Design History can better contribute to development of theories in design research. Historical analysis of practices of design potentially offers much more than the history of designed objects. Such a history of real mainstream design practice offers a better understanding of the origins of academic design research. It indicates the primary origins of design research and design thinking was to address the very real practical and organisational problems of design teams with hundreds of designers and limited ability to create drawings.
The reality of design activity prior to design research in academia
Although the UK 1963 design research conference is often regarded by designers and design researchers as the start of the design research movement in Art and Design and Engineering, the historical reality is rather different. The impetus for the UK design research conference of 1963 followed attempts by engineering designers in industry to convince academia that there was theoretical merit in studying and improving design process publicly. This can be seen in the trajectory of discussion before and after 1963, and in the reports in design research publications by academics after the conference. The same trajectory is found today, e.g. Don Norman's keynote at the DRS conference in Korea.
The 1963 UK design research conference and the interest in design research was primarily an interest in 'design processes'. Review of the literature shows that the dominant definition of 'design' from 1950 to 2000 is as a 'process'.
Design History tells much more.
Most, and I absolutely mean *most*, design at that time was done by very large design teams of typically of hundreds of designers, and these were usually engineering designers with a much smaller number of designers involved in visual or graphic design, styling, industrial design or other art-based design disciplines.
The most common design practice involved organisations with rooms containing between 100 and 200 designers plus a similar number of drawing tracers. This photo shows part of two rooms each with around 100 designers in a design office comprising several such rooms and designer groups:
This massive scale of process of design activity involving hundreds of designers is one of the significant issues that shaped design research and design thinking .
Another important issue in the processes of design was the scale and time taken to create the drawings of designs for manufacture. Each design for a product typically comprised thousands of slowly hand-drawn and inked drawings. Copying a drawing was an additional problem. To make a single copy of a single complicated design drawing sheet took a skilled tracer up to a week. At least two copies were needed of each drawing: one for the design office and the other for manufacturing.
Design changes, including the tiniest edits, had to be manually meticulously copied and signed off and dated, on every copy of a design drawing in existence.
Designers were required to add their name and sign every drawing sheet before they started designing. The purpose was so that if there were any failures or errors, the responsibility could be tracked back to the specific designer. This is different to the attitude in some design fields andis very much the opposite to signing a design as if it were an art piece!
The numbers of copies of drawings was typically very small and in many cases, drawings for prototype designs were limited to the original and one copy of drawings: the originals for the design office and the copy for those manufacturing. If manufacturing required copies for the shop floor then it was necessary of them to arrange and be responsible for such drawings and their updates. Managing drawing updates was often a difficult task in a manufacturing environment where physical individual drawings were passed around in machine shop conditions. In addition was the problem of feeding back design changes from manufacturing to the design office, reversing the waterfall.
The above physical constraints meant that changes to designs due to product failure or refinement were significant undertakings due to the difficulties in communication and the time needed.
A third issue was the problems of communication and discussion of design ideas. For designers to discuss a design required people gathering together over a single drawing board. This physical constraint limited the number of people and the interdependencies and communications needed for the very large numbers of designers involved in each design project, especially where some designers were in other companies and other locations. Its effect was to put pressure on developing better design processes that would address this issue - a significant concern of the design research movement that led to a drive to various forems of design rationalisation and the recording of design decisions and the basis of them.
It was the above intrinsic problems of design processes, communications and relationships that led to what is now called waterfall or over the wall design methods. For example in car design, stylists produced rough sketches of possible vehicle exteriors and interiors. A selection of these were mocked up in clay and the final vehicle appearance decided and the appearance sent over the waterfall/wall to the engineering designers. Frequently the engineering designers found it difficult, impossible, problematic, or uneconomical to design ways to include suspensions, engines, seats, load bearing structures,
or manufacture the vehicle within the design of visual appearance that had been handed over the wall to them.
Similar problems arose in the design of systems such as banking, information flow, transport, decision making logistics etc.
Making design activity function successfully required it to be dominated by design-related processes and standards, and the management of design offices was dominated by successful management of those design processes.
Design activity at an individual level was also dominated by following those design processes, right down to the level of individual designers creating new concept designs or undertaking detail design. At this level, standardised design processes were known as design methods and by the late 1950s, there were thousands of well-established design methods used by designers working in the large-scale design offices in industry described
The start of design research in academia in the UK
It is in the above context with its focus on sorting out practical problems of design processes involving teams of hundreds of designers and designs that needed thousands of manually created design drawings that academic design research emerged. In fact it followed industry, which had already been doing design research very successfully. It appears that at the time it was seen as something that usefully extend the teaching and study in academia, rather than contribute to or improve on the research in design processes that industrial R&D departments were already doing very well.
Design thinking was NOT part of this broad mainstream of multi-decade academic and industrial endeavour to improve design activity through large and small scale processes that became the academic design research and design methods movements.
The scale of design activity then, as now, was dominated by designers working in engineering traditions. Engineering, in spite of its enthusiastic use of highly complex mathematical methods, similar to Graphic Design at the moment, was until recently regarded as an Art rather than a science.
The emergence of design thinking
The precursor ideas of design thinking came from integration of tools of psychology and the design of industrial and military practices as happened in the Tavistock Clinic in London between the wars combined with introspection of some engineering designers. The effect of this pairing was a focus on this relationship of subconscious thought and will in designing with the large-scale socio-technical design processes that were essential to successful design activity in those times.
It was from this engineering design backdrop, that the first ideas of design thinking emerged as engineering designers started to focus on design thinking as an element of individual behaviours being part of large complex design processes'. This initiative was followed in the 1960s after the UK 1963 design research conference by academics, originally mostly in engineering design, and then later in Art and Design fields.
In essence, design thinking emerged to fill a gap identified by engineering designers as not being addressed by the improvement of design focused on design processes.
The whole of these origins were shaped by the realities of design technologies of those times, huge numbers of designers, drawing boards, tracing and later the use of expensive and toxic ammonia-based plan copiers,
The change in the technologies used by designers has led to changes in design practices including reductions in design team size to a tenth or less of previously; easy fast communication between designers; easy fast editing of drawings; pre-modelling and testing of design solutions, and high levels of computer automated pre-design using mathematical methods (originally in engineering design but now especially in the visual design fields).
These changes in the trajectories of technologies used by designers have resulted in parallel trajectories in how we see design and the associated design theories and concepts.
A role for Design History in design research
To this point (August 2014), however, the above understandings that could have been possible from the application of Design History has been absent from the realm of design research and understanding design theories and concepts.
The study of Design History applied to designer's practices can tell us much about understanding and interpreting design theory. It remains an opportunity for the Design History field to explore and offer a contribution to design research and design theory-making.
The above historical perspective on the roles and influences on design theory and understanding design activity of technologies designers use is what informs a better understanding of the previous discussion about the relationship between research into design thinking and design thinking.
(c) Terence Love August 2014