Theory and Practice in Design Education
Glenn Johnson writes, "So if you don't need sketching as a skill to design
-- why have apprenticeship as a subject in a university? Or if it is case
of learning by doing, conduct research along the same lines and kill two
birds with one stone, research and learning at the same time."
This is an intriguing issue precisely because it highlights the apparent
dialectic of some recent debates. Before taking up the challenge, I will
point to those debates and suggest some background reading.
To understand the nature of these questions requires unpacking a rather
dense syllabus of assumptions.
My position in this debate is that design is an integrative,
interdisciplinary field. It is a profession and a discipline both.
The nature of design as an integrative discipline places it at the
intersection of several domains. These domains are (1) natural sciences,
(2) humanities and liberal arts, (3) social and behavioral sciences, (4)
human professions and services, (5) creative and applied arts, and (6)
technology and engineering.
My model for the field of design is a circular pie chart. In each wedge of
the pie, we find one of the six domains. A horizon bisects the circle into
fields of theoretical study and fields of practice and application. In one
dimension, design is a field of thinking and pure research. In another, it
is a field of practice and applied research. When applications are used to
solve specific problems in a specific setting, it is a field of clinical
Design may involve any or all of these domains, in differing aspect and
proportion depending on the nature of the project at hand or the problem to
If we accept that design involves many kinds of process, then drawing is
relevant to many fields of design and irrelevant to others. The decision to
teach or use drawing depends on the field of practice. Many designers need
this specific skill. Many do not. It is inappropriate to identify drawing
or any other single specific skill as the core of design.
It is a deep mistake to suggest that all forms of design knowledge arise
from learning by doing - especially when doing means engaging in one
specific activity such as drawing.
These sorts of proposals get to the core of the university and its task.
Other fields have engaged in these debates for centuries now. We may need
to undertake these debates here, but it is helpful to do so with a bit of
knowledge of what these debates have meant before.
The profession of medicine is a good case in point. For over a thousand
years, the only route to medical practice was apprenticeship to a
practicing physician. The development of university-based medical schools
meant a switch to the opposite extreme. In a time of inadequate knowledge,
this led to as many problems as were solved by the new university
education. Professor doctors of medicine lectured from the classic texts
while leaving barber surgeons to do the bloody work of cutting. Lacking
direct contact with the human body and frequently lacking direct diagnostic
engagement with illness, medical education became a useless form of
The success of medicine over the past century rests on the modern
university system. Medical schools involve the multiple talents and
knowledge of working physician doctors, medical research specialists in all
areas of research, working clinical research physicians, practitioner
specialists in all areas of practice. Students, residents, specialist
trainees, advanced practitioners and advanced researchers work with all of
these. Progress is made through the interaction of basic research, applied
research, and clinical research. These are all allied with application and
Vocabulary is important. We do NOT have "apprenticeship as a subject in a
university." University education is distinct from art school or craft
school design education in this specific regard, and even the practitioner
education in those schools is not apprenticeship. One of the reasons for
developing a university design education with a rich stream of theory and
research is precisely the fact that we get our students in the practice of
design for three or four years as undergraduates, another one or two years
for a master's degree. This is a stark contrast with the long terms of
service that characterized the training of an apprentice.
For different reasons, not all research can be conducted through "learning
by doing." Research is itself a practice aimed at creating knowledge. While
many of the problems associated with professional development can be
mastered through learning by doing, the kinds of problems associated with
new knowledge are frequently of a different order.
The past three years since the Ohio conference have seen several rich
streams of publication and debate on these issues. Some of these streams
will be found in the proceedings published at Ohio (Buchanan, Doordan,
Justice, and Margolin. 1999), Milano (Pizzocaro, Arruda and De Moraes.
2000), and La Clusaz (David and Friedman. 2000), and in the recent debates
on theory and practice in design on the DRS list (Mailbase archives).
-- Ken Friedman
Buchanan, Richard, Dennis Doordan, Lorraine Justice, and Victor Margolin,
editors. 1999. Doctoral Education in Design. Proceedings of the Ohio
Conference. October 8-11, 1998. Pittsburgh: The School of Deign. Carnegie
David Durling and Ken Friedman, editors. 2000. Doctoral Education in
Design. Foundations for the Future. Proceedings of the La Clusaz
Conference, 8-12 July, 2000. Stoke-on-Trent: Staffordshire University Press.
Pizzocaro, Silvia, Amilton Arruda and Dijon De Moraes, editors. 2000.
Design Plus Research. Proceedings of the Politechnico di Milano Conference,
May 18-20, 2000. Milano: Politechnico di Milano.
The archives of the various Mailbase discussion groups will be found at
<www.mailbase.ac.uk>. Use the alphabetical guide on the front page to
locate the list you wish to search. Within each list, you will be able to
browse by author, date, and thread as defined by subject header. Mailbase
also provides superb search features that permit you to search a list's
archive by key words or names.