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Design and Culture

The Journal of the Design Studies Forum

ISSN: 1754-7075 (Print) 1754-7083 (Online) Journal homepage:

The Philosophy of Design

Stuart Kendall

To cite this article: Stuart Kendall (2018) The Philosophy of Design, Design and Culture, 10:1,
111-114, DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2018.1430991

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Published online: 08 Feb 2018.

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Vol. 10, No. 1, 111–120

Book Reviews
The Philosophy of Design,
by Glenn Parsons
Cambridge: Polity, 2016, 192pp. PB 9780745663890.

Reviewed by Stuart Kendall

Stuart Kendall is Associate Professor Glenn Parsons tells his reader that The Philosophy of Design
of Design at the California College of “applies a philosophical approach” to the “specific aims and
the Arts. problems” of design “in light of the fundamental questions
© 2018 Stuart Kendall that philosophy examines” including problems of “knowledge,
DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2018.1430991 ethics, aesthetics, and the nature of reality” (1–2). His goal is
to offer the “student or practitioner … a broader perspective
on their practice and its relation to the other important dimen-
sions of human life” (2). These claims establish a double matrix
through which the text passes. In some ways, the book offers
an introduction to philosophical methods and topics relevant
to design. In other ways, it offers an introduction to design
relevant to philosophers. But this is also to say that aspects
of philosophy irrelevant to design fall away as do aspects of
design untouched by the scope of Parsons’ approach to con-
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temporary philosophy. In both cases, the introductory scope

is a significant limitation. None of the topics covered in the
book are treated exhaustively, either in breadth or depth.
When these limitations impinge upon the content or structure
of the book, Parsons marks his territory with careful specificity
Book Reviews

(e.g. “There are a number of ways to explore the connections between

Design and ethics; in this chapter, I focus on three.” [130]).
It should also be noted that Parsons understands the word “phi-
losophy” in reference to only one trend in contemporary Anglophone
philosophy, namely analytical philosophy, the core presuppositions of
which shape his goals, methods, and conclusions in profound ways.
The originality of the book consists in his application of the jargon
and gestures of analytical philosophy (“valid arguments,” “necessary
and sufficient conditions,” “justifiable claim,” etc.) to some aspects of
design practice, generally in the form of an abstracted concept of mod-
ernism. Parsons explains the meaning of his terms and methodological
gestures at nearly every turn, with the effect of keeping the discussion
at an introductory level, not as an introduction to design but rather as
one to this approach to thinking about some aspects of design. To
the non-analytical philosopher or the general reader, these terms and
gestures can seem cumbersome, even off-putting.
The Philosophy of Design is not a book of uninterrupted observa-
tion, analysis, or argument. In keeping with the style of contemporary
academic writing in analytical philosophy, much of the book consists of
capsule surveys of relevant arguments derived from other philosophers,
often from analytical approaches to the philosophy of art or, in a later
chapter, ethics. A few of Parsons’ central examples, however, derive
from classic writings in design, most notably Adolf Loos’ “Ornament
and Crime” (1908). Parsons also distinguishes his project as a distinctly
philosophical one by simply referring to these other writers whose
observations he cites as theorists, anthropologists, or sociologists,
rather than as philosophers or even writers. These designations occa-
sionally seem pejorative, though they are always essentially accurate.
The methodological gestures and ideological underpinnings guid-
ing analytical philosophy circumscribe the contents of this book with
an almost inexorable inevitability. Analytical philosophy places a high
value on notions of truth, rationality, knowledge, and utility. It also
models its mode of philosophical inquiry on modern scientific inquiry,
wherein hypotheses or claims are advanced, tested against evidence,
and either confirmed through valid argumentation or disconfirmed. It
is unsurprising then that Parsons should explore these values as they
relate to design and moreover that he should ignore aspects of design
history or practice that fall outside the bounds of those claims.
Thus, for Parsons, design is essentially rational, functional, and sci-
entific. He claims, for example, that “design is not merely the act of
producing a solution to a problem: rather it is essential that the problem
guide the formulation of the solution in some rational way” (35) and that
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designers “confront genuine problems that call for a rational approach”

(43). Parsons also diagnoses a curious problem in design, which
he calls an epistemological problem because it relates to a design-
er’s knowledge about his or her practice, namely: how can designers
know that their proposed solutions to problems will be successful? In

exploring this issue, Parsons claims that designers aren’t responsible

for doing research about or testing the viability of their designs either
Book Reviews

prior to or following their production (46). This claim is of course pro-

foundly divorced from the realities of contemporary design work. Later
in the book, again symptomatically, Parsons examines the problem of
“need,” but only through the logical lens of the distinction between
“needs” and “wants,” without mentioning the tools and strategies that
contemporary designers use to reveal or find users’ needs. The phrase
“need finding” does not appear in the book, and the word “empathy”
does not either, though both of these are central to contemporary
design practice. It should also be said that Parsons’ “epistemological
problem” is only a problem if “justified expectation of success” is a
crucial desired outcome. If surprise is crucial to the outcome, the epis-
temological problem dissolves. Justified expectation of success is in
short only important in some contexts, when designers sell their work
to a certain kind of client, for example. Businesses might prioritize the
reliability of outcomes but not everyone does, at least not in the same
Following the methodological presuppositions of analytical philoso-
phy, Parsons conducts his inquiry without substantial regard for prob-
lems of historical or cultural context. This disavowal of context allows
Parsons to ignore the contexts in which texts upon which he builds his
argument were written as well as other issues relevant to a full under-
standing of design. His passing discussion of the word “erotic” in work
by Adolf Loos, for example, references the Greek philosopher Plato but
not the work of Loos’ Viennese neighbor, Sigmund Freud. Parsons’
fundamentally ahistorical approach can however be both historically
situated – through the historical coincidence of the development of
analytical philosophy and certain strands of high modernism – and his-
torically circumscribed; although analytical philosophy may not have
developed tools or strategies capable of looking beyond its methodo-
logical presuppositions, other modes of inquiry certainly have.
The absence of genealogical understanding impacts not only the
surface of Parsons’ text but also his fundamental understanding of
design. Rather than asking, for example, when and why functionalism
became a dominant value in design, he takes it for granted that func-
tionalism is simply integral to design, full stop. This makes it impossi-
ble for him to take the critique of functionalism seriously, to ask when
and why functionalism might have become more or less significant in
design, or to inquire into the relative value of functionalism in diverse
contexts. Parsons’ account also prioritizes modernism to such a
degree that the book exhibits an almost willful blindness to trends in
design that came about either in response to the deficits or overreach
of high modernism or simply in its wake. User-Centered Design, Data
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Driven Design, Speculative Design, and Conditional Design are only a

few of the trends whose absence springs to mind.
At key moments in the text, Parsons seems primarily intent on offer-
ing a defense of an abstracted modernist appeal to “good” design
(which in this book means rational and functionalist design) as a prac-

tical ethics of design for contemporary life. Many of the arguments and
observations from analytical philosophy that he marshals in this appeal
Book Reviews

are compelling in their way and even occasionally nuanced.

But sadly too many of these arguments are presented in a
vacuum, wherein design is monolithic in its purpose, meth-
ods, and outcomes, devoid of historical or cultural context. A
better title for the book would have been An Introduction to an
Analytical Approach to a Philosophy of Design. But setting this
book aside, we might wonder what a more fully realized phi-
losophy of design might be and whether such a thing is even
advisable. The extent to which one’s methodological tools pre-
suppose the outcomes and limitations of one’s research must
undoubtedly be considered carefully.

How to Thrive in the Next Economy:

Designing Tomorrow’s World Today,
by John Thackara
London: Thames & Hudson, 2015, 192pp.
HB 9780500518083. PB 9780500292945. $29.95/$16.95.

Reviewed by Saurabh Tewari

Saurabh Tewari is Assistant Professor at In How to Thrive in the Next Economy, design writer John
the School of Planning and Architecture, Thackara offers ten thematic recommendations for flourishing
Bhopal. in the future. First, he pummels the reader with staggering sta-
© 2018 Saurabh Tewari tistics that assert the intensity and magnitude of the catastro-
DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2018.1430997 phe we humans, and especially urban dwellers, have caused.
Then he uses his first-hand observations of local practices
carried out around the world, especially in the Global South, to
identify sustainable practices for providing future generations
with necessities such as land, water, food, mobility, and cloth-
ing. In the opening chapter, “Changing,” he recommends first
and foremost a change of mindset, suggesting positive ways
of repositioning our stance from doing less harm to leaving
things for the better.
The book’s second and third chapters focus on soil and
water, respectively. In “Grounding” (Chapter 2), Thackara
examines how people have devastated the earth including,
for instance, the disastrous loss of healthy topsoil since the
Second World War. He suggests healing the soil by “thinking
like a forest,” encouraging us to think less about nation-states
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and more about bio-regions. In “Waterkeeping” (Chapter 3),

Thackara discusses ways of restricting water pollution and
advocates for “ecological calendars,” like the nature-aligned
cycle traditionally used by Bali’s rice planters. Water as a social
and ecological system is critical in countries such as India,

where even revered ancient waters like the river Ganga can be
overused and neglected.