Volume: 135(8) - August, 2013
In the mid 1980s, I was one of an eclectic group of academics who began looking at design as a formal area of research. Some approached it as an effort to understand and codify the process of design, others focused on the theory of design, while yet others were interested in grammars, graphics and philosophy. At the time, “design” was on the back burner at most universities with mechanical engineering classes focused on the analysis of machine components such as nuts, bolts, gears, bearings, and engines. There was very little research on “design” itself. Rather, those interested in the topic focused their research on components, materials or formal methods like optimization or kinematics.
These academics, however, were interested in bringing new tools from the artificial intelligence community, new methods from psychology, process focus from industry, and other leading edge concepts to design understanding and practice. They found common interest at various conferences like those sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) (founded in 1979), Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) (begun in 1986 by ACM (Association for Computer Machinery)), and the ASME Computers and Information in Engineering (CIE) (founded in1980). While providing a common meeting place, and a view of other disciplines that could be applied to design, none of these conferences focused on design itself. At these conferences, design was just one of many areas of application.
In 1984 Dr. Nam Suh was the Assistant Director for Engineering at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). He saw the need for research in design as a specific discipline. His interest was based on at least three factors. First, in 1984 Ken Wallace published his English translation of “Engineering Design” (by G. Pahl and W. Beitz). This book opened US eyes to a growing body of design research in Europe. Secondly, US industries had begun to see product design as a process, and less as magic. Finally, Dr. Suh himself was strongly interested in design as an MIT faculty member.
Through Suh’s leadership the first NSF request for proposals was published in 1985. The objectives of program were to:
“1. Support fundamental engineering research focusing
on the design process, contributing to our fundamental
knowledge, theories, and concepts of design, and leading
to improved quantitative and systematic methods for
2. Encourage the development of a recognized discipline of
design theory, with its own knowledge base, conceptual
frameworks, bodies of theory and practice, and an active
community of researchers.”
Most of the proposals responding to this call came from the Mechanical Engineering community. This request for proposal, more than any other single action, fueled interest in study of the design process in the US.
In 1987 there were two US conferences focused on design. First, in February the NSF sponsored a meeting titled, The Study of the Design Process: A Workshop. This Oakland, CA meeting was organized by Manjula Waldron, then of The Ohio State University. The core of this conference was sixteen papers covering work funded by the NSF.
Later in 1987, the Europeans, seeing a growing US design interest, sponsored their semi-annual conference, ICED (International Conference on Engineering Design) in Boston. This was the fourth ICED. The first was in Italy in1981 and the other two also in Europe. This outreach by the international community further fueled interest in engineering design methods.
Parallel to these conferences, journals were also evolving at this time. The first issues of Research in Engineering Design, Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design Analysis and Manufacturing (AIEDAM), and AI in Engineering were all from this period.
Journal of Mechanical Design also welcomed its first associate editor in the area of design theory and methodology (DTM) in July 1989 (see JMD Editorial: September 1989).
In searching for a common theme and an outlet for their work, some members of the growing design research community also attended the CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) conferences (1986 in Austin and 1988 in Portland). At these conferences the focus was very much on behavioral research, but only weakly applied to design.
Because of these events (or in spite of them), a core group of researchers coalesced and identified a clear need for a recurring conference that focused on design and wove together the inter-disciplinary perspectives of artificial intelligence; psychology; sociology and pedagogy while including the growing research literature in Europe; NSF funding for design theory and methodology; and an increasing industrial awareness of the importance of design in product cost and quality. With the corpus of the interest coming from mechanical engineering academics, it seemed natural to explore a conference within the umbrella of ASME International Design Engineering Technical Conferences (IDETC).
With extensive help from John Wesner (then of AT&T Bell Labs), a self-appointed group approached the IDETC officers with a proposal that led to the first DTM conference in 1989. It proved rather easy to put on this first conference, as there was strong unanimity on the goals and focus, essentially those articulated by Nam Suh and the NSF.
At the first conference about half of the thirty plus papers submitted were accepted. This acceptance rate of about 50% has been consistent throughout the twenty-five years in an effort to keep high quality. The first conference was so successful, and the demand for more papers so high, that in 1990 there were forty-five papers accepted. This size felt about right and all conferences since have had about the same number of papers. Of the one hundred papers submitted for the 2013 Conference, exactly forty-five have been accepted.
The DTM Conference has been flexible with the session titles changing with time. The inter-disciplinary nature of the conference is evidenced by the mix of papers on methods, education, theory, process, decision making, human behavior, product development, computation, representation and collaboration. While this list seems unfocused, all are efforts to understand and develop methods to support the design process and the people who do design. Further, research in all these areas is consistent with original DTM goals and themes. One distinguishing feature of DTM is the papers on designers and design teams. This behavioral research represents the single largest block of session titles since 1989 and is a topic area not covered by any of the other IDETC conferences.
It is heartening that DTM has maintained the goals of the founders and continues to be successful and relevant. Where is DTM going in the future? It is hard to say. I am currently working on the 5th edition of my text The Mechanical Design Process. In this new edition I am trying to give students a sense of how the recent developments of big data and additive manufacturing will change design. I will be watching for research in these areas at this year’s DTM Conference in Portland, Oregon. Hope to see you there.
David G. Ullman
Oregon State University