographer: Charlee Brodsky.

assemblage of devices exists because of an abiding commitment

to a particular notion of cleanliness, an ideology that materializes
as a discernable fragrance and textile appearance, etc. To change
laundering, perhaps so that the ecological impacts associated with
the practice are lessened, requires a careful negotiation of all three
enmeshed aspects of a practice, or at least the recognition that the
strength of an intervention in one domain should be evaluated by its
capacity to lead to shifts in the other two.52
Here, then, is a sociology that includes designed artefacts as
at least one-third of its approach, if not two given designs role in
enabling or inhibiting skills. More interesting is the obverse point.
This tripartite model indicates that existing forms of Design Studies,
with a cultural studies concern for meanings and values, play an
instrumental part in any design intervention that aims to disrupt
existing everyday practices. And note that disruption is not only a
critical exercise, but a commercial strategy what Roberto Verganti
is calling meaning-driven innovation.53 When a design studio creates a new device, it must also ensure that what it creates works in
concert with a range of other devices and available infrastructures.
If well designed, it will also foster the requisite skills. But, without
also modifying the organizing meaning of a practice, disruption will
not take place. Conversely, there may be urgent political reasons
to do away with a particular phenomenon. For example, directly
questioning the association of automobiles with autonomy might
lessen the risk of climate change. But, without the redesign of the

Design Studies What Is it good For?

infrastructures and skills associated with commuting, no such political change will take place.
Design Studies focus on social practices is in fact ANT-like. It
helps designers identify networks of devices, skills, and meanings,
or what Foucault called dispositifs and Agamben apparatuses
(Agamben 2009). With this approach, Design Studies holds the
much sought-after key to the relation between design and innovation.

The materialism of ANT-like STS and practice theory in the social sciences is paralleled in the humanities with a thing turn. In literary criticism, thing theory pays attention to the role of described artefacts in
the construction of literary worlds (Brown 2003). The result should
be richer palettes for design criticism and design fiction.54 More substantial is the post-phenomenological materialism of object-oriented
ontology.55 Without going into the anti-correlationist debates of this
philosophy, it suffices to recognize that it involves granting qualities
like agency and relationality to things. Design has always been animistic in this way, working to make material products alive to the
activities of humans; not only responsive but anticipatory.56 This has
only increased with digitally enabled interaction design. While design
represents an anthropocentric and utilitarian version of the vital materialism that thing-oriented philosophies try to articulate, the latter
creates a general disposition in the humanities toward the kind of
phenomena that design concerns itself with. The resulting interplay
between literature and philosophy on the one hand and design on
the other that Design Studies could and should be hosting would be
very instructive and productive for all involved.
Another component of the thing turn is paleontological research.
This domain, bringing together archaeology, evolutionary biology,
and primatology, is revealing the profound coevolution of human
being and technology. A conventional version of the story is that
humanoids evolved intelligence and only then started to use tools,
make tools, farm, and then build cities. Paleontological research
indicates a more intertwined narrative, suggesting for instance that it
was tool use (weaponry and cooking) that allowed a higher calorific
intake affording brain development tool use occurs before and so
is to some extent a cause of intelligence.57 Other work finds similar
interrelations between tool use, hand development, and walking
upright. In the mix is also sociality, something that tool use depends
upon (for skills transmission), suggesting a different sequence and so
causality for the birth of agriculture.58 Related is the more contemporary, techno-mediated way in which viruses now arise and spread
illnesses with accelerated evolution due to intensive agriculture
deploying antibiotics that species jump to humans and are then
spread by airplane travel.
This work is of more than background academic interest for design, since it can contribute to the claim that designs are not merely

23 Design and Culture

4. Thing Turn

Cameron Tonkinwise

neutral, enabling people to do this or that. Designs fuse with humans

in ways that Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty describe when they point
to examples of incorporated use (the hammer withdrawing into hammering, the blind persons cane withdrawing into feeling your way
forward); but this paleontology goes further, arguing that the fusion
is even phylogenetic. Structuralist arguments like those that Marshall
McLuhan borrowed from Walter Ong, about infrastructures of communication determining aspects of how society organized itself (oral
societies, as opposed to those with writing, then the printing press,
and then electracy or byteracy), are being revived as a result of these
designerly paleontologies. This can be seen in the late interest in the
work of the design thinker Vilem Flusser, as mentioned above. On
the other hand, they also reflect the rich critical philosophy of media
ecologies and pharmacology by Bernard Steigler (Steigler 1998,
2008, 2010).
Again, the value to Design Studies concerns the historicity it
can give designers. But in this last thing theory context, there is a
meta-historical scale and history-making intent that far exceeds the
otherwise parochial focus of design history. Given that we do seem
to be entering a phase of very significant social system changes
the de-Occidentalization of globalization will be complete around
the same time that conventional sources of cheap oil run out and
climates change radically there is a necessity for Design Studies to
be thinking bigger.


24 Design and Culture

Design Studies has its strengths, primarily historicity, criticality and

articulations of design expertise; it also has its weaknesses, including an overemphasis on art, semiology, and an adjacency to, rather
than conversance with, practice. It also has a series of opportunities
opened by recent shifts in design research, as well as social theory,
toward the practice and materiality of designed things.
But there are also threats. Shifts in the nature of design practice
and newly dominant discourses are putting pressure on Design
Studies. The latter seems in large part unaware of these pressures,
and where it is, unprepared to respond. The danger to my mind
is not only to Design Studies, but to design itself; to a practice of
designing that is not being assertively defended as forethoughtful
by Design Studies. Let me explain.

1. Prototyping
What is challenging about designing for academia, yet exciting for
business, is its interventionism. Designers tend to jump in they
do something in a context, in order to learn about it. There is no
attempt to research that context beforehand in order to determine
what might be the right, or just the appropriate, thing to do. This
willingness to become active at the very outset looks productive to
a business feeling the need to beat competitors to a new idea. To a

Design Studies What Is it good For?

research university, especially its research ethics review board, this is

not construed as an optimistic learning-by-doing method. Instead, it
appears amateurish and even irresponsible, especially when there is
celebratory talk of the value of failing.
This aspect of design research, over-promoted by commercial
versions of Design Thinking, flows back to design education through
the habits of practitioners teaching as adjuncts or is reflected in the
expectations of students garnered from popular nonfiction. It does
not take the form of outright anti-intellectualism, but rather forms of
epistemological skepticism: How can you tell unless you do it? Lets
just try and find out for ourselves.
It is important to note that this kind of materialist trial and error
was the practice of craft that design differentiated itself from at
the outset.59 Design is the process of deciding what to make and
how to make it, without the need to do yet another field trial. When
design research is reduced to physical prototyping, it is regressing
to the unselfconsciousness of evolutionary selection from multiple
iterations. The whole point of Design Studies, of developing criteria
for critically evaluating options based on historical patterns and
anticipated futures, is vanquished.
Design Studies is, in fact, competing against the whole of venture
capital-funded Web 2.0. Digitality affords these business platforms
real-time prototyping. The whole culture of private alpha and public
beta releases, the remarkable speed with which people have become
tolerant of constant software upgrades, service terms changes,
pivots to wholly new markets, etc., is normalizing the need to not
have to study in any larger way what you can just design: build it
and see is another way to oublier Design Studies.

There is a related situation with the appropriation of ethnographic social research methods by design-related businesses; with some lag,
it is appearing in design schools as well. Ethnography arose in an
anthropological discipline at war with its own colonial heritage. The
method is clearly much more complicated than the absurd slogan
to go native, involving careful preparation, a difficult-to-negotiate
series of in situ phases that require exits and reentries with constant
external mentoring, and then a rich and lengthy data analysis phase.
What designers appropriate from this tortuous method tends toward
what can be done quickly, because speed is an overriding objective:
how to get as fast as possible to what is not immediately apparent,
preferably hidden or even latent. As the previous section indicated,
designers are rarely methodologically strict and few maintain a slow
transition from observer to participant observer. Instead, they aim
to introduce obtrusive generative design experiments as soon as
possible. As with prototyping, the fieldwork imperative is prioritized
over even to the exclusion of Design Studies more critical frameworks. A lay account of ethnography often insists that the encounter

25 Design and Culture

2. Design Ethnography

Cameron Tonkinwise

with research subjects should be free of all theoretical frameworks.

Design Studies, as a survey of principles or even just heuristics
extracted from multiple and triangulated social research, is devalued
compared to firsthand encounters, encounters for which the less the
preparation the better.
Attempting to shepherd the way the CHI community adopts
ethnography, Paul Dourish argues that ethnographic inquiry can
be extremely influential for design without requiring the conventional
implications for design section. Relatedly, he finds that: The most
useful strategy when engaging with ethnographic work is to read for
theory as much as for empirical evidence (Dourish 2007: 15; see
also Dourish 2006). The way these two points work together seems
to exactly parallel the value of Design Studies to design. Design
Studies in fact can and should generate richer value for design when
it does not aim to be directly for design, especially in ways that
privilege the (usefully) empirical over the (critically) theoretical.

3. Social Design

26 Design and Culture

Social design or design for good projects range from providing

conventional design services to community groups to using Design
Thinking to innovate responses to complex social issues. It encompasses work for government agencies or efforts to improve the
quality of public services as well. There is a relatively substantial commercial sector dedicated to this work, or more precisely, commercial
practices investing some of their time and resources into this kind of
work, perhaps as part of public relations or staff retention strategies.
However, social design suits design education. Non-paying partners
are considered more tolerant of learning experiences and more available for the higher level of engagement needed for students to learn
participatory or codesign than commercial partners.
As Shana Agid has pointed out in this journal, these kinds of
partnered studios are already replacing Design Studies classes:
As design and designers have taken up the social and interdisciplinary as primary sites of, or contexts for, designing, it
appears at times to be at the (sometimes explicit) expense
of meaningful engagement with theoretical and contextual
approaches that might productively problematize and ground
these new design practices, especially as they make legible
issues of power, politics, and the impact of designers own
positions other than that of being a designer. (Agid 2012: 29)
Alternately, critical theory would get in the way of more ethnographic
and rapid prototyping experiences with these community groups,
and on the other hand the encounter with a range of cultural differences inevitable when students work with community groups looks
like a more direct way of teaching those cultural differences; the

Design Studies What Is it good For?

awkwardness that is inevitable in these sink or swim situations is

considered a valuable learning experience.
The deployment of Design Thinking in social issue domains such
as poverty, health, and education, is increasingly widespread. It has
followers up to the highest levels, with design components in the
United Kingdoms Big Society initiatives and President Obamas
Office of Social Innovation. There is an urgency for Design Studies to
be critically evaluating these projects and showing strong leadership
in terms of recommending certain approaches and resisting others.60

Computer science is, like design, a relatively recent discipline. Where

design tended to enter the academy within art schools, computer
science was an offshoot of engineering. This ensured that, though
new, it would have to develop a strong research practice, assisted by
prioritized government funding and corporate partnerships.
The hardware and software engineering of information and
communication technologies adopted design relatively late.
Scandinavians introduced an early form of HCI. Working within wellestablished labor relations that demanded workers be reskilled to
use computers rather than simply replacing them, design facilitated
computer usability (Ehn 1988). In the United States, design was
called upon later, with the emergence of household markets for
computers. Today, given that the technical specifications of processor speeds and memory size exceed almost all domestic information
technology needs no matter how small the device, digital device
innovation is almost entirely dominated by interaction design (and
service system design).
Putting these two contexts together, a field of design has arisen
outside of design schools. Schools of humancomputer interaction,
for example, study a very research-based form of design. Purely in
terms of quantities of published research on design, the field associated with CHI conferences far outweighs the field of Design Studies,
even though younger.
This is not necessarily an issue. Design Studies is not owned by
design schools and furthering the knowledge base of Design Studies
could well now happen under the leadership of interaction design
research. However, it is important to note that though strong, design
continues to sit uncomfortably in that more quantitatively scientistic
domain. Design research remains contested, often for the same
reasons that design is questioned within the academy more generally: its abductively interventionist qualities are aspects of design that
must be defended or delimited within humancomputer interaction
Should this version of what could be called Interaction Design
Studies come to dominate Design Studies, there are indications that
the historicity and criticality of the latter would be downplayed. One
of the best accounts of design research in the HCI context is the

27 Design and Culture

4. HumanComputer Interaction

Cameron Tonkinwise

28 Design and Culture

recent multi-authored Design Research Through Practice: From the

Lab, Field and Showroom (Koskinen et al. 2011). As the title indicates, this book articulates a series of ways of locating research by
design in HCI projects. The overall frame is still for[digital interaction]
design, what is called constructive design research (Chapter 1);
but the whole aim of the book is to clear space in computer science
research for the creative and even critical cesign. And yet these
Design Studies-like qualities remain, in the end, carefully contained:
Design is not a theoretical discipline. Designers are trained to do
things and are held accountable for producing stuff Designers are
not trained to do product concepts and theories, nor are they held
accountable for producing these abstract things (2011: 118); In
actual research, these philosophies and artistic movements remain
in the background. Typically only senior professors know the whole
gamut Knowing that some issues can be left to senior researchers makes life easier for younger researchers. Going all the way to
philosophy may even distract researchers (2011: 120). Interaction
design research is not prepared to cross clearly established institutionally hierarchical lines. Another more ambiguous example of this
thinking is Daniel Fallmans article (2008). Again the title is instructive,
signaling what is being related but nevertheless still held apart, and
all within the larger umbrella of interaction design. The tripartite
model is a modified version of respectively: Design Practice is research for design resulting in artefacts (or systems); Design Studies
is research of design resulting in knowledge; and Design Exploration
is research by design, the activity of exploring possibilities of forms
(aesthetics) and people (function). The article closes, characterizing
the orientation of each: Design Practice directed toward industry,
Design Studies toward academia, and Design Exploration toward
society at large. The article does talk about loops, trajectories, and
dimensions that run between the three aspects of any interaction
design research project, but overall Design Studies is about taking
from, rather than being for; it is the space of reflection and articulation toward truth, not a force for change toward action. As a result,
the capacity for Design Studies to be critical, not just of a project but
in a project, is curtailed.
This then is the danger that interaction design represents; it provides robust research schema, a significant body of literature and
research funding, but all within the overall project of increasing the
amount of digitality with which we interact.61

5. Coding
Calling out interaction design from other forms of designing is
strange insofar as all designs are by definition interactive when used.
In that case, the distinction is between the digital and the analog.
Digital interfaces literalize affordances. For example, a digital device
can actually call out to you what to do, rather than rely on the cultural
conventions of product semantics. As a result, digital design is much

Design Studies What Is it good For?

less constrained. On a screen, any product form can be represented. This allows affordances to transfer, metaphorically, from one
product ecology to another: e.g., a webpage is a television screen,
or a set of laid out cards, or a horizontally spread out newspaper. But
there are other crucial differences, many relating to the skills needed
to do interaction design. The latters material is not timber or fabric
but code.62
Even without doing the actual programming, designing within
digital domains involves a sense for the grammar of the coding of
the platform on which one is designing; the difference is between
software using vectors, or relational databases, or objects. There is
a materiality to coded environments (Lwgren and Stolterman 2004),
but there is also an instant correctability that materials do not allow.
Consequently, digital environments are perfect for prototyping they
quickly have higher fidelity to the final design than a physical prototype. But they are also more changeable; and then, once prototyping
has finished, the digital prototype can even be the final design (if
there is not a need to recode in a non-staging platform). This immediacy gives the designer a liberating power that can conceal the
extent to which digital domains are nevertheless still coded, with
computationally rigid underlying structures.
Given this, it is incumbent on Design Studies to provide designers with critical histories of information and digital technologies,

29 Design and Culture

Figure 4
A Design Studies bookshelf No. 4. Photographer: Charlee Brodsky.

Cameron Tonkinwise

foregrounding the illusion of omnipotence being associated with

coding. It is very rare for Design Studies faculty members to offer
courses on the history of computing, especially ones that allow
students to evaluate how programs they commonly use, such as the
Adobe Creative Suite, orient if not constrain their designing. Quite
the reverse seems to be happening. Design Studies is being asked
to cede credit hours to coding workshops. Computation becomes
the rare bridge between foundational STEM knowledge like math
and logic, and creative, or at least constructive, skills that are also
characterized as entrepreneurial. The hegemonic march of information looks set to consume Design Studies.
And this is not only occurring in relation to higher education, but
in practice as well. The social software side to current information
systems means that coding is not only perfect for building prototyping, but also for testing those prototypes. Thousands of field tests
of designs now reduced almost to random variations can be
performed almost instantly. Big Data is literally hailed as The End
of Theory.63 Designerly research, that is, to paraphrase Fallman,
Design Studies-oriented designing, before or during development
of any system is becoming obsolete.

30 Design and Culture

The Value(s) of Design Studies

Design Studies appeared to be coming into its own from out of
weakened positions as servicing design education with subsidiaries
of art history and cultural studies distinct from research into how designers design. It appeared to be developing its own designerly approaches to historical change and criticality, ones that foregrounded
materiality in use. These emerging strengths seemed well positioned
just as there is a convergence between nondesign disciplines turning toward the thingly practices of technological innovation and the
emergence of practice-based design research. However, Design
Studies has not yet consolidated enough to face off a series of
wider economic shifts that are privileging the fast uncriticality of
lean ethnography-based rapid prototyping aimed at delivering
technology-driven designs into markets but also communities. Not
only is there an agility that Design Studies is not displaying, but also
a lack of force sufficient to resist the more productivist institutional
authority of interaction design and its role in the risk of software
taking command.64
What is to be done? I would like to conclude with a final critique
of Design Studies in order to extract a way forward, a way for Design
Studies to be more effectively for design.
Design Studies liberal arts predilection has meant an explicit
commitment to pluralism. The job of Design Studies is to expose design students to a range of values, often to the values at work in what
appear to be neutral, functional, or merely beautiful design decisions.
By corollary, it has not been considered the job of Design Studies to
orient designers and students to one particular set of values.

Design Studies What Is it good For?

There have been many critiques of this kind of liberal pluralism,

ones that deconstruct the extent to which this professed openness
is itself a value, one that conceals its own exclusivity. I am thinking
of Samuel Webers early critique of the liberalism of the professional
education moment in the university (Weber 2001), Slavoj ieks
repeated haranguing of liberalism for tolerating intolerance (iek
2008), and Tony Frys insistence that sustainability is nothing if not
the decision about what is a friend or enemy of futures with futures
(Fry 2010).
As a consequence, it is perhaps time for Design Studies to stop
being merely for design in the sense of being servile to what designers might choose to design. Design Studies needs to be more
for something that it takes to design, that it makes design servile
to. Committing to a value is still pedagogic of the place of (other)
values in the decisions that design makes to change the material
history and practices of our societies. But that commitment would
give this or that Design Studies program, in its research and teaching, a coherence that could resist the surge of capitalism toward
this or that technological imperialism. It could be a commitment to
beauty65 or a faith; it should be a commitment to re-localizing and
decarbonizing economies.66 But Design Studies needs to be for
something if it is to be for design, and for a designing that can resist
being subsumed to accelerated digital device proliferation.

1. See the US 60 Minutes story on Design Thinking, January 6,

2013. Available online:
2. See Roger Martins article on the US Militarys adoption (Martin
3. See this interview in which the Dean of Harvards Graduate
School of Design complains: Now business schools are the
ones that are talking about design thinking and selling design,
and this is done by people who on one level, honestly, dont have
a clue about design, yet they have embraced it. For instance, a
professor in the Harvard Business School decided he is going to
teach a class on design thinking. We are the design school, so
why are you not talking to us when you are putting together a
course called design thinking? (McGurk 2012).
4. See, for instance, the initiatives in the United Kingdom (http://, the United States, and Australia (http://
5. The pronouncement was made via Fast Company: Design
Thinking is a Failed Experiment: So Whats Next. Available
online: See also Dan Saffers
lampooning of Design Thinking Dan at Interaction 12: IxDA

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Conference, Dublin 2012, entitled How to Lie with Design

Thinking. Available online:
Lucy Kimbell did critically review Design Thinking from a Design
Studies perspective (2011, 2012). There were six papers with
Design Thinking in their title at the Design Research Society
conference 2012, Bangkok, and three papers at the 2010
Montreal conference. There were two papers with Design
Thinking in their title at the College Art Association conference (New York City, 2013), none at the Los Angeles 2012
conference, one at the New York City 2011 conference, none
at Chicago 2010. The International Association of Societies of
Design Research Conference, 2009, in Seoul had two papers
with Design Thinking in the title, plus a keynote (by Liz Sanders)
and a doctoral colloquium workshop (run by Peter Lloyd), but
the 2011 IASDR Delft conference had none. There were five
papers with Design Thinking in the title at the tenth European
Academy of Design conference (Gothenberg, 2013), four at The
Endless End (ninth EAD conference), Porto, 2011, and seven at
Design Connexity (eighth EAD Conference), Aberdeen, 2009.
Jacques Derridas account of the paradox of the supplement
occurs in his discussion of Rousseaus Confessions (Derrida
1976: Part II, Section 2).
Victor Margolins assertion of the need for Design Studies over
Design History and the debate it generated in a special issue of
Design Issues in 1995 could be taken as an important moment,
one that capstoned, as it were, the project of Design Issues
up to that point, repositioning prior influential texts by Forty,
Miekle, Sparke, and Whiteley within the wider domain of Design
I was prompted to proffer this analysis after attending the conference inaugurating the MA in Design Studies at Parsons The New
School for Design Negotiating the Terrain of Design Studies:
Research, Reflection, Practice (New York City, 2013; see I should note that I
have developed and run new Design Studies programs at the
University of Technology, Sydney (20038), as part of The New
Schools Environmental Studies degree programs (20082012),
and now at Carnegie Mellon Universitys School of Design.
The bias of this analysis is therefore toward Design Studies in
proximity to Product Design; somewhat to Communication,
Fashion, and Interior Design; not at all in relation to Architecture,
Urbanism, and Planning.
See the Statement of Editorial Policy published by the editors
(Richard Buchanan, Dennis Doordan, Victor Margolin) of Design
Issues (Buchanan et al. 2001).
Design Thinking Research Symposia. Available online: http://

12. The issue is less pertinent in the United States, where most
schools of design are within stand-alone colleges of art and
design. Required by state regulations to have percentages
of Liberal Arts taught as part of their degree programs, these
colleges have small Liberal Arts departments within the college.
The location of Design Studies becomes an issue for schools of
design that are part of larger universities that may have separate
humanities and social science departments. It has been, for
instance, a regular debate at The New School as to whether the
School of Art History and Theory, which was part of Parsons
when it was an independent art and design school, should
persist in that location now that Parsons is part of The New
School with its own Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts and of
course The New School for Social Research.
13. This sentence comes from the unpublished version of Designoriented Research versus Research-oriented Design but is
absent from the revised version (Fallman 2007).
14. I choose the title Discursive Design over the more common
Critical Design following Bruce Tharp and Stephanie Tharps
position paper on Discursive Design for IDSA (available online: Their argument is that
what differentiates Discursive from Critical Design is the work
the former puts into mobilizing what is distancing about the
latter in order to generate discourse: So a key question that
the discursive designer needs to ask is what is the context of
reception The answer to this will help inform design decisions
so that the issues of usefulness, usability, and desirability can
be harmonized with the content and intensity of the message.
This seems to instructively align Discursive Design with Design
Studies more than Design.
15. It occurred to me after completing this matrix that one of the
key qualities of design research though perhaps not Design
Studies research is that, as a creative practice, design
research often generates new knowledge without intending to,
putting it outside those who could take Booth et al.s advice
about framing research prior to researching.
16. See, for example,, an initiative by Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg on behalf of
Atlantic Magazine and the publisher Bloomsbury.
17. This is a well-debated topic to which I wish to add only a particular functionally materialist perspective: see Design Issues 11(1),
1995, a special issue on design history, and Meikle (1995).
18. A good account is Alain Findelis (2001: 8) intellectual history of
the Bauhaus, summarized by a schema showing the relation
between art, design and technology in the different iterations of
19. See Jan Michls summary of his 2006 keynote address Culinary
History Versus Cookbook: Does the Discipline of Art History

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34 Design and Culture




Function as an Instruction Manual? Available online: http:// Michl makes the important
point that art history taught with a necessitous linearity coerces
future artists, architects and designers into thinking that to be of
any value, their work has to be a result of historical necessity
as well. Michl therefore endorses instead a history that emphasizes idiosyncratic choices, encouraging experimentation by the
From two very different perspectives: see, firstly, the thought
experiment by Richard Florida comparing someone from 1900
being placed in 1950 with someone from 1950 being placed in
2000 the former would find a slew of new devices and technologies, but a fairly unchanged social structure, whereas the
latter would find almost no new things (television, computers,
microwaves, jet planes, etc. all existed in 1950), but would
struggle to cope with much more diverse social relations
(Florida 2002). See, secondly, Dave Graebers (n.d.) critique of
capitalisms innovation record when viewed from the perspective of promised new domestic technologies in the 1960s and
See Bryan Lawsons notion of gambits (Lawson 2012b: 115).
Alain Findeli argues for a related Foucauldian sense of history
as the desired outcome of design history teaching: The course
should develop a sense of time and history in students. More
precisely, they should be able to grasp what could be called the
shape of time, or the morphology of history (Findelli 1995: 59).
What Schn termed Design as Reflective Conversation with the
Situation (Schn 1983: Chapter 3). See also Fleming (1998).
An interesting intervention into conventional aesthetic criteria,
opening them up to nonart domains, such as service design,
but that nevertheless remains aesthetic is Sianne Ngais Our
Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Ngai 2012).
An important project in this regard is Jeffrey and Shaowen
Bardzells work on interaction design criticism. See, for example,
Bardzell (2011).
This is the rationale of books like Penny Sparkes An Introduction
to Design and Culture in the 20th Century (Sparke [1987] 2013)
and Guy Juliers The Culture of Design (Julier 2007). Prasad
Boradkars Designing Things (2010) is in this tradition as well. A
more media studies-influenced approach is seen in Highmore
This is apparent in the two books that were for a long time core
reading for Design Studies classes: Nigel Whiteleys Design and
Society (1993), and Adrian Fortys Objects of Desire: Design
and Society Since 1970 (1992).
As Nigel Whiteley notes in his contribution to the Design Issues
debate about Design History: Banhams contribution to the
fledgling study of design history was major, but it was the








growth of and interest in semiology that drastically altered the

discipline With semiology, all objects and images are equal
in so much as all could be read as signs The question now
is not just who controls resources, but who controls or tries
to control meaning. In the light of current approaches and
preoccupations, it seems to me inevitable that what was once
correctly termed design history should now be more properly
called design studies (Whiteley 1995: 39).
Interestingly, when cultural theorist, Slavoj iek keynoted
ICOGRADA, his analysis turned on the way the functionality
of design is an ideological strategy whereby a falsely universal
and instrumental, and so seemingly neutral concern, conceals
the true symbolic violence of design: Design as an Ideological
State Apparatus. Available online:
Clearly there are exceptions where people struggle with something not at all user-friendly because of its symbolic value
for example, high heels. Different are products whose use
demonstrates skillful mastery and therefore symbolic value for
example musical instruments.
To some extent it was the early Jean Baudrillard (1981) who
explicitly argued for the subsumption of use into that of semiopolitics. Having argued theoretically for moving beyond use
value (Chapter 7), Baudrillard evidences his argument with
Bauhaus functionalism which, he claims, is merely about
making things signify functional irrespective of whether they
were or not. However, Baudrillard was writing before the usercentered turn in design though, for a more nuanced updating
of Baudrillards critique, see Maycroft (2004).
Though see Johan Redstrms surveys (Redstrm 2006, 2008).
One of the most persistent voices in the space of Design Studies
insisting on the need for sustainability to be approached as a
politics and not a technical management project has been Tony
Fry: see, for instance, Fry (2008).
The way sustainability can represent a counter-revolution to
Jean-Francois Lyotards account of postmodernity as the
delegitimation of the progress of reason is well put by George
Myserson (1997).
Ulrich Beck argues that the question of ecological politics is not,
What is safe at what level of risk? but rather How do we
want to live with what kinds of risks? See Beck (1995).
For just one among a rapidly expanding field, see the work of
Timothy Morton, such as Morton (2012).
See, for example, Hallns and Redstrm (2002).
On the productive side of design fiction, see Shedroff and
Noessel (2012).
See, for instance, Alva Noes work on the enactive practice of
perceiving and knowing (Noe 2004).

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40. Translations of some Ulm figures have appeared in Design

Issues and been reproduced in anthologies of articles from the
journal: for example, Margolin (1989); Buchanan and Margolin
(1995). Some of Aichers writings were released in English by his
German publisher (Aicher 1994).
41. After some collections of essays were published by Reaktion
e.g., Flusser (1999) University of Minnesota Press has taken
up the mantle e.g., Flusser (2002).
42. Interestingly, Branzi his notion of Second Modernity is the
explicit theoretical frame for an important recent contribution on
(interaction) design research: Koskinen et al. (2011).
43. See, for instance, Costall and Dreier (2006); Kroes (2008);
Houkes and Vermaas (2010); and Preston (2013).
44. See the events and publications of the Center for Philosophy
and Design. Available online:
45. See Hans Achterhuiss edited collection (2001), and the work of
Peter-Paul Verbeek; for instance, Verbeek (2005).
46. See, for instance, the Researching Into Practice conferences
hosted by University of Hertfordshires School of Creative Arts:
47. See James Elkinss work in this area, which while critical (with
reference to art, not design) sees creative practice doctorates in
the United States as an inevitability (Elkins 2009).
48. Key collections were Bijker and Law (1992), and MacKenzie and
Wajcman (1999).
49. See, for example, Oudshoorn and Pinch (2005).
50. Among others, Don Ihde characterizes Latours work as
descriptivist (a term normally associated with Bertrand Russells
philosophy of language) in the opening question of an interview
with Latour in Ihde and Selinger (2003: 15).
51. Latour, having previously criticized the acronym ANT, promotes
it (Latour 2005), because it suggests the blind, trail sniffing ants.
52. See Shove (2003).
53. Roberto Verganti is certainly not deploying practice theory, but
there is nevertheless a clear connection given that his prominent
contribution to Design Thinking emphasizes meaning-transformation-based innovation: see Verganti (2009).
54. Design Studies has not been amiss with regard to things, even
before the thing turn in other fields, but the things of Design
Studies are more an identification of the materiality that is the
focus of the work, rather than ontology that reinterprets the
nature of that materiality. So see the title of, for example, Attfield
(2000); Norman (1988, 1993, 2007); Petroski (2007, 2010);
and, more recently, A. Telier (2011).
55. The acronym OOO is mostly associated with Graham Harman:
see Harman (2002).

Design Studies What Is it good For?

56. The notion of design as anticipating breakdown was articulated by Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd (1986).
57. See Fry (2013), which draws on the work of Leroi-Gourhan.
58. See, for instance, the work of Frans De Waal, e.g., De Waal
59. At least in the fables of designs origin told by John Chris Jones
(1992) and Christopher Alexander (1974).
60. David Stairs has been leading the development of what could
be called Social Design Criticism. See his review of The Cooper
Hewitt Museums Design With the Other 90%, Demythologizing
Design (Stairs 2011).
61. There are some reactions occurring within the CHI community.
See, for example, Baumer and Silberman (2011), and Pierce
62. Importantly, these are more craft-like than technical: McCullough
63. This is the title of an article by the editor in chief of Wired
substitute Designing for Scientific Method because what is
at issue in both is abductive hypothesis generation i.e, theorizing: Anderson (2008).
64. Lev Manovich modifies the title of Siegfried Gideons design
history for his Software Takes Command (2013).
65. This has been the default value of Design Studies teaching art
history. There is a commitment to elegance that is claimed
to be universal if not eternal see for instance a book like
Robert Grudins (2010), which mostly does not see its limited
Western modernism; on this see Jan Michl, A Case against the
Modernist Regime in Design Education. Available online: http://
66. Design Studies at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon
University is being structured around the schools overall
commitment to transition design, that is, the role designers
play in helping our societies transition to slower, more local, yet
still cosmopolitan and connected economies.

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