Rediscovering Design Education as a Social Constructivist Foundation for Innovative Design Thinking

Rediscovering Design Education as a Social Constructivist Foundation for Innovative Design Thinking

Johann van der Merwe (Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-617-9.ch011
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Design has been described by Bruno Latour as the missing masses, and tellingly as “nowhere to be said and everywhere to be felt” (2005: 73). Traditionally, not only objects, but design’s presence in general has gone largely unnoticed by the public, but that is changing, due, in considerable part, to the ubiquitous presence of computing technology. Design, as representative of unnoticed and neutral objects, is no longer feasible, but design, as a participative presence in the lives of its users, is fast gaining ground in our complex society. Designers are no longer fully in control of the design process, meaning design practice, and as a result design education must change to adapt to the increasing pace at which different social groups are evolving new ways of communicating and living.
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Until quite recently, it seemed as if the prevailing notion of design was based on a linear cause and effect process that relies on logic, rationality and scientific rigour, a very orderly practice that guarantees control and defined outcomes. Unfortunately, this can result in fixed structures protective of design ‘truths’ and hence restrictive of thought patterns, and by concentrating on what is being designed and not reflecting on why these objects are being designed, we seem to have created a design crisis in self-conception. On the other hand, much has been written about the new era of design that acknowledges the shift in focus from the object itself to the process of design, with a further shift to what is being called service design, which takes the concept of process even further (especially in Scadinavian and Finnish publications). We find that in many fields of design the importance of a user-centred methodology has been emphasised, with this general approach further evolving to include the significance of the users’ experience. However, any approach to design research, theory and practice that deliberately includes the social element has to relinquish at least part of the ‘guaranteed’ control leading to defined outcomes that it depended on previously. Consider, then, this question: How do designers know when they are on the right track if there are no guarantees in design, if there are no set formulas to follow? How is it possible to design anything at all, let alone be innovative? Too many designers are trying to adapt to a new and complex world environment with a mindset that was formed during their educational phase, based largely on set formulas and ways-of-doing that just about guaranteed the outcomes.

Once a designer starts off on this road of social inclusion, however, the situation becomes worse. How does any designer progress to the point of being able to handle situations in our contemporary and complex socio-technical world? How is it possible for any one individual to be able to deal with a multitude of complex and seemingly opaque socio-technical situations that are encountered in the contexts that need design solutions? In order to know which direction (the process of) design needs to take at any given stage, where do we look to for answers? There seems to be far more questions than there are answers, and design is about finding answers, is it not? Isn’t it?

Wrong. Design is not about finding set-answer solutions, as if the socio-technical relationship does not matter and will not interfere with the design process. If we only had to concentrate on the technical, the mechanical, that would be easy, and engineers used a methodology called Cybernetics (now recognised as First Order Cybernetics), a system of control that depended on negative feedbacks, hence the guarantees of defined outcomes. When this same system was transplanted to the study of the social, however, it was soon found that a negative feedback system, used to control the outcomes, simply was not possible, or indeed, desirable. People do not like to be controlled as if they have no choice, and hence no control over their own actions and decisions, and so the adaptation to cybernetic thought brought about Second Order Cybernetics, a system of positive feedbacks that studies thinking and acting human beings, a system in which the observer of that system (in our case the designer) becomes an integral part. A positive feedback system inevitably means that whatever is fed back into the system changes the system itself, the way it thinks and the way it operates (as AI researchers have found), an iterative process that amounts to a learning process. Seen against this background, if design were to be seen as a process of simply finding solutions to defined problems, it would have to use a system of negative feedbacks, and hence control over the whole process, leaving no or little space for the involvement of the social. Accept the positive feedback approach to design thinking, and the involvement of the social becomes not just indispensable, but crucial to the designer’s ability to find direction, and knowing if the design process is on the right track or not; all of this depends on the total context and not on any single individual.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Radical Social Constructivism: Believes that ‘reality’ is a social construct, and that we cannot have objective or direct access to ‘a real world out there’. With the design’s focus shifting from product to process and experience, social constructivism becomes vitally important.

Socio-technical: Allied to both RSC and ANT, this term implies that a working relationship has to exist between users and all manner of technical devices, since a reciprocal designing process is at work between the two.

Actor-Network Theory: As a way of seeing the world, and specifically the relationships and associations that people enter into, ANT regards all entities that play a role in these relationships as equal actors in an unfolding narrative, including designed object as non-human actors.

Ontological Phenomenology: Phenomenology studies all aspects of the world as they subjectively appear to us, not ‘as they are’, objectively. An ontological approach, in Heidegger’s terms, studies the coming-into-being type of ‘existence’ that is enhanced by our interactions with these phenomena.

Exformation: The world runs on exformation, those unsaid, sometimes taboo, and very large areas of knowledge that still exists, but are not present in fact, yet present in reference mode. The explicit information we are offered relies for its effectiveness on the implicit exformation knowledge held by a particular audience.

Complexity: As a scientific theory, complexity has much to offer the study of design, in terms of communication, e.g. when two communicative wavefunctions collide (person A’s communication structurally coupling with person B’s communication). Not to be confused with complication, complexity (the structural interplay between order and chaos) has always been part of life.

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