What is Design Studies, Anyway?
Design Studies is a difficult field to describe. It’s almost like asking, what is English? It’s a little bit of a lot of things and can be applied many different ways. But as the name suggests, Design Studies is the study of design. As such, it’s interdisciplinary (moving between disciplines), multi-disciplinary (utilizing multiple disciplines in its process and methods) and transdisciplinary (combining disciplines in creating new disciplinary structures.) It’s also, as Susan Yelavich, the head of the Design Studies program at Parsons describes it, promiscuous—pulling and borrowing methods and ideas from fields outside of design to try to understand design methods, motivations and impacts better. Compared to the humanities and sciences, design has had a very short life span with an even shorter reflective life because of its roots in trade practice and education that followed an apprenticeship model. But, as Sharon Poggenpohl argues in her essay, “Time for Change: Building a Design Discipline” the key to the development of design as a field of study equal to other disciplines is in the critical reflection and evaluation of the artifacts that are created and the process and theories that are driving that creation. In other words, not just practicing design, but also studying design.
In addition to critical evaluation, design studies is also about applying methods of design thinking and practice to fields, organizations and problems outside of design (and we can argue about whether all problems are or are not design problems). Studying design can help us look at political situations for the messy problems that they are, but to approach them with an inherently designerly perspective that is propositional and focused on “transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones.” (Simon, Sciences of the Artificial) One need only look at businesses like Fidelity Investments who are developing positions they are calling design thinkers to see the value this holds for many entities outside of design. Specifically, businesses are looking to the design process to facilitate programs and projects for non-designers—to help them think about their customers differently, or human behavior with regards to spending and saving in a new and innovative ways. Central to Design Thinking is seeking and finding patterns, building empathy and insight, and using lateral thinking in proposing alternatives. These qualities are highly sought after to facilitate insight and alternatives to the complex, wicked problems that all industries face.
Part of what makes design studies so difficult to define is also what makes it exciting. It is particularly valuable when looking across design disciplines to see where there are theoretical or methodological connections and patterns, as well as to look more broadly and deeply at alternative fields of study, like biology, or medicine, or even english, to name a few. It is in these new opportunities that design studies can be invented and reinvented, and used to do the research so critical to advancing the practice of design, or to continue to solve wicked problems in new and innovative ways.