DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0131-4.ch001
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The purpose of this chapter is to explain the meaning of such important concepts as artifact, design, and design-related research. Traditionally, the term “design research” refers to a field of study that aims at providing insights into designing. This chapter presents a general notion of design. It briefly presents the history of studies of design. The term “design” has a number of definitions, some of which are covered in the chapter. It also considers design as viewed from the perspective of problem solving. The notion of an artifact in relation to its environment and internal organization is described. General methodology of design in terms of key stages is briefly discussed. The role of representation in design is emphasized.
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Design: What Is It?

Herbert Simon, in his seminal book the Sciences of the Artificial points that we live in a predominantly human-made world (Simon, 1996). Human activity has dramatically changed the world from the way it used to be in pre-historical time. We have the ability to change the nature and produce artifacts that make our lives more comfortable, safe, and pleasant. Artifacts and their effects can be found everywhere we look: our cities and towns, domesticated plants and animals, our cultures and governments, our knowledge, and even our bodies.

Artifacts are the end products of design activity. In a book called Knowledge as Design the author invites us to entertain a possibility of suddenly doing away with all human-made artifacts (Perkins, 1986): “Suppose that … someone wishes that there is no such thing as design… Let us … follow rigorously the consequences of this wish. The clothes vanish from our bodies, never having been invented. The floors and pavements on which we walk slip away into nothingness. We find no books, no artificial lighting, not even a primitive hearth. And perhaps, if language itself can be considered a design, we do not even understand what the mouthings mean.”

Design has been recognized as the first tradition among the many traditions of humankind, including arts, religion, science, and technology (Nelson & Stolterman, 2003). Different design thinkers mention four possible origins of design, including creation of universe (Religion, and so-called “Intelligent Design”); prehistoric objects (early human artifacts); industrial revolution; and early twentieth century (scientific approaches to design).

Design as a human-directed activity had originated with the development of early humans. The humanoid species Australopithecus and later Homo Habilis used to make primitive tools now referred to as “Oldowan industry.” The name derives from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the characteristic stone tools were discovered. The tools included simple “choppers” obtained by the means of chopping off “flakes” from a stone core. The early humans had recognized the multiple uses of such rather rough instruments for multiple purposes, ranging from working with the wood to cracking nuts from about 2.5 million years ago.

Further elaboration of the primitive tool-making process had subsequently led to improved, more effective and efficient set of tools, collectively referred to as Acheulean Industry. These tools dating from about 1.65 million years ago were shaped to provide sharper edges to form such instruments as hand-axes. Thus, the birth of design pretty much parallels the development of early humans. Ever since then design has been one of the defining characteristics of humankind. The evolution of technological development abounds with wonderful inventions that shaped our world throughout the human history (see, e.g. McNeil, 1990). Design has been the driving force behind what we recognize as technological progress.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following meanings of the word “design” as a noun:

  • A particular purpose held in view by an individual or group

  • A mental project or scheme in which means to an end are laid down

  • A deliberate undercover project or scheme

  • Aggressive or evil intent—used with on or against

  • A preliminary sketch or outline showing the main features of something to be executed

  • An underlying scheme that governs functioning, developing, or unfolding

  • A plan or protocol for carrying out or accomplishing something (as a scientific experiment)

  • The arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art

  • A decorative pattern

  • The creative art of executing aesthetic or functional designs

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