Theory of Design

  1. Approaches of Arteology
  2. Format of Presentation of Design Theory
  3. Paradigms of Design Theory
  4. Diachronic View on Arteology
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Approaches of Arteology

Artefact is anything made by man, such as an industrial product, a work of art, a building, appliance, program, or service. The science where artefacts are studied is called arteology.

It is practical to differentiate between the descriptive and the normative types of arteological study. The latter is more usual, because nearly all human artefacts, including both industrial and artisanal products, are made for a definite purpose. This normative purpose permeates the product itself, the process of making it, and also most (but not all) studies around products. Of course, it is possible to study products from a disinterested vista, without the intention of improving the object nor assisting new design of similar products.

Another useful classification is based on the number of objects studied and thus also the scope of the validity of the findings, in other words the division between general studies and case study. Epistemologically the study of one object does not much differ from studying several ones, but in the practice of research there are many differences.

Combining both two dichotomies, we get the table below. One advantage of this division into four groups is that it complies with the differences in the approaches and typical methods of the groups.

  Descriptive studies Normative studies
General studies Studies of a given class of product. Usually these have a historic perspective, see Analyzing Development Developing theory of practice for an activity, especially Design theory for a type of product. An example: Theory of Architecture
Case studies Studies of noteworthy products. For synchronic studies, see Case Study ; for diachronic study of a long-lived product, see Describing Development Studies which are made to support new product development or the restoration of a long-lived product such as an existing old building. Such studies become not necessarily public, see Normative Case Report.

The above four types of study, and the four pools of data and theory that they are creating, have important mutual relationships which are presented in the figure on the right. There arrows indicate streams of information which start from descriptive studies (case studies or preferably general ones) and theory which describe the present state of products.

When combining descriptive theory with normative general studies about the preferences of product users it becomes possible to write general theory of design which, in turn, will be used as a basis of the design of new products (or improvements to existing ones).

In itself, general theory of design does not yet contain all the specific data that the designer needs, and it must be complemented by normative case studies such as market research which will be carried out as part of the new product development project.

The above presented structure of research activities around products is a general one, and in the practice of research it repeats itself for every different type of product. In this way, it is possible to define quite a series of sciences, each of them developing theory of practice for a professional activity or for a class of products:

Arteology studies... artefacts
Agronomy studies... agriculture
Ideology studies... ideas
Politology studies... politics
Building science studies... buildings

Format of Presentation of Design Theory

Design theory is a collective denomination for all the permanent knowledge that is intended to assist the design of various new products. This information has mostly been gathered by a great number of research projects. Corresponding to the usual approaches of research, the information is essentially of two types:

  1. Nomothetic knowledge, i.e. general rules that have been gathered from several different products. To this group belong:
  2. Idiographic knowledge which actually concerns only individual products but is nevertheless suitable to be generalized to other products as well:

In many other fields of science, idiographic information about discrete cases would not be called theory. However, in the practice of design, proper nomothetic theory is not always available and often idiographic data are factually used as a substitute of theory.

Governmental regulations are an instrument through which administrative powers assure that industrial products possess such important qualities that otherwise would run the risk of not being achieved. In order to avoid unnecessarily hampering industrial production, official regulations usually only stake out the allowable limits, minimal or maximal, of certain attributes of products, but do not otherwise restrain the design.

Topics where governments today regard regulations as necessary, concern especially the hygiene and safety of products, for example the amount of noise, harmful gas or radiation that a handheld tool is allowed to emanate. Aesthetic questions are dealt with occasionally, mainly when regulating the physical planning of cities, but some centuries ago numerous European monarchs prescribed the maximum lawful lavishness of costumes. Today, instead, environmental questions such as the amount of wastes in production, use and recycling, are rising on the surface.

Standards are another customary way of presenting theory of design. Industrial products are often quite similar to each other, and in their design problems often recur with little variation. It would not be sensible if each designer started "in square one" and used much time to invent his own solutions to old and well known problems.
Instead, it is often advisable to use standards which are generally applicable solutions to typical problems of design. Their purpose is to save time, not only in the design but also in the production phase and sometimes also in the use, service and reparation of the product. Moreover, it is often possible to save raw material. All this leads to savings in costs, and often the only drawback is a reduction in the consumer's choice of products.

Usual types of standards include:

Standards are usually voluntary, but they may be declared as compulsory by a governmental agency, company management or other actor that has interest and power of doing so. In any case, the preparation of a standard is the job of researchers who often work in specific institutes. These are financed by one or another of the parties involved in design, like:

As can be seen in the list above, consumers have not been significantly represented in the organizations of standardization. Nevertheless, the viewpoints of consumers have usually been indirectly observed and the average consumer has benefited from the price reductions brought about by standardization. Standard products are normally designed exactly for the average user and these do not much suffer from the decrease in the assortment of products that standardization usually entails.

It is to be noted, however, that excessive standardization can make living difficult for those consumers that are not exactly average. Such people include children, the elderly, people with impaired sight, hearing or comprehension. Added together, these groups encompass a vast number of people, perhaps even majority in modern society. The interests of these people have often been overlooked in short-sighted standardization that just aims at averages.

The bad effects of standards made for average people only, are clearly seen in numerous ordinary kitchens which often are remarkably inadequate work-places for single living old people with reduced abilities of motion. This fact has been demonstrated by Sirkka-Liisa Keiski in her comparative study of the elderly in standard kitchens and specially designed experimental kitchens (1998, p. 241):

"Neither the inhabitants, assisting experts nor designers have any chance of creating alternatives for the [now unsatisfactory] environment of the elderly person [who has difficulty in moving and working in the kitchen]. All improvements are made impossible by the rigid and "accurate" standards of industry."

The researcher's task is to take care that standards will serve as many people as possible.

Patents are design solutions that have been officially registered as belonging to a private person or enterprise, and the owner uses them or lets them be used in the design of new products.

Tools for design are those advices, rules of thumb, tables, diagrams, algorithms, checklists and other material which can be found in the handbooks of designers. Another, more modern way of presenting them is to integrate these tools in the CAD programs for designers. In this way some elementary procedures of design can even be made automatic, which saves time for the human designer.

Technological design theory contains mostly exact models, standards and algorithms which immediately achieve the desired properties in the product, such as usability, economy or safety, for example. In the fields of predominantly artistic design, where exact instructions and calculations would be difficult to make and use, there are instead softer "rules of thumb" that master artists teach to their pupils, and which concern usual and important problems in the design of a new product, such as its balance of form, repetition and variation of elements, placing a dominant element, rhythm, proportion, harmony, contrast, or dramatic tension. These formulas are not exact nor meant to be unbreakable laws - on the contrary, the mark of a great master is the ability to break conventional rules - but they anyway are a collection of helpful and proven recommendations, suitable to be handed over to the next generation of artistic designers, and they thus play very much the same role as theory has in technology.

These artistic "rules of thumb" need not be exactly formulated, on the contrary they often exist mostly in tacit form. The reason is that the rule is often quite complicated, it can include innumerable exeptions, the artist master who knows the rule is unwilling or unable to write it down, and if an outsider tries to explicate the rule it turns out that he cannot fully understand the matter. For these reasons the number of written theoretical rules in any branch of art is usually small.

Exemplars are earlier produced meritorious artefacts, their details or procedures of making them, as commented from contemporary point of view by experts. They are published in professional journals and exhibitions, and they are also much used in the education to the profession. They can substitute or complement theory in artistic design professions for topics for which it is difficult to develop more explicit doctrines and for topics where knowledge exists only in tacit form, which is often the case in questions of ethics, taste and beauty. Exemplars can provide useful points of reference in a product design project, particularly in the early phase of preparing a detailed product concept, when it is difficult to find other patterns for describing the future product.

In established professions the exemplars are mostly selected by the most respected members of the profession, especially when their purpose is to educate the younger members of the profession or to point out the best recent works in the framework of an exhibition or a professional journal. A disadvantage in this method is that the selection sometimes gets mixed up with a mutual contest for distinction, i.e. prominence among the members of the profession (cf. Bourdieu, 1984), which can give bias to the result, because professionals sometimes emphasize topics that are relevant only inside of the art in question, such as 'originality', 'novelty', 'witty deviation from tradition', 'boldness', 'logic' etc. (cf. Expectation and Distinction). There is a risk that some of these targets can eclipse the opinions of the users of the products, when the exemplars are selected without hearing the users.

In any case, the method of exemplars is simple and rapid and has much normative power in the practice of artistic professions. Because of its rapidity it plays often a decisive role when changes in the surrounding society call for adjustments in the prevailing design trend, cf. Revolutions in Design Sciences.

Prefabricated components, when available for the product, are often based on research and in this case they can be said to "contain" theoretical knowledge that can be essential to the successful operation of the final product. For example, when a new model of computer is designed, the starting point is often the set of programs that will be used and the chipsets which transform data to and from various formats (like images, sounds, network messages, and storage). These components are usually prefabricated by other companies than the computer manufacturer, they have been designed starting from the functional needs of customers, and their capabilities and requirements largely define the theoretical targets and limits for the new computer model in very much the same way than the general theory of computing does.

Building is another field of technology where sophisticated prefabricated components have long been used. There are heavy concrete slabs and other structural parts where theory of stability has been applied to produce exactly optimal bearing capacity for each type of building (heavier components for industrial buildings, lighter ones for apartments). Once selected, the set of structural components tells the architect how much load the structure can bear, and gives thus one important theoretical axiom for the architect's design. Other sets of prefabricated components for buildings include the surface elements like floorings and light walls, windows, doors, furniture elements for kitchens etc., most of which have been designed with the help of research and standardization.

Technology of production and machines that already are in use in the intended plant of fabrication can give guidance to product design in the same way than prefabricated components do. When the designer of the product keeps in mind the intended technology of production, it can greatly improve the economy of the project. See also Theory of Production on another page.

Paradigms Of Design Theory

Type of
Paradigms of research
and of design theory:
Works of art,
e.g. painting
Theories of proportion, colour,
expression, symbols etc.
Clothing Theories of costume design,
ergonomics, semiology,
technology of tailoring, etc.
Furniture Ergonomics, technology etc.
See Theory of Furniture
Buildings Theories of function, proportion,
construction, heating, ventilation etc.
See Theory of Architecture
Etc. ...
The picture of design theory that was given in the diagram presented earlier is a simplified one. In reality, theory of design is an aggregate of the findings of many separate research projects and each of these usually deals with just one type of product (like clothing, furniture, cars etc). Theory is thus split into sub-theories, or product-specific paradigms of research, also called discourses. Examples of them are presented in the table on the right.

On the other hand, any sort of product can be studied from a variety of viewpoints (like usability, beauty, meaning, ecology, economy or safety). Each of these viewpoints has a characteristic style of approach and methodology which is frequently used regardless of the type of product that is being studied. We can give the name of goal-specific paradigm (or discourse) to these approaches in the research of products.

Types of
Approach of study:
Works of art x xx xx ... ... x
Clothes xx xx xx x x xx
Furniture xx xx x x x xx
Buildings xx x x xx x xx
etc. ... ... ... ... ... ...
The two-fold structure of paradigms is useful in research, because it helps to understand and manage the great amount of knowledge that we today have about products. Thanks to these collective elements, the sub-theories concerning different sorts of products connect together quite well. The table on the right shows how the goal-specific theory paradigms (in columns) integrate a number of product-specific theory paradigms (on rows). The letter x denotes published individual studies.

In spite of the neat logical structure of arteological theory, outlined above, we cannot assert that all this information would contain no controversies. On the contrary, a number of conflicts are inavoidable because design theory always includes several goals for design, and these are often in dissension because of disagreement between people on the values of goals. Consensus about goals exists now only for such products like building elements where there is no variation in the evaluations of people, or where one goal (stability, in the case of building constructions) prevails over all the others.

Some researchers have tried to harmonize the contrasting goals by creating a metatheory, a logical construction of higher order which would include all the conflicting sub-theories. They start from the assumption that all the targets in the design and production of products could be seen as aiming at the attainment of a "higher" objective. This higher goal then could settle possible clashes between the lower targets. Various researchers have tried to fetch this higher goal from such all encompassing philosophies as religion, ethics, or the well-being of a nation. However, until now none of these attempts has reached larger consensus. Examples of such proposals in the study of architecture are discussed in Metatheories Aiming at Objectivity.

Another approach has also been tried for combining the contrasting goals of design. People's varying preferences have been summed up into collective averages which were calculated from the results of extensive surveys. It is not difficult to calculate such averages, but their practical value is small because new design based on average needs would benefit only a minority (i.e. those which have exactly these average needs).

The nearest thing to a metatheory connecting various design theories is the methodology that we use today in design projects when arbitrating between conflicting objectives. These methods are discussed under the titles Usability of products , Methods for Combining Goals Subjectively and Evaluating Normative Proposals. These methods are effectual and widely used in the modern practice of design.

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August 3, 2007.
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