Design methods

Design methods

Design Methods is a broad area that focuses on:

  • Divergence – Exploring possibilities and constraints of inherited situations by applying critical thinking through qualitative and quantitative research methods to create new understanding (problem space) toward better design solutions
  • Transformation – Redefining specifications of design solutions which can lead to better guidelines for traditional and contemporary design activities (architecture, graphic, industrial, information, interaction, et al.) and/or multidisciplinary response
  • Convergence – Prototyping possible scenarios for better design solutions that incrementally or significantly improve the originally inherited situation
  • Sustainability – Managing the process of exploring, redefining and prototyping of design solutions continually over time
  • Articulation - the visual relationship between the parts and the whole.

The goal of design methods is to gain key insights or unique essential truths resulting in more holistic solutions in order to achieve better experiences for users with products, services, environments and systems they rely upon. Insight, in this case, is clear and deep investigation of a situation through design methods, thereby grasping the inner nature of things intuitively.


Background of Design Methods

Design traditionally has been associated with expression and production.

Social, political and economic developments of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century put into motion modern benefits and constraints for living and working. Industrial and technological breakthroughs associated with this period created social and economic complexities for people and their environment. Disciplines such as architecture, urban planning, engineering and product development began to tackle new types of problem-solving past traditional artifact making. More informed and methodical approaches to designing were required.

Design methods originally drew from a 1962 conference[1] called "The Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering, Industrial Design, Architecture and Communications." This event was organized by John Chris Jones, and Peter Slann who, with conference invitees, were driven by concerns about how their modern industrialized world was being manifested.[2]

Conference participants countered the craftsman model of design which was rooted in turning raw materials through tried and true craft-based knowledge into finished products. They believed that a single craft-based designer producing design solutions was not compatible with addressing the evolving complexity of post-industrial societies. They stressed that designers needed to work in cross-disciplinary teams where each participant brings his/her specific body of skills, language and experiences to defining and solving problems in whatever context.

The [3] key benefit was to find a method that suits a particular design situation. Christopher Alexander went on to write his seminal books Pattern Language and A Timeless Way of Building.

Where Process Meets Method

When process and method are discussed, they tend to be used interchangeably. However, while they are two sides to the same coin, they are different. Process (lat. processus–movement) is a naturally occurring or designed sequence of operations or events over time which produce desired outcomes. Process contains a series of actions, events, mechanisms, or steps, which contain methods. Method is a way of doing something, especially a systematic way through an orderly arrangement of specific techniques. Each method has a process.

From a pragmatic standpoint, design methods is concerned with the “how” and defining “when” things happen, and in what desired order. Design Methods is challenging to implement since there are not enough agreed-upon tools, techniques and language for consistent knowledge transfer. While there are many conceptual models and frameworks, there needs to be more granularity of tools and techniques.There are also many variables that affect outcomes since logic and intuition interplay with one another. Two people can therefore use the same method and arrive at different outcomes.

Expansion of Design Methods

Different groups took John Chris Jones's book Design Methods, with its alternative message of using design as a framework for exploration and improvement, in different directions.

Emergence of Design Research and Design Studies

After the 1962 conference, many of the participants began to publish and to define an area of research that focused on design. Three "camps" seemed to emerge to integrate the initial work in Design Methods:

  • Behaviorism interpreted Design Methods as a way to describe human behavior in relation to the built environment. Its clinical approach tended to rely on human behavior processes (taxonomic activities).
  • Reductivism broke Design Methods down into small constituent parts. This scientific approach tended to rely on rationalism and objectified processes such as epistemological activities.
  • Phenomenology approached design methods from an experiential approach (human experience and perception.)

The Design Research Society was founded in 1967 with many participants from the Conference on Design Methods in 1962. The purpose of the Society is to promote "the study of and research into the process of designing in all its many fields" and is an interdisciplinary group with many professions represented, but all bound by the conviction of the benefits of design research.[4]

The Environmental Design and Research Association is one of the best-known entities that strive to integrate designers and social science professionals for better built environments. EDRA was founded by Henry Sanoff in 1969. Both John Chris Jones and Christopher Alexander interacted with EDRA and other camps; both seemed at a certain point to reject their interpretations. Jones and Christopher also questioned their original thesis about design methods.

An interesting shift that affected design methods and design studies was the 1968 lecture from Herbert Simon, the Nobel laureate, who presented "The Sciences of the Artificial." He proposed using scientific methods to explore the world of man-made things (hence artificial). He discussed the role of analysis (observation) and synthesis (making) as a process of creating man-made responses to the world he/she interacted with. Important to Simon's contribution were his notions of "bounded rationality" and "satisficing." Simon's concept had a profound impact on the discourse in both design methods, and the newly emerging design studies communities in two ways. It provided an entry of using scientific ideas to overlay on design, and it also created an internal debate whether design could/should be expressed and practiced as a type of science with the reduction of emphasis on intuition.

Nigel Cross has been prolific in articulating the issues of design methods and design research. The discussion of the ongoing debate of what is design research and design science was, and continues to be articulated by Cross. His thesis is that design is not a science, but is an area that is searching for "intellectual independence." He views the original design methods discussions of the 1960s as a way to integrate objective and rational methods in practicing design. Scientific method was borrowed as one framework, and the term "design science" was coined in 1966 at the Second Conference on the Design Method focusing on a systematic approach to practicing design. Cross defined the "science of design" as a way to create a body of work to improve the understanding of design methods—and more importantly that design methods does not need to be a binary choice between science and art.

Nigan Bayazit, professor at the Istanbul Technical University, published an overview of the history of design methods. She stated that "Design methods people were looking at rational methods of incorporating scientific techniques and knowledge into the design process to make rational decisions to adapt to the prevailing values, something that was not always easy to achieve." [5] The following is what design research is concerned with:

  • The physical embodiment of man-made things, how these things perform their jobs, and how they work
  • Construction as a human activity, how designers work, how they think, and how they carry out design activity
  • What is achieved at the end of a purposeful design activity, how an artificial thing appears, and what it means
  • Embodiment of configurations
  • Systematic search and acquisition of knowledge related to design and design activity

Significance of Emergence of Design Research and Design Studies

Both research and design studies made design more visible and accountable. Research was recognized at the outset by design methods as a type of leg-work to

The eventual debate about design methods and whether design is an art or science is not a new. Partisans on both sides of the issue have framed it as a binary choice of something to lose or gain. However, this false argument was viewed by John Chris Jones, who recognized the "logical, systematic, behavioristic, operational aspects of new methods" (which could be viewed as science) might be seen as "anti-life" which treat people as "instruments." On the other side, another group may define design with "animism, vitalism and naturalism" as a language (which could be viewed as art). Jones sought to bring both together and act as checks-and-balances for design methods.

Jones viewed methodology as "mere symbolic contrivances" and "would lose its value" if it did not reflect "the personal issues which matter most to the people who will take decisions."

Professional Design Practice

Conversations about design methods and a more systematic approach to design was not isolated to Europe. America was also a magnet for practicing design professionals to codify their successes in design practice and backing into larger theories about the dynamics of design methods.

American designers were much more pragmatic at articulating design methods and creating an underlying language about the practice of industrial and graphic design. They were tied to economic systems that supported design practice and therefore focused on the way design could be managed as an extension of business, rather than the European approach to design methods based on transforming engineering by design.

Industrial design was the first area that made inroads into systematizing knowledge through practice. Raymond Loewy was instrumental at elevating the visibility of industrial design through cult of personality (appearing three times on front cover of Time Magazine). Henry Dreyfuss had a profound impact on the practice of industrial design by developing a systematic process used to shape environments, transportation, products and packaging. His focus on the needs of the average consumer was most celebrated in his book Designing for People, an extensive exploration of ergonomics.

Jay Doblin one of America's foremost industrial designers, worked for Raymond Loewy and was later an employee of Unimark International, the world’s largest global design firm during the 1960s with offices in seven countries. In 1972, Doblin formed Chicago-based Jay Doblin & Associates, a firm which managed innovative programs for Xerox Corporation and General Electric.[6] Doblin was prolific at developing a language to describe design. One of his best articles was "A Short, Grandiose Theory of Design", published in the 1987 Society of Typographic Arts Design Journal. In seven pages, Doblin presents a straightforward and persuasive argument for design as a systematic process. He described the emerging landscape of systematic design:

  • For large complex projects, it "would be irresponsible to attempt them without analytical methods" and rallied against an "adolescent reliance on overly intuitive practices."
  • He separated "direct design" in which a craftsperson works on the artifact to "indirect design" in which a design first creates a representation of the artifact, separating design from production in more complex situations.

Doblin and others were responding to the increased specialization of design and the complexity of managing large design programs for corporations. It was a natural process to begin to discuss how design should move upstream to be involved with the specifications of problems, not only in the traditional mode of production which design had been practiced. Particularly since 2000, design methods and its intersection with business development have been visibly championed by numerous consultancies within design industry.

The continuity of approaches to design projects by such representative firms is the generation of inputs incited by the human condition in varied contexts. These approaches utilize a sustainable methods-based mode of making that takes into account critical analytic and synthetic skills toward more informed and inspired specifications grounded in:

  • Direct investigation of human circumstances to draw out impressions
  • Engagement by client-side and end-user participants in design process
  • Open articulation by practitioners of multiple disciplines facilitated by design

Significance of Role of Professional Design Practice

Practitioners approached design methods from a different angle than John Christopher Jones and the group of engineers and designers who convened in 1962. Many practitioners, through actual design opportunities, began to confront the complexities of the market and clients. They began to address issues of specifications, users, distribution and innovation. Since there were no established methods, each practitioner began to develop frameworks and languages to describe a new way to design. Like any market-based model, there were many competing ideas about these new methods and their basis. Many of these designers may have been aware of the design methods movement, but many were not. Yet all their ideas were aligned to many of the basic tenants of the 1962 conference which advocated a more rigorous way of doing design. However, the social perspectives and criticisms of mediocre products of 1962 participants may not have been shared or agreed with.

Design Management

An area of study and application that either raises the awareness of business professionals how to integrate and manage design, and/or the integration of business issues, systems and methods and managing their interdependency with design activities and outcomes that support the economic systems which benefit from a designers vision, skills and deliverables.

While this relationship has been identified, it has not been universally recognized or accepted by diverse design communities. Designers have strong connection not only to clients but also to end users who consume products and services. One of the strongest early advocates was Peter Gorb, former Director of London Business School's Centre for Design Management.

Design as a function within corporations, or as independent consultancies, have not always collaborated well with business. Clients and the market have traditionally viewed design as an expressive and production function, rather than as a strategic asset. Designers have focused their skills and knowledge in creating designed artifacts, and indirectly addressed larger issues within this creative process. They have been uneasy about articulating their value to business in terms that business executives could understand.

There were moves to bridge this gap. In England, the British Design Council (now called the Design Council) was founded in 1944 by the British wartime government as the Council of Industrial Design with the objective "to promote by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British industry". The Design Management Institute is an international nonprofit organization that seeks to heighten awareness of design as an essential part of business strategy. Founded in 1975, DMI has become the leading resource and international authority on design management.

Alternative View

Some designers and design historians have challenged, even rejected, the idea that design supports the goals and objectives of the economic systems they find themselves in. Victor Papanek (1925–1998) was a trail blazer in the definition of sustainable design and addressing social issues through design. His book Design for the Real World in the late 1960s articulated a world for design to use less resources and address local social issues for ecologically sound design to serve the poor, the disabled and the elderly. The disciplines of sustainable design and universal design are echoed here.

Professor of design history at the University of Illinois at Chicago Victor Margolin addressed the inherent role of design communities supporting an economic system, which he called the "expansion model", where "the world consists of markets in which products function first and foremost as tokens of economic exchange. They attract capital which is either recycled back into more production or becomes part of the accumulation of private or corporate wealth." Margolin describes a "sustainable model" as having "ecological checks and balances that consists of finite resources. If the elements of this system are damaged or thrown out of balance or if essential resources are depleted, the system will suffer severe damage and will possibly collapse." [7]

Significance of Design Management

Design methods initially was focused on how design could be integrated into engineering and grew to recognize the multidisciplinary nature of solving contemporary complexity in all its forms. John Chris Jones recognized the role of business, as one stakeholder among many, but did not view design methods as a business management tool. Design management focuses on how to define design as a business function and provides a language and method of how to effectively manage it.

Proliferation of Information Technologies

Internet businesses realized early that technologists alone were not going to create "killer apps" that would win customers. Companies such as Scient, Viant, Sapient, RazorFish and USWeb/CKS began to hire a wide variety of professionals to collaborate in three broad groups:

  1. Business consulting to address business models and front-end research of markets;
  2. Technologists that knit together legacy systems with internet-based technologies; and
  3. Brand/creative professionals that would create a seamless customer experience.

Customer relationship management (CRM), Supply Chain, and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) professionals belonged to any of these groups. Together they had to rapidly accelerate time-to-value and learn how to do things that had little precedent. This context was an amplification of Donald Schon's theories of unstable knowledge bases developing new ideas by a phenomenological approach of direct application and experience.

Strategy began to be redefined from an MBA-focused domain into an area both technology and brand/creative professionals moved upstream and engaged as up-front strategy. Other professionals were incorporated from cognitive science, ethnography, and library science (to name a few). Inherent in these groups were rigorous research-based methods which were overlaid onto business, technology and brand/creative. User-centric approaches were developed resulting in the creation of whole workflow systems to accommodate diversity in skills and tools. These diverse groups brought markedly different languages and models native to their disciplines which posed significant integration-challenges, including hours, in determining how to work together.

Clement Mok, founder of Studio Archetype (acquired by Sapient), recognized this trend and began to articulate the new professional design situation being agitated by new information technologies marked by the Internet and advancements in computing media. He described a multi-media landscape that was converging into an integrated digital space. Adjacent to this was the redefinition of skills and roles that would create, build, sustain, and innovate this dynamic environment. He called for graphic/visual designers to broaden their perspective, beyond traditional artifacts and methods, and immerse themselves in a collaborative workspace. In his book, Designing Business,[8] Mok emphasized redefinition of design practice dramatically affected by technological change: "Designers are in a position to promulgate new values and to define and quantify the effects of those values, and over the next ten years, their optimum role will be to design 'understanding.' The age we're living now is an incredible time because of the extent to which designers, business people, engineers, and technologists can redefine their roles."

Significance of Proliferation of Information Technologies

John Chris Jones and many original participants knew that computer technology would transform and automate human actions. They were 30 years ahead of the expansion of the Internet and explained the basic premise of its value by stating:

"The ideal picture of a man-machine symbosis is . . .one in which machine and human intelligences are linked into a quickly responding network that permits rapid access to all published information . . .The nett (sic) effect is expected to be one of mutual stimulation in which open minded people and progammes nudge each other into unpredictable, novel but realistic explorations . . .".[9]

Current State of Design Methods

There is no one way to practice design methods. John Chris Jones recognized this by stating:

"Methodology should not be a fixed track to a fixed destination, but a conversation about everything that could be made to happen. The language of the conversation must bridge the logical gap between past and future, but in doing so it should not limit the variety of possible futures that are discussed nor should it force the choice of a future that is unfree." [9]

The focus of most post-1962 enhancements to design methods has been on developing a series of relevant, sound, humanistic problem-solving procedures and techniques to reduce avoidable errors and oversights that can adversely affect design solutions. The key benefit is to find a method that suits a particular design situation.

The benefits of their original work has been abstracted many times over; but in today's design environment, several of their main ideas have been integrated into contemporary design methods:

  • Emphasis on the user
  • Use of basic research methods to validate convictions with fact
  • Use of brainstorming and other related means to break mental patterns and precedent
  • Increased collaborative nature of design with other disciplines

A large challenge for design as a discipline, its use of methods and an endeavor to create shared values, is its inherent synthetic nature as an area of study and action. This allows design to be extremely malleable in nature, borrowing ideas and concepts from a wide variety of professions to suit the ends of individual practitioners. It also makes design vulnerable since these very activities make design a discipline unextensible as a shared body of knowledge.[10]

Long before Malcolm Gladwell and his book Blink, there was Donald Schon at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1983, he published The Reflective Practitioner.[11] He saw traditional professions with stable knowledge bases, such as law and medicine, becoming unstable due to outdated notions of 'technical-rationality' as the grounding of professional knowledge. Practitioners were able to describe how they 'think on their feet', and how they make use of a standard set of frameworks and techniques. Schon foresaw the increasing instability of traditional knowledge and how to achieve it. This is in line with the original founders of design methods who wanted to break with an unimaginative and static technical society and unify exploration, collaboration and intuition.

Design methods has influenced design practice and design education. It has benefitted the design community by helping to create introductions that would never have happened if traditional professions remained stable, which did not necessarily allow collaboration due to gatekeeping of areas of knowledge and expertise. Design has been by nature an interloper activity, with individuals that have crossed disciplines to question and innovate.

The challenge is to transform individual experiences, frameworks and perspectives into a shared, understandable, and, most importantly, a transmittable area of knowledge. Victor Margolin states three reasons why this will prove difficult:

  • Domain knowledge is a mixture of vocation (discipline) and avocation (interest) creating hybrid definitions that degrade shared knowledge
  • Intellectual capital of design and wider scholarly pluralism has diluted focus and shared language which has led to ungovernable laissez-faire values
  • Individual explorations of design discourse focuses too much on individual narratives leading to personal point-of-view rather than a critical mass of shared values

In the end, design methods is a term that is widely used. Though conducive to interpretations, it is a shared belief in an exploratory and rigorous method to solve problems through design, an act which is part and parcel of what designers aim to accomplish in today's complex world.

See also


  1. ^ John Christopher Jones and Denis Thornley (eds). The Conference on Design Methods: papers presented at the conference on systematic and intuitive methods in engineering, industrial design, architecture and communications, London, September 1962, Pergamon Press.
  2. ^ 1962 conference participants
  3. ^ John Chris Jones lists key design questions
  4. ^ John Chris Jones thoughts on design research
  5. ^ Bayazit, Nigan. "Investigating Design: A Review of Forty Years of Design Research." Design Issues: Vol 20, No 1. Winter 2004.
  6. ^ AIGA Overview of Jay Doblin
  7. ^ p. 82, The Politics of the Artificial
  8. ^ Mok, Clement. Designing Business: Multiple Media, Multiple Disciplines. 1996. Adobe Press. ISBN 1568302827
  9. ^ a b (p. 73, Design Methods)
  10. ^ John Chris Jones perspective about "Design Methods for Everyone"
  11. ^ Schon, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. 1983. Basic Books. ISBN 0465068782.


  • Alexander, Christopher, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford University Press), 1977, ISBN 0-19-501919-9
  • Cross, Nigel, "Engineering Design Methods: Strategies for Product Design" (John Wiley & Sons), ISBN 0-47-187250-4
  • Jones, John Christopher, Designing Designing (London: Architecture Design and Technology Press), 1991
  • Margolin, Victor, "The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies" (University of Chicago Press), 2002, ISBN-0-226-50504-9
  • Schon, Donald, "The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action" (Basic Books), 1983, ISBN 0-46-506878-2

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