Many attempts have been made to formulate
a comprehensive theory of design, but as far as I know most of them are
rather of a more methodological character. Buerdek in his famous book
(1)distinguishes between design methodology and design theory, the first
centered on methods of structuration of design problems and processes
of problem solving, the second regarding the more general topic of laying
the foundation of a scientific frame of design philosophy. It is as if
these attempts to formulate a coherent theory describe a large arc around
the real theme visiting many bordering disciplines like technology, information
theory, ergonomics, sociology or perception psychology but staying at
a certain respectful(?) distance from the central question about the essence
of design. Closest to this center are those that assert the existence
of a particular product language like Maser who called for such already
in 1976 (2), or in a more current definition by Reck: "Any design
theory of the Nineties can only be a media theory."(3)
In a recent editorial in 'form diskurs' Alex Buck optimistically states that "Design theory is, ..., the fuse leading to the barrel of dynamite, namely intelligent product development". I don't know if it is that explosive but I think that a good design theory should actually lead to a better understanding of the design process and of design itself, while mentioning the paradoxes in which a designer gets unavoidable involved. (5)
In order to achieve this we will first have to clear the field from two formidable obstacles, rocks of scylla and charybdis between which design navigates: 'technology' and 'art'. Many design theories shipwreck effectively on one of these because as design is neither a mere act of technical construction nor a mere aesthetically expression and it cannot even to be understood as a kind of compromise between those; any theory of design should be formulated as a distinct discipline, or at least as a credible theoretical framework for that purpose, with proper definitions and propositions apt to describe and explain the phenomena of design.
I propose such a non hypothetical theory in the form of a general language of design that counts both for the modality of observation and the exigency of rationality: being adapted to empirical data it should correspond to a certain equilibrium between reason and experience.(6)
One problem with design theory is that design, and in particular industrial design, is not unequivocally definable: to some it is everything man-made, to others it is the result of the application of aesthetically and/or social criteria to industrially produced items. Bernhard Buerdek in a recent paper(7)reminds us that "since the 1970s there has been a wide ranging consensus that what is specific to design can be designated using the concept of 'product language' " and it is in this context that I will develop my statements.
Even in its most widely formulated form design concerns a product language that covers a territory that stretches between man and his environment: it expresses in fact by the means of products, or services, its fundamental relationships. As the same thing can be said of any human language, especially of verbal languages, the seduction of the use of the term 'product language' lies in the, hypothetical, possibility of the application of some of its many and various theories, such as semantics and semiotics, in design theory. Even though this possibility has been recognized by some language theorists, as a matter of fact we cannot dispose yet, as far as I know, of any really coherent and usable specific frame of concepts and rules. Instead much has been done in the way of exemplification and practical classification of signs in products both on a formal aesthetic-, a semantic- and a symbolic functional level (8) till (12): this however did not lead to the definition of a conceptual system.
One reason for this can perhaps be found in the rather confusing array of theories in the field of semiotics which makes it difficult for scholars to define their proper attitude, and blocks practically its application by designers themselves. Two main doctrines are structuralism in the wake of Ferdinand De Saussure (1857-1913) and Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) and pragmatism following the ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).
De Saussure distiguishes in signs the signifying component, its form, from the signified component, its meaning, and affirms that between those two exists an arbitrarily relation established by social consent. In a linguistic system, a spoken or written ëlangueí, he indicates furthermore the diachronic social and linear aspect of a language from the synchronic individual variable aspect of its words.
Jakobson extends this theory incorporating the concept of 'functionality', accentuating the communicative aspects of signs in language, such as the existence of an emitter, a trasmission channel and a receiver and the influence of these in the semiotic process.
Peirce instead formulates, as referred in the 'Collected Papers' (1931), his semiology from a more general definition of semiosis which introduces the interaction of three abstract subjects: the sign, its object and its interpreter. His theory is moreover not limited to intentionally transmitted and artificial signs, as in structuralist semiotics, but covers all phenomena that eventually can be perceived by our senses and interpreted by our mind. Peirce attempts to classify signs produced by semiosis and mentions effectively ten categories from the sixty-six and more that he deemed proposable. Actually Peirce extends his triadic semiology to gnosology, the more general theory of knowledge for which reason it is seemingly more popular than dualistic structuralism, at least to most teachers of semiotics in design schools and I must also admit to be attracted by the peircian concepts of vagueness and generality of signs and semiosis as Floyd Merrell (1995) points out in his (many) books (13) , as well as the famous italian semiologist Umberto Eco(14) It is my intention to return later to this point.
This diatribe passes anyway a good deal over the heads of the designers, having their hands, and heads, full with other more practical problems. On the other hand designers, as myself, are used to tackle complicate problems. and generally they do this by, rather unscientifically, simplifying and even abstracting the context of the problem concentrating on what they presume to be essential aspects: they know that otherwise they would be overwhelmed by its real complexity and prefer creating a work hypothesis, in a process named 'abduction' by the same Peirce. Could this same process be used to for the creation of an hypothetical design theory simplifying the application of semiotics? Can we avoid the usual complexity of the definition and classification if signs and signification without invalidating the application of semiotics to design theory?
Admitting the unavoidable mediation of our perceptions, ideas and constructions through semiotic processes I will proceed nonetheless, for the sake of simplicity, in a de-generative way as Peirce would say; that is stating truisms without bothering for the moment about this underlying semiosis.
(3)Hans Ulrich Reck, "From "Invisible Design" to Invisible Design. Challenges the Media Pose for a Contemporary Design Theory." in "formdiskurs, Journal of Design and Design Theory", 1, I/1996, p.47
(4) cfr. René Thom, "Stabilité structurelle et morfogénèse", InterEditions, Paris, 1977 (1972), p.8: "La construction d'un modèle quantitatif global...reste évidemment l'idéal qu'on doit s'efforcer d'atteindre; mais la chose peut être difficile, voire impossible;...même si l'obtention d'une dynamique d'évolution globale n'est pas possible, on n'en aura pas moin une intelligence locale bien améliorée du processus."
(5) Alex Buck, "Do we really need design theory? Well, we've certainly long missed it!", in formdiskurs ' N.1, 1-1996, p.5
(6) cfr.Pierre Delattre, "Teoria/modello" in Enciclopedia Einaudi XIV, p.157, Turin, 1981
(7)Bernhard E.Buerdek, "On Language, Objects and Design" , in FORMDISKURS Journal of Design and Design Theory 3,II/1997 , Frankfurt am Main, Germany 1997
(8) Jochem Gros, "Erweiterter Funktionalismus und Empirische Aesthetik" , Braunschweig, Germany 1973.
(9) Francesc Marcè, "Object, design and communications research" , in Temes de Disseny 3 , Elisava, Barcelona, 1989
(10) Klaus Kripppendorff,
(13)Floyd Merrell, "Semiosis
in the Postmodern Age" , West Lafayette Purdue UP, 1995
*This article is sourced on Andries van
onck´s website, http://www.geocities.com/msslkc/theory.html#design