World-Making: Working with Theory/Practice in Design

This article argues for an active role for theory in designing, especially feminist theory and cultural studies, both as a means of theorizing design through the work of designers and as a means of reflecting on the complex contexts in which designing takes place and designs take hold. This has particular relevance in the participatory and user-centered frameworks increasingly favored in design practices and education. Changes in design methods, the emergence of “design thinking” in a range of fields including but not always linked to design, and the growth of contemporary “social design” over the past two decades have greatly shifted design practices and contexts. This article argues that Donald Schön’s exploration and theorization of “reflective practice” should be expanded to include a framework for seeing what designers are “reflecting through” in relationship to their own position and location. Building on Lucy Suchman’s argument for “located accountability,” I propose that critical engagement with a range of theories of worldmaking and worldknowing to increase and ground design and designers’ points of reference is critical to practice and, therefore, education in design fields.

“World-Making: Working with Theory/Practice in Design.” Design and Culture, 4(1), March 2012.

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Design / Learning / Theory / Practice

In a 1991 article, “Design studies and the education of designers,” Victor Margolin, argued for shifts in design education to do three things: acknowledge a broader conceptualization of what “design” is and might include; press design and designing into a more deeply theorized space that takes into account the influences and potential impacts of other disciplines, especially in humanities and cultural studies; and teach design students to see design and their work as designers as both reflective and productive of “social values and policies.” Margolin called for design education to look more closely at design in new or multiple contexts: through the lenses of parallel and intersecting design fields; through “theories such as literary studies, psychoanalysis, political theory, feminism, and the broader field of history,” which he noted were playing a significant role in “shaking the foundations” of art history in ways that were pushing art students (not just art historians) to become “more literate, critical, and self-aware artists;” and, finally, through “designed objects, services, and techniques in society” themselves (1991).

Twenty years hence, many of these themes and ideas about where, how, and with what (and whom) design and design education ought to engage are prevalent and even commonplace. Design for “social change” has become both an organizing and rhetorical framework for individual courses and programs in design schools, as well as for small non-profit design groups like Design for Social Impact in Philadelphia, major global design consultancies such as IDEO, and government initiatives such as the U.K.’s Design Council. Design education is rapidly expanding to include trans- and cross-disciplinary programs that are explicitly linked to the changing requirements of design practice. The concept of applying the design processes of proposition, prototyping, and iteration (often reflecting changes gleaned from failures), generally referred to broadly in these contexts as “design thinking” (Tonkinwise 2010), is being rapidly taken up by businesses and in the education of managers (Dunne 2009; Martin 2009).

Despite this adoption of the sometimes rigorous, sometimes reflexive consideration of the multiplicity of venues and possibilities for design, some foundations of design have not been made to shake. Margolin posited that engagement with critical theory was one of the key shifts to be made in design education. Such an engagement would, first, place design in a broader context of social and cultural inquiry and production. Secondly, engaging theory in designing would develop a vocal engagement with designers’ roles, and the implications of their work, in such production while also challenging that work to be theoretically informed (1991). As design and designers have taken up the social and inter-disciplinary 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.

Margolin’s argument appeared in the first of two issues, published 18 years apart, of ELISAVA TdD[2] focused on design and education. In the second, published in 2009, the majority of authors now take for granted variations on his proposals: that the present and near future of design education is and ought to be focused on a multifaceted approach to design that facilitates both broad and in-depth knowledge, an ability to work with practitioners and researchers from other fields, including the social sciences, and an orientation toward what the AIGA called “responsible outcomes,” modified by one author as “seeking sustainable solutions and adopting a human-centered approach” (Collina 2009). Over half of the articles consider either specific projects or general trends in design education that are focused on “social design” (Collina 2009; Lodaya 2009; Szentpéteri 2009; Tamayo 2009; Tomico 2009).[3] Another article, written by David Dunne (2009), faculty at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, Canada, discusses the role of design thinking in reshaping MBA education.

While this issue of ELISAVA TdD is in no way all-encompassing, it acts nonetheless as a compelling locus of contemporary conversations about designs’ futures as well as the education current designers and design teachers imagine is needed to ground them. And so the conspicuous absence of theory—ideas and propositions that challenge designers not only to expand their tools for designing, but to also critique or place in context all these tools (old and new)—is striking, especially given the clear saturation of the idea of design’s social focus across design fields. These gaps in the role of theory in designing (and design in rendering or making theory) are being meaningfully considered in some areas of design practice and theory. These include, for example, work in Critical Design by practitioners and scholars such as Dunne + Raby and Alex Wilkie and Mike Michaels, Lucy Suchman’s (2002) consideration of situated accountability in design which has been taken up by designers and scholars in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), in particular, and considerations of theorizing in and through design by Anne Burdick (2009) and Carl DiSalvo (2010). I will discuss these more specifically below, but I also seek to build on their proposals and interventions to insist on the relevance to designing and design education of cultural theory and theorizations of power and difference (including constructions and materializations of race and racism, capital and class, and gender and sexuality, for example).

In this article, I am interested in positing an active role for theory in designing, both as a means of theorizing design through the work of designers and as a means of insisting upon retaining the complex contexts in which designing takes place and designs take hold, especially in the participatory and user-centered frameworks increasingly favored in design practices and education. How might literacy in not just big-T Theory, but in the act and practice of doing theory—making grounded ideas—deepen design’s engagement with the social and political worlds in which it is embedded? If one piece of the work of designers is to learn from existing and accumulated knowledge of things in the world in order to make, represent, and imagine new or differently designed things in the world, how can deep critical engagement with theories of world-making and -knowing increase and ground a designer’s points of reference? What role can we imagine for design education in productively destabilizing assumptions of the situatedness of the designer or designing?