Review of book: Information Processing in Design by John Restrepo (2004), published by Delft University Press

Reviewer: Dr. Terence Love
Curtin University, Western Australia

This interesting and complex book is about developing firmer foundations for information support for designers. The book contains insightful findings:   many counter-intuitive, which makes them especially valuable. It contains useful reviews of the literature, findings from empirical research about designers' use of information, and suggestions for improving design activity through better access to relevant information. I have enjoyed reading it. The style of the book is formal and relatively terse as it derives directly from John Restrepo's PhD. The richness of information and analysis in the book more than compensate for any extra effort in reading.

This book will be of interest for:

The book combines an overview of the literature relating to designers’ use of information, and the author’s research into developing a new form of information system for designers. This reflects through into the details of the analyses presented and the research choices. On one hand, the book discusses theory involving information as it relates to all design disciplines. The author introduces new ways of looking at information in design theory as he explores different aspects of information use. On the other hand, which only becomes clearer in later chapters, the author has a more tightly bounded agenda. The underlying purpose of the book and research is the development of an image-based computerised information support system that provides designers with images of exemplars of external form and styling of consumer products. The later prototypes of this system use indexing based on automated analysis of the images. Designers search the database by selecting two preliminary sets of images with similar and different style cues to the exemplars required. The system has the role of a computer-based replacement for looking through magazines, or visiting museums and shops to find exemplars to jog a designer's memory and to initiate creative thoughts.

In theory terms, the divided focus leads to a complex narrative. When the author discusses general design theory issues, he is apparently referring to all design domains – including those leading to the design of outcomes such as systems, services, processes, organisations etc. The detail of the author’s analyses, however, emphasis only those design domains whose focus is the visual and aesthetic aspects of the external form of physical objects.

The book has six chapters. The first chapter focuses on problem-solving aspects of design activity as the basis for understanding how and why designers use information. This problem-based perspective on design is found throughout the book. In this chapter, the author takes an overview of designers’ use of information in the early stages of design activity, the structure of design problems, and the generation of design requirements.

Chapter 2 builds on the problem-based perspective described in Chapter 1 to explore in detail how designers structure and restructure problems, and reviews the main issues in this arena particularly with regard to early conceptualisation, fixation, the use of design precedents and representations, and the role of sketching. The bulk of Chapter 2 is dedicated to a description of empirical research investigating differences between problem-focused and solution-focused design approaches. This uses a secondary analysis of data from an earlier empirical study.

Chapter 3 explores the details of the dynamic evolution of design requirements in design projects as designers address a design situation, its brief, and gather information. Echoing the structure of the second chapter, Chapter 3 also describes an empirical study. The author investigates connections between the generation of design requirements and information access through observing designers’ use of a prototype computer-based information system coded with information sources chosen to support a specific suite of design tasks. Towards the end of the chapter, the author problematises the concept of ‘relevance’ in information provision, using it as a research theme. This idea later contributes to defining the design brief for the image-based design support information system emerges as the central theme of the book.

Chapter 4 explores the use of a designer-focused perspective on ‘relevance’ in terms of different dimensions of information provision, use and access. The chapter contains a third empirical study investigating how designers’ implicit and explicit criteria influence their judgements about the relevance of information during design activity. This third study involved designers using a web-based information system implemented via a conventional ‘Content Management System’ built on Linux / Apache / MySQL / PHP architecture. This new prototype information system was devised to improve useability compared to the system used in the empirical study described in Chapter 2. A significant finding from the study was that designers are quite vague about what is relevant information in the early stages of design, and by implication, systems of information provision must address this issue.

In Chapter 5, the main theme of the book begins to coalesce. The chapter describes the roles of exemplars and precedents, and the problem of defining ‘meaning’ in images. This latter is a key issue in building an image based designer information system because the meaning attributed to an image of an object depends on a wide variety of factors unrelated to the information content such as context, user needs, observer attributes and the time of inquiry. The author describes another three empirical studies. These investigate how designers use a new prototype ‘query by example’ image-based information system which presents images of objects to designers as initiators, precedents, styling exemplars and primary generators of thoughts for the design of external appearances of products at the interface between product form and styling. Each study contributes to theory foundations for building that avoid the use of human mediated text-based indexing or querying.  The prototype 'Content Based Image Retrieval System' [sic] indexes images based on automated computerised characterisation of shapes in each image. The images are automatically codified by mechanisms and criteria that are not fully described in the book, perhaps for issues of commercial confidentiality. A designer can search the image database by identifying two initial contrasting groups of images that the designer regards as  stylistically similar to and different from the sort of images to be retrieved from the database.

The three empirical studies also provide insights into skills designers use in selecting images as design precedents. The research indicated that designers in these studies operated with a limited design vocabulary, yet were easily able to identify images as relevant to their search for information. This and related findings are of direct relevance to design educators.

In concluding the book, the sixth chapter focuses on identifying the lessons learned from this complex collection of empirical and literature-based investigations into designers’ use of information. It draws attention to the importance of understanding how designers improve their knowledge during the design process, and to a need for deeper understanding of how designers function, for example, understanding what triggers a designer’s intention to search for particular types of information.

To summarise, the book describes a broad overview of significant issues concerning the ways designers use information. In parallel, the book describes a sequence of linked empirical studies relating to the development of a computerised image-based information system accessed using query by example methods.

The research, empirical studies and related analyses focused mainly on designers’ information access relating to appearance and styling of products.   The book offers its main benefits, therefore, to those working in design domains with a focus on styling, external form and appearance of products, rather than designers working with representations that are more abstract.

The book is a useful and interesting reference to the use of information in design on three grounds:

The book is available as part of the DesignSciencePlanning series edited by Dr. I.T. Klaasen. It is published and distributed by:

Delft University Press
PO Box 98
2600 MG Delft
The Netherlands
Tel +31 15 278 5121
Fax +31 15 278 1661

Bibliographic details:
Restrepo, J. (2004). Information Processing in Design. Delft: Delft University Press (204 pages).