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‘Questioning design. Prometheus, resign’

Can engineers design? The question might irritate engineers. ‘Of course we can!’ Social science, however, easily proves the opposite, writes assistant professor Bauke Steenhuisen.

Let's roast our precious dogma 'In design we trust', because our design education vastly improves, if we question ourselves more radically.

Design has always been the celebrated core of engineering, but we do not agree on what it actually means. There are two competing tribes at our university. We could call them the positivist and the postmodern. The first tribe typically agrees with an engineering society, defining design as a systematic approach to generate and select alternatives based on a set of requirements. The postmoderns, on the other hand, have a broader understanding of design, as an art or a reflective creativity. Though part-time member of both tribes, I seek to desert. In my view, the positivists lack real-world validity and the postmoderns have such broad ideas that design may refer to virtually anything. So, bad news. The core of engineering is hollow. The good news though is that we don't need design to bind our engineering disciplines.

Searching for design
If you want to know more about design, you run into a few practical problems. Since there is no general course called design, you could visit the TU Delft Library to search for a bookshelf with cross-disciplinary books on design. There is none. Each engineering discipline has its own bookshelves.

The next problem is to read these books. Each time the word design appears, you need to figure out what it means this time. Is it an activity or an outcome? If it is an outcome, is it a drawing, a prototype, the real thing or all three together? Or is it a process instead? Or the underlying structure? In everyday language, design may also simply mean intentional or refer to IKEA. If design is fundamental for engineers, why is it so vague and inconsistent?

Flirting with the Olympus
I blame Prometheus, the Greek god who stole the godly fire for the benefit of humanity. He is the TU Delft mascot. His myth is enchanting and relevant, but it has a weakness. Naturally, engineers like to see themselves as the brains behind creations, perhaps not omnipotent and all-knowing, but close enough to be trusted for whatever they plan to. Engineers are not gods, though we keep forgetting. Design is inextricably bound up with this temptation.

Countless social scientists, however, have shown that design is a naïve and hyper-rational disillusion. Their argument is very simple. The world is complex, wicked and unruly. Hence, we cannot control, manage or design. We are humans, hence not gods.

The irreducible essence of design, whatever tribe you belong to, is a promise. Design is no accident. Designers do not throw dice. They take up a challenge and promise to create an energy neutral house, a self-driving car or an elegant algorithm. Such a promise is hollow without design requirements or if the anticipated effects do not materialize.

If we want engineers to design, a few conditions should be put in place. Let's focus on the obvious ones. A designer needs to have a list of requirements, understand how the world works and make choices in order to promise that their design will have certain desirable effects when implemented. These simple conditions are not at all trivial in the real world, and they are crucial to design.

What if designers ask for a list of requirements but they don't get one? What if the world keeps changing during and after the design process? What if designers disagree whether the world has changed or whether requirements should change? What if designers don't know how the world works? What if designers cannot convince each other or the relevant decision-makers to make certain design choices? What if we simply don't know who actually makes the design choices, even after the choices have been made? What if implementation compels to fundamentally redesign the artefact? What if designers don't oversee the implementation? What if a designed artefact meets all the requirements, but the effects are neither predicted nor desirable?

Think of any interesting challenge in our complex world. 'Oops' or 'mmm' will be well represented in response to the questions above. There are always plenty of unknowns, dynamics and disagreements in the game to compromise the opportunity to design. Yet, we stubbornly keep teaching as if design is our only hope.

Four suggestions
Let's get practical. What would it mean for our design education, if we try to correct for this bold contradiction? I have four suggestions.

1 Don't offer design challenges
Teachers in Delft routinely confront students with design challenges. It seems a reasonable and innocent thing to do. But I object, because it implies two disputable things. Do teachers know what the challenge is, and is design the way to deal with it? If we want students to be smart in solving real-world problems, we need to pay more attention to the questions that our teaching too often skips. Practically, all what if questions above are skipped when teachers say, "Here is a design challenge." Some enlightened design teachers might already prescribe students to do a context analysis before designing. This, indeed, might relate to most of the iffy questions I raised. I plead for the same thing, but suggest to do it constantly, not only once and, most important, before you conclude whether to design or not.

2 Teach educated engineering instead
What alleged designers really do is educated engineering. Social scientist Donald Schön and followers empirically studied how designing works. Supposed designers find themselves in situations that are fundamentally dynamic, subjective and unknown. Problems and solutions tend to co-evolve with little opportunity to make systematic choices based on requirements. A professor at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering compares what we do to stirring a soup full of uncertainties. So, it is fair to say that only in retrospect we can explain why certain choices have been made. Promise does not work in retrospect. Engineers can't keep this promise. But don't throw away design.

3 Teach design as utopian
Admit that the promise of design is a utopian idea. Treat design as such, not as description of what we do, but as a model or ideal type. If you take design seriously, you make a caricature out of it. You could make an analogy with economics. Design failure is probably as inevitable as market failure. Who needs examples? We are like a university of economics teaching how to create markets without considering market failure as a ubiquitous phenomenon. Shame on us. We need to build and propagate a better developed theory with design failure as its cornerstone. My fingers are itching. If students, nevertheless, want to start a design process, that's fine, but not without showing where the train goes off the cliff and why that would not ruin all.

4 Teach not to design
A structural lack of opportunity to design is not fatal. Engineers can solve problems without design, but why would we? Teaching design is way too much fun. And the struggle for students to learn how to design is way too instructive. If design doesn't make sense, but still works, why change it? Because we can improve.

Currently, many students just start designing by default. I want not designing to be the new default. As students explore a real-world challenge, they should critically study whether and to what extent design is an option. If the opportunity to design is compromised, you do not need to design. Without design you may still overcome the challenge. There are plenty alternatives. You can imagine, draw, calculate, copy-paste, develop, invent, redesign, experiment, etc.

But there is more. The opportunity to design is not a given for engineering students. You can manipulate it. Reframe the problem and the challenge. Do research. Negotiate the conditions. The sky is the limit. Do not just scrutinize the opportunity to design. Get tempted by the promise and play with it. Be a DJ, as it were, a design jockey.

Questioning our design education
Zeus chained Prometheus up a Caucasian cliff to punish him for his audacity. Similarly, I think teachers punish students by pretending that design is an obvious thing to do. Stop the punishment. Unchain and set free. By the way, if poor Prometheus resigns as our mascot, we also get rid of the fossil fire on the T of TU Delft. More human and forward looking symbols of engineering are not hard to find. How about a beat by Armin van Buuren?

Thanks to the Design Education Network for inviting me to write this essay and for organizing discussions on this topic.

Dr. Bauke Steenhuisen is assistant professor at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management.