My graduate seminar class with Dick Buchanan ended yesterday. For this last class, we discussed pluralism and objectivity, which Buchanan states as the fundamental problem of design.

Why is it a problem? There is no subject matter in design. Designers make their subject matter. “This is a very peculiar thing,” Buchanan says.

I agree. And while it makes sense, it’s not always obvious. For instance, I’m at a school studying design, which inclines one to think there is subject matter to study.

However, Buchanan warns of this temptation to believe design has subject matter. What one may think of as the subject matter of design is really either history of design, or comments on existing designs.

A Cup Is a Cup Is a Cup

Buchanan defines objectivity in design as the object we create. What makes design interesting is that we don’t all agree that a cup is a cup is a cup, and there are different ways of practicing design. Is this something in the nature of design? Or something in the nature of the world? These are questions he asked.

The frustrating aspect of design is that you can’t practice it without some idea of what you’re doing. Though the more you find your own way, you find that other people do things differently. This difference, or pluralism, is what needs to be reconciled.

So how does one deal with pluralism and objectivity? Well, designers need to understand that we don’t have to agree on the values of on how we see the world; we only have to agree on what we’re going to make. Buchanan says designers must help people find their own view, and understand how other people do things.

All Done, But Only the Beginning

I thought that was a nice way to round up the class: stating a fundamental problem, but providing hope that it can be overcome.

Overall, I thought the course was valuable, even though no absolute answers were offered. It makes sense now given the ambiguity of design problems, lack of subject matter, and different ways of practicing design.

While the class is over, it is only the beginning in a likely endless contemplation of design thinking in relation to design practice and it’s impact on the world, and, of course, my place in it all.