Theory in Art, Science, and Design

During our first class of 2014 last night, I introduced the students to our first interaction design theory class with a discussion around the disciplines of science, art, and design. It’s tempting to focus on design as a blend of science and art, positioning it as part analytical and part creative. But, like science and art, design has its own set of characteristics that allows it to act as a unique discipline.

Art is often driven by the desire to create, raise awareness, or cause people to question things around them. Artists frequently emphasizes the subjective and emotive qualities of aesthetics, and as a result, the output is highly personal and embedded with meaning and message.

Science is driven by the desire to understand, to identify, to know, or to solve theoretical problems. Scientists embrace objectivity and truth, and pursue an agenda of understanding through inductive and deductive logic. This requires a rigorous sense of control and the ability to suspend subjective emotional judgment.

Designers are often driven by the desire to help people, to make life better, or to solve practical problems. This requires the ability to frequently consider and seamlessly switch between the logical and the emotive, and to trust informed intuition related to empathy and understanding. It’s about problem solving, but because designers make things, design is also about aesthetic judgment and sensibility.

The three disciplines can be neatly described as distinct, but of course, the reality is much fuzzier. There is no line where one “stops being scientific” and starts “being designerly”, and it’s probably a losing exercise to try to develop a rigid disciplinary framework. Instead, it’s important to me that students realize design has the ability to stand on its own, and need not be defined relative to something else.

Like art and science, design is rooted in history, and is deeply influenced by “what came before.” It is intertwined with culture, and has a set of methods and techniques that take years to master – just like art and science. Design method and outcome are subject to criticism, just like in other disciplines. And most importantly, just like one can teach and learn science or art theory, so too can one teach and learn design theory. Part of this education is focused on making and responding to things – treating design as a noun. And part of it is focused on process and method, treating design as a verb. Learning theory informs both views of design, and helps qualify the role, responsibility, and character of the designer. By establishing a platform of design theory upon which to build a design practice, students of design can become reflective practitioners, rather than just producers.