Why designing is not irrational

Any approach that is aimed at changing our reality is an expression of a specific understanding of what it means to be rational, to think and act in a rational way. Most people strive to be rational in some sense, but it is obvious that what it means to be rational varies.

When I look back on my own research over the years, the notion of rationality has always been at the core of my studies. Actually, my Ph.D. dissertation had the title "The Hidden Rationality of Design Work". The core idea of the dissertation was that as long as we can't reveal the hidden rationality of designing, it will stay difficult to describe and understand, and even more important...teach. The study of designing has since then made huge progress in revealing the 'hidden rationality' of design (see Schon, Cross, Krippendorff, etc).

One of the major problems with the notion of rationality is, to me, that people confuse what being rational means with one specific interpretation. This narrow understanding of being rational is highly influenced by what is seen as the highest form of rationality--the scientific process. But most people do recognize that depending on what we are trying to achieve, we need to embrace different forms of reasoning. It is crucial to understand that we have to embrace the notion that rationality comes in many flavors, each bringing certain strengths and weaknesses. If this is not understood, it becomes a problem.

For instance, some people argue that design thinking means not being rational. Some even argue that designers are, or even have to be, irrational in their thinking and doing. This is however only true if we understand 'being rational' in a very narrow sense. 

To argue that designing is irrational is, therefore, a mistake. Designers are rational and have a well-developed rationality (if they are good at what they do). Designing requires both logic and rationality, but it is a logic and rationality that is aimed at exploring and developing new ideas that can lead to not-yet-existing designs. This means that what is rational as a designer is not the same as what is applied by someone involved in trying to explain how reality works or create an understanding of some particular aspect of our reality. Design thinking is aimed at changing reality into something that we do not know what it is,  into something that is only an imagination. Such a process requires certain forms of thinking and acting, it requires a certain form of rationality. The 'hidden' rationality of designing. 

Ok, this is already too long, but as a takeaway idea, I would propose that anyone involved in the study of designing or has ambitions to improve designing spend a bit more time trying to understand the notion of rationality. It is a theoretical tool that is extremely important in any exploration of human approaches of inquiry and action.

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Stuff to read:
Robert Nozick "The nature of rationality" 
John Dewey "How we think"
Horst Rittel "The reasoning of designers"

and if you want something really good
Joseph Dunne "Back to the rough ground"

and here is an article to download that I wrote a few years back about this topic

Stolterman, E. (2008). The nature of design practice and implications for interaction design research. in  International Journal of Design, 2(1).

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