The Demand for Fuzzy Science and Explicit Design: Rationalism is Not Universal


Whenever I explain Design to non-designers, I essentially describe the scientific method - observe, hypothesize, test, repeat. Many designers work this way, although they might think creativity is something more magical, and are less inclined to describe their work as sequenced trial and error via prototyping.  Also, let's face it, clients will pay for magic but not for experimentation. The differences between science and design are more cultural than procedural. Science is better tuned to the needs of validation and design facilitates more generative insight, but the largest difference is that the scientific method is often stuck in the culture of science - we tend to think of the scientific method within fields like biology or physics, and thus resort to reasoning and intuition for day-to-day matters. Thus we think we use the scientific method all the time, but actually, we rely mostly on the power to reason.  

At the Thresholds of Reason
Unfortunately, human reasoning is not universal. Rather, it is situated in disciplines, as each discipline enforces a particular kind of language and patterns of cognition. The lawyer does not interpret the world the same way as the doctor or the engineer. Yet if forced to work together on a worldly problem, they will each insist on using reason (common sense) to engage problems of magnitude. Yet as each person in the room is attuned to a different way to frame and engage a given problem, it seems that direct experimentation would be more valuable. So why the fear to experiment for results? 

There is a widespread predisposition to assign the scientific method to the profession of science, wherein science is only for science-y things, and likewise,  we assign design methods to the design professions like architecture. Why is the method of science only reserved for biology but not for daily action? By extension, we are prone to work through other disciplinary problems in discipline-centric methods- and those methods are all the same, but get diluted by disciplinary language and habit - so why don't we step outside of our discipline with our methods? Most MBAs for example, never do scientific experimentation, although it is the premise of all worldly knowledge. They might embrace a design workshop (as business has to embrace superficial elements of design), which is a good way to synthesize ideas and create opportunities, but it also is a high-risk endeavor because it lacks any direct role for validation - it is a synthesis of assumptions. In contrast to generating learning opportunities, we rely upon the idea of the "expert" who has knowledge based on previous experience and we expect that knowledge to cross over. 

In contrast, we resort to rationalism and rationalism relies heavily upon our subjective interpretation of previous experiences - and our memories are not the best way to record the world because memory is highly subjective. Design is an approach to understanding the world through observation and experimentation, yet it also considers and takes advantage of personal subjectivity, cultural patterns, and the emergent outcomes of group interaction.  It does not merely accept the implicit assumptions and detriments of subjective memory. Design attempts to leverage those things actively avoided within Science. We could all probably use more science in our lives.

Dangers of Expertise
Dropping expertise within approaching a problem is important because expertise is really the opposite of science and design.  Expertise makes the assumption that experimentation is no longer necessary because the expert has all the necessary information already or can quickly filter available information.  Experts supposedly already did all the hard work to understand a particular worldly pattern. Expertise can be reasonable - in any given problem, we all find a point in which additional experimentation is redundant, and an outlier result will have little statistical significance. Yet what happens when we combine this statistical argument with the psychology of a group? In this context, the value of expertise is diminished because of a necessity to all reach a common understanding. Without a process of experimentation, people will talk about things they understand as individuals with poor translation to others. They will impose known patterns upon new problems. They will fail to experiment.

Patterns of Cognition: Habits
Later, studying robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, this way of thinking was entirely beneficial to advance the state of human robot interaction.  How do you build stronger human relationships with technology? It takes more than mere manipulation of pixels or a human factors design assessment. Yet when I was a graduate student in economics and law, this way of thinking was not helpful.  In fact, economics never touches the same time of reasoning. Economists are looking regularly at the circulation and balance of inputs and outputs - a far more linear and sequential type of thinking. Law likewise was a headache to study, as legal reasoning relies more upon the accounting of evidence to identify conflicts of logic. The reasoning of pattern relations - whatever they teach in art school - has far less to do with sequencing or logic. These different paths to engage and interpret the world establish radically different understandings of a given problem.

The notion of "patterns of reason for knowledge construction" is perhaps a critical element in how we all approach problems. When I was an art student at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, I developed a way to see and understand the world that was not explicitly rational or empirical. It was more akin to pattern recognition at large, the ability to identify and symmetries/asymmetries amid abstract collections of information.  Studying historical and contemporary art, I became attuned to the relationship between cognition and body mechanics and to the relationship between physical materials and economic production. I learned to look at the associative relationship between materials and ideas.  For example, I recall seeing a photo with a dogwood tree, and by association bring up a legend about how the dogwood tree is cursed by God to grow crooked. This story implies personal meaning, and thus as an artist, I am inclined to use the tree to indirectly communicate something about religion. Compared to basic arithmetic, this way of thinking makes no sense, and yet, moving through the world by association is an important part of the human experience. 


Scientists attempt to identify and negate their values, yet there is sufficient evidence that all science is situated in the subjectivity of the scientist.  Many scientists accept this.  Good designers also take stronger responsibility for their own values and situated knowledge. Yet both can also discover other paths of inquiry and reason.  In the end, the only ones who fail to adapt to new problems are those who rely explicitly on their own situated reason.  The world is too complex for experts.