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A Reading Review

The Multiple Tasks of Design Studies

The Multiple tasks of Design Studies by author Victor Margolin argues for a more
comprehensive approach to the academic study of design as culture and other areas of
design research. The author talks about all the instances which have led to the development
of design studies and promoted design research by various distinguished people. In the end,
the author concludes by calling for a multidisciplinarity in the study of design and including
the design studies in academics as a research field.
The article begins with the history of research in the field of design that began in Great
Britain in 1979 and that is where the term design studies is said to have originated.1 The
field is expanding as there is a growing consideration of design research as a field and further
study on this topic can yield productive results. The design researchers can be divided into
two broad groups: the ones that are essentially single minded about basing their research
into a single discipline and others who opt for a pluralistic approach that encompasses other
fields like the humanities into their design research methodology. The author points out that
conflicts like these which exist amongst design researchers are not introduced to students
pursuing design at postgraduate or doctoral level. This leads to the design studies being
limited as a course of study.
The author recounts the Design Methods movement, which started in 1960 and lasted for
about 20 years, as an attempt to broaden the research culture in design. An example of this
in which extreme polarization into behaviourists and phenomenologists happened is the
1967 symposium hosted by Portsmouth Polytechnic. Behaviourists find a common pattern of
human behaviour and devise techniques to design to that whereas phenomenologists see the
individuality in people and try to bring it out through their design approach. This attempt
failed due to the rigid approach for design research and studies that existed at that time.
Another design research technique developed by Bruce Archer, an engineer who headed
the Department of Design Research at the Royal college of Art,1 London; was to create a
classification of design studies into separate topics that are to be examined individually and
their properties observed and analysed. Such attempts of the first generation theorists 1 to
liken design to a science 1 faced criticism by the second generation design theorists. 1

At that point emerged a participatory design movement which continues as a design research
methodology even today. In this movement, the design research is based on the participation
of the end user in the performance evaluation of a product and that critique is used as the
base on which the software is modified to make it better.
This can be clearly seen in the example of software industry where there are a number of
forums and listservs in which user experiences are posted and the developer interacts with
them and uses their feedback to better the product. Usually the software is released prior to
its official release date to the members of such a group and their recommendations are
integrated in the product before the market release.
The next research methodology that the author talks about is the project-oriented research
methodology. This is based on the principle that a theoretical interpretation of the product
is an essential step for the development of a successful product. The goal of this form of
research is to widen the concept of design and realize that design is more than just the initial
to the final sketches or drawings and a deeper understanding of the concepts being applied
should be there. A way to achieve this deeper understanding is an ethnographic research on
the use of the product being designed. Researches employing project oriented research have
shown a tendency to include the results of the ethnographic research into the design stage to
better their product. Thus in this way, project-oriented research brings knowledge from
diverse disciplines and integrates them in the design of products.
An example of this is the award-winning global design firm IDEO that takes a humancentered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors to
innovate and grow.2 President and CEO of IDEO cites their approach as design thinking
and says, Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the
designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the
requirements for business success.2
The author in the end advocates the method of design of products as a cultural practice as he
believes it would be best when organized by topics rather than by academic methodology. He
feels that it would facilitate a more multidisciplinary training so that design scholars receive
training in topics such as anthropology and history and other theory subjects so that the
study of design includes the reflective investigation of design studies itself in the course work.

The author promotes thinking such as making a mandatory practice for students pursuing a
doctoral degree in design to take a certain number of additional courses which can be art and
design history, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, material culture, technology fields
and other design related fields. This would thus make a design scholar more knowledgeable
in a comprehensive manner and lead to the development of a future designer who can
design with a cultural background so that it is inclusive of the people being designed for.

1. Margolin, V. 2002. The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design & Design Studies. The
Multiple Tasks of Design Studies. University of Chicago Press. USA.
2. Brown, T. 2014. IDEO. About IDEO. New York. USA.
[Accessed on: 25-03-2014]

Submitted by:
Ramya Khare
B. Arch II-C