There was recently a big blowup over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, over a post made by Naomi Riley. There were some interesting thoughts posted in response to the whole incident, and one of the most interesting was from Mark Bauerlein:

"If a discipline has a 'social mission,' of course, then it includes in its disciplinary norms certain social aims—in other words, extra-academic criteria... any academic discipline that assumes a social mission for itself is always going to have a legitimacy issue."

The irony of Bauerlein making such a statement after taking such a provocative stance in titling his book—"The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30)—aside, I question the larger point of the claim.

Design is a discipline. It doesn't assume any one social mission for itself, but it could be—and has been—argued that it is the discipline of social mission. That is, it is a discipline of shaping culture and society, through the production of the artificial. I understand the point of disciplinary neutrality when viewed from the perspective of science, which attempts to understand natural phenomenon. But we run into a semantic tangle and a mechanistic problem if we accept the approach that design only attempts to understand artificial phenomenon (the design science perspective, echoing Herb Simon's view of the Sciences of the Artificial), because research through design, as described by John Zimmerman and Jodi Forlizzi, cannot be neutral:

In the practice of research through design within HCI, interaction designers explore new problem spaces, codifying understanding through the construction of artifacts... [this] allows the HCI research community to address wicked problems in the field, creating an "ongoing dialogue on what a preferred state should be." This dialogue is desperately needed as the community begins to address messy issues, such as the use of technology to help elders remain in their homes or the use of mobile devices to monitor people's behavior throughout the day. (pdf link)

The semantic tangle is that an academic design researcher—a professor of design, doing research about the process of design in the context of their job—does not simply study what's done before, as would a historian. Instead, they use Zimmerman and Forlizzi's approach of constructing design artifacts, and they study the process of the creation of these artifacts. They are, as Zimmerman and Forlizzi describe, doing research through design. This type of research "has helped to produce theory that can be readily applied to many types of design, including products, services, systems, processes, media, and information." When they extract findings from their research, in order to contribute knowledge to the discipline of design, they can (and most do) attempt to be objective.

But the mechanistic problem is that design activities always have consequences. Each time a designer makes a product and introduces it into the world, the world is changed.Richard Buchanan argues that "... our hypothesis should be that all products—digital and analog, tangible and intangible—are vivid arguments about how we should lead our lives." (pdf link) And that argument occurs in design practice, and it occurs in design research, and it occurs in research through design. The research conducted to understand how design works is design, is not neutral, and has a social mission.

Bauerlein's point was that a discipline that drives a social agenda has a legitimacy problem. Design has no legitimacy problem, as the results of design are,legitimately, all around us. We do, however, have a language problem. The words we use to describe what we do are not exacting. Simultaneously, these words are important, because from the words come debates (like the one at the Chronicle: what is the role of a blogger in the context of an academic news organization? Do they have to follow the standards of a "journalist", does the subject matter of "academia" play a role, or can they have an "opinion"?), and precedent, and policy. The words of design are meaningless to most of our culture, who - if they bother to think of design, think of it only as the selection of colors for their drapes - but even that's changing as our culture begins to embrace and debate the power of the artifacts of design and the role of designers in humanizing technology. Each conversation around the role of iPads in schools, or smartphones in cars, or the impact of pervasive technology on our children continually reinforces that we need a better understanding of the discipline of design. We get there through design research (research through design), and that requires the production of academic knowledge through designed artifacts.

Originally posted on Wed, 09 May 2012 12:20:43