Our HCI Design Theory class has begun discussing the relationship between design and science. The latter is a quest to explain truth through repeatable observation, describing a predictable understanding of the general. The former, on the other hand, is about changing the truth through the creation of new things on behalf of specific others. In the pursuit of legitimacy of design as a field, the academic part of our profession tends to conduct design and then claim science.
Right now, we are buried in terminology. What is design? What is science? What does it mean to create and apply theory? Big, necessary questions. At the moment, I am focusing on this concept of particulars.
In Nelson and Stolterman’s book, The Design Way, the authors claim that design is about understanding the specifics of the ultimate particular—a very specific object situated within a specific environment and interacting in a specific way. This idea borrows from Aristotle’s distinction between practical wisdom and scientific knowledge:
As we stated, [practical wisdom] is concerned with ultimate particulars, since the actions to be performed are ultimate particulars. This means that it is at the opposite pole from intelligence. For intelligence grasps limiting terms and definitions that cannot be attained by reasoning, while practical wisdom has as its object the ultimate particular fact, of which there is perception but no scientific knowledge
as quoted by Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon
A similar distinction between design and science is helpful in the sense that design is always a specific activity, whereas science always assumes that its actions are repeatable.
In this sense, the ultimate particular is applied not as the design as object. It refers to the situated space in which the design as process will take place. We do not do well to design from a scientific perspective of generalities; practical use will inevitably differ. One of Stolterman’s other diagrams, however, puts particular on the opposite end of a scale as universal, suggesting science is at the far end and design lives in the particular. It is notable that the next step up in this scale is relationships. To me, this implies the particular is something absent of relationships. It is an object-centric view of design—that we are creating a thing that can be understood on its own, in isolation.
Complexity theories, a new science, tells us this doesn’t ever happen. There are no objects in isolation in the real world. Everything is in relation. The only way you can study an individual object is to abstractly remove its attachment to time. Without time, things are frozen in a particular moment and relationships cease to exist. More correctly, relationships cease to be an intricate part of the identity of that object. If the design view of science criticizes it for a focus on an impractical general rule, then so, too, is a particular an impractical abstraction of reality.
In the practical world, design as object must be superseded by design as relationships.