Volume: 131(8) - August, 2009
As Dr. Judy Vance, former Program Director at NSF for Engineering Design & Innovation, wrote in her August 2008 Guest Editorial, “[engineering design] research is inherently interdisciplinary.” Building on her observation, we would like to explore the type of interdisciplinary research that we believe will lead to a richer understanding of what it is to design. Our perspective is that of a team of engineers, architects, industrial and software designers, psychologists, and business researchers at Penn State who initiated a national dialogue on interdisciplinary design last May at NSF, which in turn spawned the ongoing NSF Graduate Design Education Workshop Series (see www.design.psu.edu for more details).
One of our first activities has been to start mapping the similarities and differences between prominent design disciplines. Our goal in mapping this “terrain” is to understand the landscape of collaborative efforts between specific disciplines. We also want to avoid pitfalls that have thwarted true cross-disciplinary knowledge exchange in the past, and that has been each discipline’s tendency to talk only to those in very similar “bordering” disciplines (or the bordering part of another discipline). For example, researchers studying architectural design from an engineering perspective may collaborate with architects who believe aesthetic qualities can be quantified, while ignoring the fact that the vast majority of architects and researchers who study design from the architect’s perspective do not believe this is possible. A similar dialogue is ongoing between researchers in software design and organizational science as well.
Our intent is not to show which side is right in any such debate, but to identify differences as opportunities that can be explored to broaden and deepen the exchange of ideas beyond neighboring disciplines and encompass the inherently interdisciplinary nature of design and design research (cf. Vance as above). To simply import one set of research methods into another discipline, without acknowledging the other discipline’s own methods, history, and intellectual foundations, is in many ways academic “colonization,” not interdisciplinary research. Rather, we should strive to engage these other disciplines to find mutually beneficial synergies from which everyone involved prospers.
Another important area to explore is the cultural divide between the practical and the beautiful. Our society tends to segregate the types of designers who prioritize functional concerns from those whose primary motivation is aesthetics. Yet this dichotomy is largely artificial as many design fields—product design, architecture, automotive design, graphic design—weigh these concerns more or less equally. Furthermore, there are contributions engineers can offer to those who approach design, and design education, less systematically, while engineers have something to gain from fields that have shown the ability to deal with high degrees of uncertainty and ambiguity at the beginning phases of design. Another conflict is the separation between practitioners and researchers. While the former respond to a specific problem, the latter are interested in deriving design principles that apply to a class of problems.
One reason that we believe the time is ripe for these efforts is that digital technologies are bringing designers from a wide range of disciplines together and providing a common platform for engagement. There are both opportunities and dangers in this: a shared platform could spawn a common language, which should, in turn, contribute to mutual understanding; however, a single universal language runs the risk of obscuring what is unique about each disciplinary approach. Therefore, it is important to develop—as a supplement to our mapping exercise—not only a dictionary of design terms, perspectives, methods, and descriptions, but also a thesaurus to help us identify synonyms in different fields—that is, common ideas hiding behind dissimilar words used by different disciplines. We should also identify homonyms wherein the same word means something vastly different, depending on who is using it. As an example, consider the word “programming.” In Architecture, it describes the act of gathering information from a client to understand her needs and ends with an inventory of intentions and rough sketches. In Software Design, it describes the act of writing code that converts rough ideas into a set of executable instructions for a computing machine. These descriptions evoke very different images, both of which are different from the image of using “mathematical programming” to optimize designs in engineering and business. The differences are stark not only in the stage of design but also in the knowledge and skills each “programming” activity requires.
Finally, many of today’s societal problems are far too big and complex for one group or discipline to address. This creates incentives for design disciplines to form strategic alliances and achieve synergies based on shared mutual interests. If we continue to cooperate only locally (and shallowly) with our neighboring disciplines, then we are missing opportunities to create broadly successful designs—that is, designs that succeed from a number of diverse perspectives. Like the American tourist who visits a foreign country and immediately searches out a familiar fast food franchise for a meal, a researcher who crosses disciplinary borders without sampling the native cuisine—or trying to learn the language—has missed the opportunity to enhance his or her understanding of our world. As we engage in this national dialog about interdisciplinary design, we look forward to creating alliances with researchers from different disciplines who are willing to sample the cuisine from “far-away” colleagues and develop design research and education practices that can lead to more broadly successful designs.