Overlooking the Visual: Demystifying the Art of Design

April 15, 2010

Landscape architect and educator Kathryn Moore identifies a malaise in thinking about the design process, which she attributes to the traditional rationalist world view that sees designing as part of a mysterious aesthetic realm, in which only certain people develop the "gift" of designing. In opposition to this way of thinking, she advocates an alternative developed from the work of John Dewey, the early 20th-century pragmatist philosopher and psychologist. Moore argues that her pragmatic view not only affords better insight into designing, it also enables designers who adopt it to work in a more effective manner, more easily explained to others, including students, paymasters and politicians.

This pragmatist approach, then, appears something of a "magic bullet", which in targeting the rationalist malaise could cure designers of bad habits, demystify their work processes, and enable others to evaluate the outcomes by appealing to common-sense criteria, rather than esoteric ones.

Moore draws very useful distinctions between the kind of knowledge, skills and ambitions that are implicit in the process of designing something and of the design of something as a vehicle for expressing the creator's personal inclinations. Her notion of pragmatic design involves concentrating on making the implicit explicit, rather than using design as a vehicle for self-expression, as do the stars of expressionistic tendencies in architecture, such as deconstructivism.

Her concern is that if the personality of the designer takes precedence over the function of the work, it will encourage the success of the work to be judged by appeal to the mysterious guiding spirit (genius) of the designer, instead of the value of the work to its users. Moore argues that this association of design practice with the mysterious actually weakens the position of designers and design educators in negotiating with their paymasters.

However, she criticises even more effectively the opposite tendency, evidenced in planning schemes of the 1960s, to rationalise the design process into an allegedly "objective" activity using supposedly quantitative means in order to arrive at design decisions that had profound social consequences.

The pragmatic approach then appears a middle way between these two extremes, which gives designers scope to offer their own best solutions to challenges, as distinct from "only" solutions, or ones that best communicate the designer's own aesthetic insights.

Moore makes a very good job of exposing the weaknesses of the opposing rationalist tradition, and may have presented her own proposal even more effectively if she had taken Dewey's theories and systematically run through the kind of objections they have encountered in order to further demonstrate how they may be defended.

As it stands, this book does less than it could to win over those of the expressionistic tendency who may well respond "there is nothing but text", and thus "designs, like other creative artefacts, are simply constructs their creators offer as competitors to other constructs, to be continuously reconstructed by the thoughts and actions of their users".

Nevertheless, this is a book designers ought to read, not least because it is a role model of how they could advocate theories in everyday prose that deals both clearly and rigorously with difficult philosophical and design issues.

Unlike many design scholars who look across the fence to see what they can learn from other disciplines, Moore selects only what she has properly understood and reports back without pretension, jargon or flow charts. Curiously, however, the many interesting illustrations used to support her arguments run as a kind of parallel text, and since few of the projects illustrated are specifically discussed in the main text, their appearance sometimes serves to interrupt the flow of a very stimulating discussion.

Anthony Crabbe is reader in design, Nottingham Trent University.

Overlooking the Visual: Demystifying the Art of Design

By Kathryn Moore. Routledge, 2pp, £95.00 and £24.99. ISBN 9780415308694 and 308700. Published 30 November 2009

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