design practice and theory
towards the formulation of a product language and design as a semiotic process
|theoretical aspects that I propose to treat in in this page:|
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further research on design theory and related arguments :
|Many attempts have been made to formulate a comprehensive
design, but as far as I know most of them are rather of a more
character. Buerdek in his famous book (1)distinguishes
between design methodology and design theory, the first centered on
of structuration of design problems and processes of problem solving,
second regarding the more general topic of laying the foundation of a
frame of design philosophy. It is as if these attempts to formulate a
theory describe a large arc around the real theme visiting many
disciplines like technology, information theory, ergonomics, sociology
or perception psychology but staying at a certain respectful(?)
from the central question about the essence of design. Closest to this
center are those that assert the existence of a particular product
like Maser who called for such already in 1976 (2),
or in a more current definition by Reck: "Any design theory of the
can only be a media theory."(3)
It seems to me that in the view of many theorists a theory is satisfactory as far as it enables the description of reality in a precise, that is either measurable and repeatable, way, or else as it guaranties its pragmatic application. I do not doubt that both these criteria are valuable but they can lead to two kinds of impasses if applied to rigorously: the first is that reality can never be described exactly and in the process to achieve it you can easily get lost in the complexity of simulating models(4) and the second that you will never touch the core of the topic, as in fact it substitutes theory with methodology and in the worst case it get eventually mixed up with moral issues.
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 ‘langue’, 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. They try to concentrate on what they presume to be essential aspects, because they know that otherwise they would be overwhelmed by its real complexity, thus creating a work hypothesis in a process named 'abduction' by the same Peirce. Could this same process be used too for the creation of an hypothetical design theory ? Can we avoid the usual complexity of the definition and classification if signs and signification without invalidating the application of semiotics to this design theory?
|When we construct any theory the first thing to imagine is
who or what
are the agents that will interact within it. In our case we are
in products and their fundamental
relations with humans and with the environment. The nature of the
between these actors is that of the prothesis in so far as products
humans to survive in the environment by adapting and accommodating
We can express this relation with the formula
where H stands for Human Being, P for the Product and C for Context. In reality the different parts of the human body can be considered separately (H1, H2, etc.) and the product will be composed likewise of distinct Parts or Functional Area's (P1, P2, etc.) and in the same way the context can have different relevant aspects (C1, C2, etc.) so that the formula in a more extended form will express these entities and their relations: H-P, P-P and P-C. They are the building stones or syntactical categories of our hypothetical product language: H-P represent ergonomic relations, P-P stands for structural or technological relations and P-C represents the relations between the product and the environment. They represent in a symbolic form what goes generally under the name of Functions. See the example of the 'graph' of a drinking glass
The product we are talking about here is a general product or service; amongst them Industrial Design Products are a special category as we will see in the course or our exposition. One distinguishing characteristic of designed products, admitting the difficulty inherent to this classification, is that these relations are subject to very special attention of the designer centered on the expression of their functions in visual form and in other perceptual modes,. The freedom of choice of the what and how of this expression goes so far that a designer can even opt paradoxically for its negation or for substitution by extraneous contents extended outside their functional character.
My design theory is thus concerned mainly with two topics: the description of the ways of generating the great variety of forms and the exploration of the relations between these forms and their meaning or sense in products. In this sense my theory is not a methodology or an instrument of marketing: it stands on an islet of un committedness in the (main) stream of pragmatic commercialism. Eventually it can however induce young designers to develop their personal view of design as a semiotic process.
|If we ask ourselves how we actually create a design, after
on and in a certain sense concluded the necessary and usual commercial,
ergonomical, functional and technological research, it is easily
that even before we trace a form on paper or on the monitor we must
a so-called idea or concept. This is a crucial point in understanding
design process that has not been, as far as I know, object of extensive
research. What is the nature of this mental process, is it of a verbal
type or do we think in images? I could imagine the creation of a kind
preliminary model, a mental design model or MDM, with the application
some sort of topological logic to simple forms or to existing forms of
our experience. The mental topological mechanisms are limited to the
and combination of the only 3 possible and fundamental
operations: addition, subtraction and transformation. We can mentally add for example two elementary forms like a cube and a cylinder; or we can cut a hole in a cube with a cylinder; or else we can transform a cube gradually from its square bottom towards a circular top. Or we can imagine, as has been done these days, a new Porsche 911 longer and wider than its famous predecessor. Of course this mental process includes in a similar way color (how many colors can we imagine?) and texture, nor does it happen in a technical, functional and social void in as far we link at least part of our imagination to some reasonable application. This complicates matters but does not invalidate the hypothesis of a MDM with basically very simple operating principles.
Have a look at the MDM of a couch
|Other aspects of the different operations of the MDM are discussed on the page on the origin of signs.|
|More theory on next page|
IN NATURE AND THE DESIGN PROCESS
If you are interested in more specific theoretical arguments you might click the red apostrophe in the andries'page logo on the top of this page to reveal its 'secret'.
MARKETING AND DESIGN
|further research on design theory and related arguments:|
"Design: Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis der Produktgestaltung",
DuMont Buchverlag, Köln, 1991 (back)
(2) Siegfried Maser, (design is communication, design theory is to be based on semiotics) "Theory without praxis is empty, praxis without theory is blind", in FORM, Zeitschrift für Gestaltung, N.73, 1976 (back)
(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 (back)
(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." (back)
(15) Wim Muller, "Order and Meaning in Design" , Lemma Publishers, Utrecht, (2001)