by Victor Margolin



Since Herbert Simon first proposed a “science of design” in his Compton Lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thirty years ago, this goal has remained elusive. There have been continuous efforts, particularly among design educators, to rigorously ground design in a body of domain

knowledge that they believe will insure its social acceptance as a serious endeavor. However, there has been no agreement as to what this knowledge consists of.

Among those who have actively pursued the task of creating a discipline of design is the British journal Design Studies, edited by Nigel Cross. In an editorial of 1996, Cross, responding to a report from the United States that several colleagues had not been granted tenure at their respective universities because those who judged their applications may have believed design research to be lacking in rigor or relevance, noted that

We had assumed that there had been a growing acceptance of the academic legitimacy of design, and a growing acknowledgment  of design as a discipline. It is very disappointing if design is still  not accepted as a legitimate discipline of scholarship and research in some of the leading academic institutions.

Cross then went on to speak against innundating design with alien cultures from either science or art although he recognized the value of borrowing from these cultures where appropriate. His basic concern was with legitimacy. “We have to be able to demonstrate that standards of rigor and relevance in our intellectual culture at least match those of the others,” he wrote.

In seeking legitimacy based on standards that exist within other research cultures, although he did not mention any of these specifically, Cross echoed a concern of Simon’s that design be conceptualized in such a way as to be worthy of university study. In fact, Cross quoted extensively from Simon’s essay, “The Science of Design” in his editorial.

Despite frequent citations of Simon’s work as a precedent for a design science or discipline, what is frequently missed in Simon’s essay, which constitutes a chapter of his book The Science s of the Artificial, is that Simon seeks to legitimate design as a science by reducing the role of intuitive judgment in the design process as much as possible.  “In the past,” he writes,” much if not most of what we knew about design and about the artificial sciences was intellectually soft, intuitive, informal, and cookbooky.”. Instead, he defines a science of design as “a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical, teachable doctrine about the design process.” Thus, design thinking has to be transferable and verifiable in order to be legitimate.

Let us remember that Simon presented his lectures at one of America’s leading technical universities and he defined his standards and criteria for a new science of design in terms that would be acceptable to a community of engineers. He therefore devoted considerable attention in his chapter on the science of design to forms of logic that would lead to efficient methods of problem solving. Simon’s bias towards a logical rigor that he believes is fundamental to a respectable design science is often overlooked by those who cite his work as a precedent for a new design discipline. Few design educators have sought, as Simon did, to articulate the elements of the design process in such a way that it or parts of it might be replicated by a computer, a goal that Simon advanced in “The Science of Design.” Were he giving a similar lecture today he would likely be celebrating advances in artificial intelligence and expert systems. He denigrates what he calls “cookbook methods” which he believes drove design from the engineering curriculum and he negates judgment or experience as the bases for design because these cannot be articulated in a language that makes sense to engineers.

Instead he espouses design processes that have been embodied in “running computer programs: optimizing algorithms, search procedures, and special-purpose programs for designing motors, balancing assembly lines, selecting investment portfolios, locating warehouses, designing highways, diagnosing and treating diseases, and so forth.”

Simon’s theory of design is an operational one. He is interested in strategies of decision-making that are based on mathematically-derived procedures. His focus is on method rather than outcome. While he eschews judgment or experience as the basis for design decision-making, he uses precisely these qualities to characterize the aims of design which are just as unsystematically defined in his theory as he might claim methodology to be in someone else’s. He defines his examples, whether “ cities, or buildings, or economies,” as complex systems, thus enabling him to privilege the particular methods of problem-solving he has been espousing as the appropriate ones for designing them. Simon’s design projects are simply given and not presented as entities that might be contested from other perspectives.



I present Simon’s work as one starting point that has led to the current state of design research. In the years since the Compton lectures were first published, and several further editions of Simon’s book have appeared, a number of researchers have heeded Simon’s call to establish a body of rigorous domain knowledge that would constitute a discipline of design. There has been little discussion about a science of design nor have those most concerned with issues of disciplinarity felt constrained by Simon’s rejection of judgment and experience. But Simon’s essay with its deceptively catholic definition of design activity ( “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”) became the impetus for a direction in research activity that has focused more on the design process than on  developing a critical theory of practice.

If the term ‘design science’ had achieved wider currency it would have excluded much of the design research and design activity that occur today. Attempting to validate the methods of design practice according to the discourse of science would simply create a hierarchy of activities based on logical rigor that would become, in my view, an unwelcome reference point for the legitimation of design as an academic subject.

I prefer a much more open conception of design activity as well as an approach to design research that is not preoccupied with justifying a separate sphere of domain knowledge as the primary subject of investigation. . I recognize the value of domain knowledge but when it is sought or defined in too strict a manner, one tends to exclude other valuable perspectives. Unlike Cross, I do not fear “swamping our research with different cultures imported either from science or art” but instead welcome the multiplicity of discourses that can contribute to a greater understanding of design, both in its practical as well as its theoretical sense.

For a number of years, the term ‘design studies,’ rather than ‘design science’ has been used to designate the diverse field of design research.  It may have originated in the eponymous title of the journal currently edited by Nigel Cross, that developed from the founding of the Design Research Society in Great Britain.  Design Studies has committed itself to developing design as a discipline and has shaped its editorial policy towards achieving that end.

But the term “design studies” has also been used to designate an enterprise that is constituted more pluralistically. This has been the approach that I and my fellow editors of Design Issues, Richard Buchanan and Dennis Doordan, have taken. We prefer to think of design studies as an open field where different ways of thinking about design can be brought into relation with each other.  For many years Design Issues did not publish articles that were grounded in empirical research but we have changed our position in order to embrace as fully as possible the current diversity of design thought.


Until now, questions of whether or not design should be considered a science, a discipline, or a more openly-conceived practice have made some impact on individual design programs around the world at the Bachelor’s or Master’s level but they have not become central to the entire design community. With the advent of doctoral programs in design, it becomes important to reflect more deeply on the nature of design so as to better evaluate new educational initiatives, particularly at the doctoral level. Whereas programs at the Bachelor’s or Master’s level are primarily practice-oriented, even though they frequently contain research components, the design doctorate is more likely to set the parameters for the social understanding of design because of its emphasis on research. In order for a research community to be respected by others, both researchers and lay people, there must be some sense that the profession to which it is attached understands how to value and use the types of knowledge the research community produces.  It is therefore extremely important to frame a debate on the nature of design activity that can eventually lead to a greater understanding among educators of what types of design research will be deemed valuable even if these research tendencies are at odds with each other. I am not speaking here of an academic field that must agree on a single method or goal of research but instead one that recognizes and values a plurality of research methods and goals that bear some shared relation to the larger profession to which they relate.

I want to argue here that history, theory, and criticism should play a central role within the diverse field of design research and should be part of the curriculum in every program of doctoral education in design.  Of the three subjects, theory has remained the most difficult to characterize and the most open to different interpretations of what it is. Theory for Simon is a theory of operations that includes utility theory, statistical decision theory, theories of hierarchic systems, and theories of logic. Design theory, as he defines it, complements the natural science curriculum “in the total training of a professional engineer – or of any professional whose task is to solve problems, to choose, to synthesize, to decide.”  The way that Simon has positioned theory in his curriculum for a science of design makes it impossible to bring this subject into relation with history or criticism without challenging the unspoken justification for his own definition of design. Although Simon is careful to distinguish design science from natural science, he has naturalized the methods of design and embedded them in a technical framework of designing. This framework privileges systems thinking as a means of generating design projects,  and efficiency as a way of judging the efficacy of design thought.

Simon’s definitions of design practice and theory fall within what the late philosopher Herbert Marcuse has called “technological rationality.” This, Marcuse says is “a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior   in which ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to the terms of this universe. They are redefined by the rationality of the given system and of its quantitative extension.” Clearly Simon’s rejection of judgment and experience as non-quantifiable and non-transferable sources of design thought fit Marcuse’s assertion.

Marcuse goes on to argue that closed systems of rationality define the universe in which everyone lives according to the terms of those in control. Although at this point I don’t wish to take on the full force of Marcuse’s political argument, I do want to note the relevance of his critique to the way we position history, theory, and criticism in a doctoral program. What frequently happens in design education is that courses in these subjects are subordinated to the logic of practical training. They provide some form of academic legitimation and modest consciousness-raising for design students but they are not expected to interrogate or challenge the rest of the curriculum. In short, they are incorporated within a system of pedagogical rationality.

The subordinate place of history, theory, and criticism in design education is concomitant with the difficulty most designers have in envisioning forms of practice other than those that are already given by the culture. And yet, as Richard Buchanan has argued

The assumption is that design has a fixed or determinate subject matter that is given to the designer in the same way that the subject matter of nature is given to the scientist. However, the subject matter of design is not given. It is created through the activities of invention and planning, or through whatever other methodology or procedures a designer finds helpful in characterizing his own work.

Though Buchanan does not foreground a political agenda as Marcuse does, his characterization of design as indeterminate does coincide with Marcuse’s concern for critical reflection on the way we create and perpetuate social practices.  Although some would argue that the task of the designer is given by the structure of the culture, notably the activity of business enterprises, others would say that we don’t yet know the limits of what might be designed. As Marcuse states

Every established society….tends to prejudge the rationality of possible projects to keep them within its framework. At the same time, every established society is confronted with the actuality or possibility of a qualitatively different historical practice which might destroy the existing institutional framework.

If we acknowledge design’s indeterminacy and accept Marcuse’s explanation of how established society can close out alternative possibilities, we need to then recognize that design theory is at its most fundamental a theory of how design functions in society rather than simply a theory of techniques. Marcuse’s critique of technological rationalism provides a basis for embedding design thought within the larger activity of social thought rather than isolating design from its social situation and theorizing independently about its processes of invention. By holding design in our vision as a social practice, we are always obliged to consider and evaluate the situations in which it occurs rather than naturalizing them as Simon does.

When we acknowledge our relation to the social as part of our relation to design, we can find in Marcuse’s thought a cogent argument for making history, theory, and criticism central to all design education, not only to doctoral training. Marcuse provides the justification for joining history, theory, and criticism in an integral project of design reflection, which can offer a critical understanding of practice and of pedagogy as well.

As an antidote to the one-dimensionality of technological rationalism, he proposes a dialectical logic that arises from a space outside the dominant system of thought and practice. What gives dialectical logic embodiment is history. Dialectical logic “attains its truth if it has freed itself from the deceptive objectivity which conceals the factors behind the facts – that is, if it understands its world as a historical universe, in which the established facts are the work of the historical practice of man.”

Historical events exist outside current circumstances yet mark the continuity of human experience. Struggles from the past can also become struggles for the present. Historical experience can offer alternatives to current situations and provide the substance for evaluating the present from a position outside its logic. Two-dimensional thought for Marcuse is critical thought which is resisted by the dominant culture.

The given reality has its own logic of contradictions – it favors the modes of thought which sustain the established forms of life and the modes of behavior which reproduce and improve them. The given reality has its own logic and its own truth; the effort to comprehend them as such and to transcend them presupposes a different logic, a contradicting truth.

Marcuse rightly notes that these different logics are non-operational and may appear weak according to the criteria of the dominant system. This fact is exemplified by the distinctions that some scientists make between hard and soft science which frequently get played out in the politics of academic promotion and grant getting. It refers us also to the concern Nigel Cross expressed in his Design Studies editorial regarding design research colleagues who may have been denied tenure because their work was not seen to be sufficiently rigorous. It points us as well to Simon’s preoccupation with logical rigor as dominant criteria for evaluating design thought.

This is not to say that dialectical thought is unrigorous. But history, and theory too, can easily be seen as “soft” forms of thought compared to the “hard” logic of science. Thought which conforms to the dominant values of a system will always appear more legitimate than that which arises outside those values. And yet, history can provide us with examples that offer persuasive grounds for a critique of the present.

The practice of William Morris, shows us how powerful dialectical logic can be. Morris countered the logic of industrialization, exemplified by the division and mechanization of labor, with the pre-industrial practice of craft production. He also sought to employ this practice in the work of his various enterprises. Although he did not succeed in changing the industrial system nor in institutionalizing an enduring alternative, his thought kept alive an oppositional critique of what many perceived to be the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization. Morris’s ideas have been kept alive until now through a distinguished lineage of design thinkers, educators, and practitioners ranging from Herman Muthesius and Walter Gropius to Ivan Illich and E.F. Schumacher. As a thinker Morris has had a tremendous influence on later designers, educators, and theorists because he so strongly articulated an opposition to the technical rationality of his day.  His arguments are still persuasive as we struggle to make sense out of the current turbulence of technological innovation.   When history, theory, and criticism are marginalized within the design curriculum, the social conditions of design practice recede in importance. What some educators want to call domain knowledge is only operational knowledge rather than knowledge that expands and refines the designer’s self-awareness, thus enabling him or her to make more informed judgments about values and goals. However, it is not enough to simply readmit judgment and experience to the realm of design imagination. These qualities must be treated as subjects in their own right which require analysis and cultivation.

History is our collective experience. The more we know of it, the more we can use it to question the prevailing values of society. To be without a knowledge of history is to give up a space outside the system where one can find alternatives and also empowerment for change. If indeed we are to recognize the contingency of design then we should reinforce that concept by acknowledging as well the contingency of social systems. It is paradoxical to speak about design’s indeterminacy and then frame it in a determined situation of practice. If designers are going to realize the full potential of design thinking, then this thinking must be extended to consider how the situations in which design occurs are themselves designed.


Design as an activity occurs within a social space and its very contingency is guided by the values and limits that inform a particular project. Design is sufficiently complex for its analysis to focus of necessity on specific aspects of practice but focused research is always informed by the framework of the whole.

Design theory needs to acknowledge the interplay between the techniques of operational activity and their cultural impact and reception. At present, however, the community of design theorists is fragmented. Some theorize within a social science or technical framework exclusively while others exclude process and only consider design’s impact in and on culture. Perhaps the best organized community of scholars within the wider field of design studies is a group engaged in what some are calling Design Thinking Research. This group, which has been meeting regularly since 1991, consists primarily of researchers from engineering, architecture, industrial design, computer science, and psychology.  They have generated a body of writing which has been published in journals and books. But they have not sought to bring their work into relation with other theorists who look at design from different perspectives. This lack of communication calls for more engagement with questions of design contingency and the social situations in which it gets played out. We do not need a tight holistic model of design practice, and in fact, we should not seek one. Design research would advance on the theory front if there were more attempts by theorists with different approaches and concerns to at least acknowledge each others activities and at best bring them in to relation with their own work. Until recently, there has been little impulse for this engagement but as we discuss issues of doctoral education, it becomes imperative, as I have already argued, to apprehend more clearly the contours of a research community, map the different activities within it, and reflect on the relationships between these activities.

History, theory, and criticism should be at the core of this community, not only to foster new activity but also to sustain a continuous interrogation of the research process. A mature field needs a sustained metadiscourse that feeds back assessments on how it is operating. Commentary is essential to a pluralistic research community. Its function is to critique, validate, and frame differences and debates. Commentary recognizes the contingency of the research enterprise itself. It is central to the enterprise and not subordinate to a hegemonic theory of practice that relegates its discursive methods to a marginal position.

Marcuse notes that “a specific historical practice is measured against its own historical alternatives.”  This requires a critical awareness that history, theory, and criticism can foster. To position these subjects at the center of doctoral education is to recognize their importance to the development of a self-consciousness and social aware design practice as well as to the creation of a research community with similar qualities.




Victor Margolin 1998