The Practical Implications of the Essentially Two-faced Nature of Design Research and Design Practice

Dr. Terence Love
Curtin University

Paper 05-080


This paper describes research into discourse of design. The research identifies there are two different discourses of design whose characteristics and purposes are determined by the circumstances of their use. The analyses indicate that many of the problems and inconsistencies of the design research literature originate in conflation of these two modes of discourse


Design, discourse, theory, epistemology, terminology


The paper reports research exploring problems with cultures of discourse of design. In the research arenas of both Art and Design and the Engineering Design there has been substantial concern about the quality of discourse (see, for example, Poggenpohl, Chayutsahakij, & Jeamsinkul, 2004; Bastick, 2003; Love, 2002a; Reich, 1994; Liddament, 1994; Cross, 1993; Ullman, 1992; Harrison, 1974). The extensiveness of this concern indicates fundamental problems with the underlying modalities of the discourses. The gist of the problem is that when designers and design researchers talk or write about design activity, design outcomes or design research issues, they frequently conflate and confuse epistemologically different ideas and thoughts, and expand and elaborate them in ways that the discourse becomes almost impossible to parse intelligibly (Love, 2000, 1998; O’Doherty, 1964). The research indicates that the problem varies across design-sub-fields, with meanings of overarching as well as detailed concepts being dependent on sub-cultural perspectives and values (see, for example, Lawson, Bassanino, Phiri, & Worthington, 2003). These problems of cultures of discourse impact adversely on all stakeholders and participants in design. Problems at this level compromise theory making, understanding of design activity, the use of design, and the quality of the designed outcomes themselves.

The research reported in this paper was funded by Curtin University as part of a Curtin Research Fellowship. The findings draw on secondary analysis of data and analyses from four earlier research projects:

The research indicates that the practical cultural realities of design activity and design research require two distinct design discourses each with an essentially different purpose. These comprise a ‘public face’ discourse and a ‘technical face’ discourse.

The paper posits that a central issue in the problems of design discourse, design research and design theory is a lack of awareness by designers and design researchers of these two distinct and different discourses with their different purposes, and a widespread lack of understanding of the necessity of using each discourse appropriately. The research found the two discourses are frequently conflated and confused in the literatures. This is at the root of many typical conceptual and theoretical problems in design research and design theory.

To recap, the research suggests a single factor - presumption by designers and design researchers that design discourse is single vectored - is at the root of many of the theory problems in the design research literature.

This paper comprises four sections. The second section describes how viewing designers as ‘change agents’ offers insights into addressing this problem. The third section explores the problems caused by the use of a single discourse of design. It illustrates by analysis and two brief examples, why it is necessary for design researchers and designers to under stand that the two faces of design discourse are substantially incommensurate, and that the discourses are different in spite of them using similar key terms. The final section summarises the paper.

Insights from viewing Designers as ‘change agents’

Designers, design educators, and design researchers – like management consultants and planners - are change agents because their work creates change in social, technological and cultural path dependencies and shapes future possibilities in technology, social interaction, and culture. Viewing designers in this way offers insight into addressing the above culturally-based problem of design-related discourse.

Communicating with other stakeholders and constituents is central to the roles of designers and design researchers. Typically, for both designers and design researchers, communication requires bridging across a wide range of cultures and sub-cultures each with their own culturally shaped understandings, preferred language and values (Tellefsen, 1995). The breadth of this range is indicated in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Internal and external actors and communications (adapted from presentation of Tellefsen & Love, 2002).

For designers it is crucially important to use language and words that clients understand. This is a significant reality: good communication is essential to the work of all ‘change agents’. In practice ideas communicated by change agents must be expressed in concepts and language simplified and shaped so as to be accessible to all constituents and coherent across the client organisation’s sub-cultures. The appropriate forms of language and the choice of these forms are defined by the possibilities for good communication and for manipulation of judgments and emotions. That is, they are shaped directly by the socio-cultural, value-laden perspectives of the different stakeholders and constituents. This form of discourse requires that complex ideas are revised into simpler more accessible models. It goes in the opposite direction to creating the technically defined terminology used in developing unambiguous generalisable theories.

This results in the need for two distinct discourses of design. The first is the sub-culturally and contextually shaped simplified discourse and models needed by designers for communicating ideas in accessible form across a wide variety of sub-culturally different constituents. The second is the formal unambiguous technically defined language needed for good theory making. This might be seen as a difference between the discourses of ‘practice’ and ‘research’. However, both designers and design researchers have reason to use both public and technical forms of discourse.

Communication with people who are not experts requires a special sort of language that converts complex technical issues into forms that are easier to comprehend, are understandable across professional domains and that, regardless, have sufficient utility. This is the public face of design discourse

It is also necessary to be able to communicate with, and understand, researchers and technical experts who bring useful high value generalisable technical information, theories and ways of modelling situations that have reliable predictive power. This requires a different special form of language. This is the technical face of design discourse

Both are necessary and are different in purpose. To be competent, it would be expected that designers and design researchers are two faced and skilled in both discourses without confusing them.

To recap, the need for two forms of discourse is because the forces and factors that shape the public face discourse used in communication with clients are different in purpose and form from the requirements for the technical facing discourse that is needed to build generalisable theories that integrate with research findings and theories from other disciplines.

An example of the differences between public and technical discourses of Design is the difference in language between how an engineering designer might talk with a non-engineer and an engineering design researcher. The engineering designer might describe the functioning of a vehicle control of a sports car to a non-technical person in language such as:

'This is the gas pedal. It controls the gas to the car. You press the gas with your foot and it makes the car go. Careful not to be too heavy with your foot because this car becomes really hairy!'

As a communication it makes good sense conveys a useful message, is in reasonably plain English and avoids complex technical ideas.

With the technical face discourse, however, the language of the engineering designer might involve: 'fuel preparation systems'; ‘non-linear pedal and air valve kinematics’; ‘specific fuel consumption and   BMEP maps’; 'power train dynamics' and the like.

The idea of two different forms of language and modes of communication is common to the practices of many other professionals and knowledge workers such as doctors. Drawing on the experience of these other groups it is clear that the two forms of discourse are both necessary and must mostly be kept separate because:

Using technical face discourse in public situations results in a lack of communication where other parties are not fluent in the technical theory constructs and research findings.

The pubic face discourse does not work in communicating ideas at the level of technical detail because it is a simplification and often expressed in metaphoric or allegorical form (e.g. hairy car in the previous example).


Problems of single vectored design discourse

Failure to understand that there are two design discourses causes serious problems epistemologically. Review of the design and design research literature indicates that many problems are due to the public face discourse of design of design practitioners in ‘change agent’ situations being used as the ‘de-facto’ language of technical discourse of design research.

In design research, the use of value-laden public facing discourse in technical facing situations results in extended, conceptually messy, discussions that attempt either to find the ‘true meanings’ of terms, or attempt to define more and more complex meta-relationships between terms so as to extend, explain and justify their connections. The reality is that terms shaped by the conceptually restricting needs of practitioner communications with clients and others are limited conceptually. The conceptual, terminological and epistemological precision needed for building the theories of basis research cannot easily be built on terms whose primary use is as allegories or metaphors aimed at facilitating communication where there is a lack of understanding of more complex concepts.

The main purpose of technical analysis and theory is to provide predictability - or to assist in predicting likely outcomes. Most of the benefit in predictability comes from two sources:

Manipulating conceptual representations of a design enable us to predict its behaviour without actually making it: important and useful in many complex situations. It requires, however, that the design characteristics are translated into a specific tightly defined technical language, often symbolic, such that operations done on the language are strictly restricted to those that produce valid predictions. This is as much necessary at the outset of a concept design as it is in evaluating more developed designs.

In addition, theories and analyses based on ‘public face’ design discourse do not sit well with carefully crafted conceptualisation and theory making of research in other disciplines.

Most technical knowledge workers are aware of these constraints. For example, management theorists such as Kolb, Argyris, and Schon were clear that the models they produced (e.g. learning quadrants, organisational learning theory, reflective practice models etc) were models for the public face of discourse, because as consultants they had to simplify things for their clients (for a design-related expansion of this point see Love (2002b)). On the technical face, they drew on theories and findings from a broad range of technical theory areas in psychology, organisation interaction theory, systems etc.

Example: Designing organisational learning – using a public face discourse

It is necessary for designers working in the area of organisational learning to communicate with clients and employees their reasoning and proposals for change, and gather information about their brief, the existing situation, its problems and possibilities. This is all public face discourse.  The possibilities of this public face discourse are dominated by the lowest common denominator of understanding across all constituencies.

By focusing on individuals’ personal experiences of learning designers and managers can use public face design discourse to build a shared mental model of ‘organisational learning’.  This provides a means through which the designer s and can explain, persuade and manipulate individuals to change their mental constructs, feelings, judgments and actions.

This public face discourse contrasts with the technical face discourse of strategic planning and behaviour in organisation that focuses on for example, the behaviours of groups, hegemonic analysis, and ontological analysis of information flows between organisations.

Example: Design Learning – failures of public face discourse

Design and learning are necessarily closely related because the central reason for learning is to facilitate design activity (following Simon’s (1981, pp. 129) definition of design as devising a plan to change an existing situation into a preferred situation). This is true even when the superficial drive to learn is to pass exams or to feel a warm inner glow of communication, understanding and opening to the unknown.

The literature of ‘design learning’ is based predominately on public face discourse. Review of the literature shows that little of this public face discourse of design learning is actually concerned with human ‘learning’: the term ‘design learning’ is mainly used as a conceptual placeholder to discuss issues relating to teaching methods. As above, the role of the public face discourse of ‘design learning’ is to communicate across constituents and to persuade the learner to undertake particular tasks.

In contrast, technical face discourse relating to designers learning focuses on issues absent from the public face discourse, e.g., the conceptually complex physiological realities of human learning processes. In the technical face discourse, ‘design learning’ as a concept does not correspond well with either ‘learning’ or ‘designing’ because  humans’ bodies have a single physiological system that is used for all forms of learning, regardless of the content or purpose. One body, one physiology form and one means of learning. The same human processes are used regardless of whether one is learning about designing, flower arranging or cigars. In technical discourse, as opposed to public face discourse, there is no obvious reason to differentiate ‘design learning’ technically form other forms of learning (although there are many reasons to differentiate design teaching from other forms of teaching).


To summarise, the findings of the research analyses are five-fold:

In many areas of design and design research there is a problematic flawed assumption that only a single form of discourse is needed across design activity and design research. This serves neither purpose and leads to compromised research and theory making if   public face discourse is used   to generate technical theories and derive predictions (e.g. attempting to derive engineering design theory on the basis of the ‘hairy cars’ of the previous example).

Both public and technical languages and faces must exist. Their relationship is, however asymmetric. For all public face descriptions, concepts and topoi there exist equivalent but different technical concepts and theories. The opposite is not found because public face discourse represents sub-set of available technical face concepts and theories because it is intended as a simplification to aid communication.


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