Bridges between Design & Philosophy

Short Position Paper for the International Exploratory Workshop on “Design Philosophy Dialogue”

"I Ain't Lying" by Dead Air on flickr
I Ain’t Lying by Dead Air on flickr

Gilbert Cockton, Annamaria Carusi, and John Mullarkey  organised a one day workshop on the Design Philosophy Dialogue at Northumbria University’s School of Design, and each participant was invited to write a brief position paper. This is mine. It is more a reflection of my current concerns, questions, and confusions about the intersection of design and philosophy than a position.

Before starting the word ‘design’ needs clarifying. I had trouble categorising the type of design I wanted to talk about until Nathan Crilly suggested the term ‘art school design’, i.e. the various design disciplines taught as design in art schools (graphic design, product design, interaction design, etc).

The Lure of Other’s Disciplines

"The bridge" by quasarsglow on flickr
The bridge by quasarsglow on flickr

Bridges create possibilities. The rickety old bridge across a forest river pictured represents a temptation, a temptation to cross to an unknown world. But it also suggests danger in the crossing.

My own discipline, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), started life as an amalgam of two disciplines, computer science and psychology, and ever since has periodically renewed itself by alighting on new fields. Philosophy has been repeatedly visited for inspiration and for guidance, from before Winnograd & Flores’s 1986 book “Understanding Computers and Cognition” (which, amongst many other things, applies Heidegger, Gadamer, and Dreyfus’ ideas to the design of computer based office management systems) through to recent work including, for example, my colleague Alex Taylor’s project on everyday understandings of (machine) intelligence.

Design and philosophy are far older disciplines than HCI; what might be the appeal in each for each? For designers, philosophical theories and ideas may serve as inspirations, either in general methodological terms, or specifically project brief by project brief. And philosophy also serves to provide designers with the tools they need to discuss their foundational work. Both of these are problematic, as I’ll argue, which will bring us to what design may offer philosophers.

Building Bridges

"First Tanks Across Bridge" from historian505th on flickr
First Tanks Across Bridge from historian505th on flickr

When people from different disciplines collaborate, each has a different specialist language. In their paper “Languages of InnovationAlan Blackwell and David Good talk about this coming together of differing languages and show how successful long term collaborations move through misunderstanding, through pidgin use of each other’s language, to a full Creole – a new language forged by the two disciplines involved.

Design is not a textual discipline. The language of design is the designed objects and their precedents, their form and their embodiment in the world, and though we use the term “the language of design” I am not sure it is a language.

Philosophy is textual, fundamentally so. When design turns to philosophy for inspiration, the depth and texture of the philosophical arguments plundered appear lacking from the design renderings. There’s little fidelity in the transfer. When philosophy is used to explain the underpinnings of design other problems ensue.

What Counts as Knowledge? What Counts as Inspiration?

"Gateshead Millenium Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne" by Xavier de Jauréguiberry on flickr
Gateshead Millenium Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne by Xavier de Jauréguiberry on flickr

Last year a scarecrow was awarded a Nobel Prize. Why? Because he was out standing in his field.

Joking aside, each discipline has its own ways of establishing excellence, of deciding which work is considered seminal, which work is worthy of study, etc. For design these things are measured from a craft or a commercial perspective, or other perspectives that include the context of use, the engagement with the consumer of the design. But academic research in design has to stop and think deep thought to justify the term “research”, and thus turns to philosophy. And it is here where I fret that the obtuse nature of some continental schools veils a simpler and more direct practise based research.

Negative Capability

"Golden Gate Bridge x9" by Area Bridges on flickr
Golden Gate Bridge x9 by Area Bridges on flickr

This is the second workshop on philosophy I’ve attended recently. The first was at the OII about Internet Ethics. In it, one philosopher, troubled by my stance on knowledge, said “we don’t want to talk shit”. I feel I almost do.

Designers, especially in the early phases of a design, seem perfectly happy to maintain contradictory standpoints, to adopt profligate beliefs in order to produce a wealth of overlapping and contradictory design ideas, to fill out the design space with as many creative possibilities as they can. Keats’ “negative capability” stands against “irritable reaching after fact & reason”. It is overly simplistic to characterise design and philosophy as either side of Keats’ analysis, but can a philosopher’s notion of rigour work alongside a designer’s view of possibility?

Perhaps we could approach this from the other perspective. If philosophy adopted the experimental approach based in objects in the world, what would the implications be? Am I wrong in perceiving philosophy as descriptive?


"The 'old' bridge" by The_lucas on flickr
The "old" bridge by The_lucas on flickr

I work in a fundamentally multi-disciplinary team, but unlike many multi-disciplinary teams embedded in technology companies ours is run by social scientists. As one of the few technologists in the group my role is shifted from being the intellectual focus to being a service skill: the intellectual critical mass of our work is not technological. This exposure to new ways of thinking is exciting, and so I understand the lure of new disciplinary perspectives. What troubles me, and what I hope I’ve laid out in this position paper, is that what I enjoy about design, and what I enjoy about philosophy, may be mutually exclusive.


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