New Developments in Engineering Design Theory (Part 2)

© T. Love 1995

A version of this paper (parts 1 and 2) was delivered in 1995 as the I.Mech.E and I.E.(Aust) Annual Joint Lecture (Perth, W.A.)


Implications of focusing on Design as a human activity

The perspective of design as a human activity resolves many issues which were problems in perspectives of design that are not human centred, and other problems are transformed. Dealing with qualitative issues is a major problems for researchers using more mechanistic theories of design. The problem is usually expressed as, ‘How can qualitative issues be expressed quantitatively so that they can be incorporated into mathematical models.’ It may be said that there is no epistemologically satisfactory solution. Using a human centred theory of design results in a reversal of the problem. Consider the following.  

1.     Most engineering information is quantitative.

2.     Designers’ creative processes including their use of ‘design worlds’ and their evaluation of partial conceptualisations are fundamentally qualitative.

3.     Mathematical models are best seen as ‘data collection’ rather than as part of designing.

Therefore, the above problem no longer exists for qualitative issues. For quantitative issues, such as the information gleaned from calculations, the issue is resolveable. The question then becomes,

‘How can quantitative data be converted to a qualitative form that is more easily useable by designers?’

Practically, examples of this sort of problem are now being seen in situations where large volumes of data are being dealt with (eg, electricity generator control rooms, satellite data analysis, music recording studio consoles and computerised design aids ). Research in these matters is normally undertaken within the provinces of psychology and human factors engineering, or as it used to be called ‘ergonomics’.

Social, Environmental and Ethical Issues

Social, environmental and ethical issues in design have both quantitative and qualitative aspects.

Quantitative - Bounds or criteria defined by government agencies, Professional Codes or Law (eg. maximum amounts of gaseous emission). These may be dealt with like any other quantitative information.

Qualitative - issues which depend on human values. As designers function qualitatively and this provides the means whereby social, environmental and ethical considerations can influence which designs are conceived and how they are evaluated [i] .

As indicated above, the problem of including social, environmental and ethical issues into a human centred theory of engineering design is straightforward. (This is not to say that its detail may not be complex or difficult, only that it has a more coherent philosophical foundation.)

Management of Design

Perhaps the most important information needed by managers is ‘Who is doing What?’ For the manager of design activities there are three aspects of designing which come directly out of the above human centered perspective on designing. These are:

·       Others, besides designers, contribute to the design of engineering artefacts and systems.

·       Most of what good engineering designers do is not ‘designing’.

·       Knowing the difference between ‘designing’ and other activities enables designers and design departments to be more efficient and cost effective.

Hubka and Eder 10 have identified the different subjects which may be associated with designing in mechanical engineering. They differentiate between subject areas in ‘general design science’ and other areas.In these other areas, the source of expertise lies in a discipline other than design.

The activities of designing and other activities associated with designing may be differentiated via a process network or time line analysis. The analysis of Ross’ 11 shows how the majority of the activities in the design process are associative activities. Interestingly some of the activities Ross regards as design, e.g. ‘do trial design’ are not necessarily exclusively design activitiesbecasue they may also include non-design activities.

Using Models for the Management of Design

Most general process models of engineering design are inaccurate at best and totally unrepresentative at worst. To be useful to a manager, a model must be a close match to the design process which is managed. The situation being modelled depends on the time, the place and the people involved in the process. Researchers involved in the management of complex systems (see for example; Flood 12 , and Flood and Jackson 13 ) have evolved methods that deal with human centred activities. These methods align well with, and may form the basis of, a human centred perspective on designing.

Using models of design processes in the management of design activities requires the manager to :

·       Construct a management model of the particular process under scrutiny - identify the different activities in detail and investigate how the activities function together.

·       Use the expertise from the disciplines that most closely fit the different activities (together with systems management methods) to improve how the process works.

·       Break down the work of the design team into components such as: information gathering, time management, financial management, evaluation, decisionmaking, mathematical modelling, communication, routine administration and creative design.

·       Look for shortcomings and redundancies in each category of resources.

·       Use this information to guide management strategy, employment strategy, investment strategy and organisational structure.


The above theoretical emphasis on human action in design results in decisions about the implementation of technology in human affairs being located (theoretically, at least) in humans. It acknowledges the role of well trained professionals using their skills, rather than reducing the role of designers, engineers and managers to that of machine minders. In this sense, it provides a representation of the activities and processes of design which is closer to reality.

To summarise the main points developed in this paper:

·       Designing is human creative activity

·       Design process includes designing along with other activities

·       The expertise in most activities in engineering design processes lies outside design (and often outside engineering).

·       Make pertinent local models of design processes (using information from Design Theory as appropriate).

·       Use local design process models to guide management strategies, investment and decisionmaking.

·       Use appropriate sources of disciplinary knowledge, ie, Design for design, Analysis for analysis, Management for management. . . .

Journals containing information about Engineering Design Research

·       Design Studies Oxford: Butterworth - Heinmann.

·       Journal of Engineering Design Abingdon: Carfax Publishing Company.

·       Research into Engineering Design New York: Springer-Verlag.

·       Artficial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing (AI - EDAM), Cambridge University Press, USA


1          Love, T 'New Developments in Engineering Design Theory: Part 1' News Bulletin Institution of Mechanical Engineers (Australian Branch), NSW. No 123 (1996)

2          Love, T 'New Developments in Engineering Design Theory: Part 2' News Bulletin Institution of Mechanical Engineers (Australian Branch), NSW. No 124 (1996)

3          Sargent, P 'Give us the tools and we'll give you doorknobs' Times Higher Education Supplement No (30.3.90) (1990) p p. 15

4          Jones, J C and Thornley, D G (eds) Conference on design methods The Macmillan Company, New York, (1964)

5          Cross, N 'Science and Design Methodology: A Review' Research in Engineering Design Vol 5 (1993) pp 63-69

6          Jones, J C Design Methods: seeds of human futures Wiley-Interscience, London, (1970)

7          Ertas, A and Jones, C J The Engineering Design Process John Wiley and Sons Inc., USA, (1993)

8          Dasgupta, S Design Theory and Computer Science Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, (1991)

9          Ullman, D G 'A Taxonomy for Mechanical Design' Research in Engineering Design Vol 3 (1992) pp 179-189

10         Hubka, V and Eder, W 'Design Knowledge: Theory in Support of Practice' Journal of Engineering Design Vol 1 No 1 (1990) pp 97-108

11         Ross, I M Effect of Organisational Procedures on Design - An Outline of the Problems. In S A Gregory (ed) The Design Method, Butterworths, London, (1966), pp 269-277

12         Flood, R L Liberating Systems Theory Plenum Press, New York, (1990)

13         Flood, R L and Jackson, M C Creative Problem Solving: Total Systems Intervention John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Chichester, UK, (1991)

[i] ‘Evaluation’ here is used in the sense of drawing out their ‘value’. It is human values which are being discussed here, not mathematical ones.

[1] Op cit

[2] Alexander, C, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Harvard University Press, Mass, (1964)

[3] Schon, D, The Reflective Practitioner, Basic Books, New York, 1983

[4] Coyne, B, ‘Objectivity in the design process’ in Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Vol 18, (1990)

[5] Crane, J A, ‘The Problem of Valuation in Risk-Cost-Benefit assessment of public policies’ in E F Byrne and J C Pitt, Technological Transformation: Contextual and Conceptual Implications, Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, (1989)