There was a web meeting today on instructional design. I was in another meeting, so I was unable to tune in, but I was interested in something from the session’s abstract:
Author and designer Victor Papanek (1985) defines design as “the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order” (p.4) This can mean that whether we are involved in instructional design, or in other endeavors in which something is to be created different than what existed before; “all that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity” (Papanek, 1985, pg. 4).
Beginning with Papanek’s specific definition, I can’t get over the union of “conscious and intuitive effort.” My dictionary places these adjectives in slight opposition: Conscious entails awareness, while intuition occurs in the absence of reason. Perhaps these terms were included as either-or descriptors (e.g., “both conscious and intuitive efforts may be counted as design”). Such inclusion would be consistent with another point I’ll make below.
I’m less certain the requirement that design assumes the intention to “impose meaningful order.” That limitation appears useful to distinguish design from its superset art, but I waiver on ostracizing creation without meaning. I’d like to ponder the implications of this specification a bit longer.
I noticed that fields attempting to define themselves often do so with implicit goals of inclusion. This motivation drives the theorists toward definitions that are no less abstract than the term’s generally accepted meanings. Take, for example, Papanek’s comment that design is “all that we do, almost all the time.” To quote David Merrill’s protestations against learning objects, “If something is everything, then it is nothing.” In other words, defining something to encompass anything or almost everything renders the term useless; it would be more useful to define what design isn’t.
Perhaps the difference between Papanek’s definitions and my own efforts to lock-down the meaning of design has been the angle of attack: Papanek was a designer who believes his field to be truly broad, while I was a design student trying to delineate the difference between my field and art. I eventually accepted this distinction:
Design is creation within constraints.
Art is creation that may or may not be constrained.
By my definitions, some design is clearly a subset of art, but art is a larger umbrella. I placed the “constraints” in design because I noticed that in practical fields – from my father’s engineering, to my graphic design (and later to my software, research, and instructional design) – the design process included acknowledgement of the functional requirements and limitations of the work.
I’m not sure that either of these definitions is adequate, but hearing Papanek’s definition stirred the memories of a long-settled self-debate.