Throwing out the baby with the bath water: why the ‘scientization’ of design is ruining the sociology of design

I confess that since embarking on (and eventually earning) my PhD nearly a decade a go, I have become increasingly alert to a need for systematic, critical and bias-conscious design research. Earning my research ‘stripes’ in the hinterland between sociology and human-computer interaction (HCI) studies, I was exposed to a rich plethora of research methods: from qualitative to quantitative; from inquiries into human behaviour to critiques of the artefactual. As I matured as an academic researcher, I realised that merely designing ‘things’ and throwing them out into the world was – in academia at least – not a legitimate way of creating new knowledge or, as is commonly understood, to conduct research. Fortunately, this criticism of so-called ‘practice-based research’ or ‘non-traditional research’ has abated over the last ten years as more and more design researchers have published written work about their practice, and (like many others) I joined the clarion call for more systematic and critical reflections on all things ‘design’.

At the centre of my professional life as a designer and design academic has been an interest in the way that we design (methods), our human agency in designing things (our practice) and the social context of all this designing. In Sir Christopher Frayling’s terms, I’ve been interested in the trinity of design research inquiries centred on research for design, through design and about design.

Given that my PhD was strongly located in sociological theories of social constructivism and practice theory, it is no surprise to me that my design research is now an enriching knowledge-creation activity in which I design things (‘through’ design), explore new methods and ways of thinking for designers (‘for’ design) and try to understand the impact, value and histories of design in Western Australia (‘about’ design). At every turn, I am conscious of what legitimises my research and the ethical frameworks for such work. A recent peer review of a journal article I have written though, has led me to seriously question our notions of legitimate research and, indeed, the peer review process. I will explain why.

I won’t reveal the title of the journal, which is Q1-ranked by Scimago and has an impressive array of editors and reviewers. I will refer to the anonymous reviewers comments in the context of my approach to the work as evidence of an increasing ‘scientization’ of design research.

I have in my personal library of books, three edited collections of writing on graphic design – Looking Closer (Volumes 1-3). The volumes were published between 1994 and 1999, with the first two written in the ‘near past’ of the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Seminal figures in design practice and design history – Steven Heller, Jessica Helfand, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Michael Bierut, Tibor Kalman, Ellen Lupton – amongst many others too long to list here, reflect critically on the past, present and future of graphic design education and practice.

Aside from historical accounts and analysis, there are many contributors (for example, Tibor Kalman) who use the written word as a form of autobiography or personal manifesto on what graphic design (and design in general) should be. Michael Bierut continues this trend, having published Now You See It in 2017 as a collection of ideas emergent from his practice at Vignelli Associates and Pentagram. There is no evidence in this work of ‘research methodology’, for these are autobiographic, rhetorical or polemical personal accounts about or for design.

In my paper submitted to the journal, I reflected on over thirty-two years as a designer, entrepreneur and academic, all in roles in which design has been central to my professional practice. Although I anonymise the paper, in this blogpost I will mention some of the key companies and figures who have shaped my professional career: Professor Ian McLaren, the late James Mellor (editor of The Buckminster Fuller Reader and personal friend of Bucky), IBM, First Business Computers, The Brilliant Agency, Telstar Entertainment Group, Granada Media Group, Design Bridge. Then, in academia at University for the Creative Arts, University of Surrey, University of Portsmouth and, more recently, Curtin University. I’ve worked on a number of multi-million pound projects – producing, leading, designing – across a number of sectors including finance, motorsports, music, television, food and beverages, aerospace, computing & IT and more.

Instead of writing purely a narrative, reflexive account in a similar vein to Bierut et al, I take a critical distance from my work to reflect on my values and behaviour working across over 80 projects. I analyse the presence of these values and behaviours in both entrepreneurial (startups and spin-outs) and corporate settings and then present these back in the form of infographics. These are intended to make sense of how the values and behaviours are related conceptually and where they are manifest.

Despite this, my critical analysis of my design practice was met with a criticism around the ‘research question’, the methods deployed and the view that my writing had too much description with not enough criticality. On this last point, this may be the case but my response to any claims of too much subjectivity and not enough objectivity can be countered with a simple riposte: there is more criticality and analysis here in one paper than the equivalent reflections on design practice that I have found in many of the writings from practitioners mentioned above. My position is that whatever accounts we give of our ‘designing’, these are as legitimate as a form of knowledge as any other form of qualitative research.

In an increasingly scientific world of research, even humanities reviewers are becoming more and more beholden to the positivist tradition. This means that the richness of human utterances, reflections and narratives are being slowly eroded by a scientism that argues for distance between the researched and the researcher, resulting in a diminished authorial, autoethnographic or autobiographical voice – even when this is analytical in flavour. When we write about the act of designing, we are describing a process or way of thinking – at a macro or micro level – that is real not imagined. We are writing and thinking about our human experiences which are as ‘valid’ as the points-of-view of research participants in other forms of qualitative research. Unfortunately, in it’s attempt to join the academé, design research is beginning to resemble the science wars that took place in the social sciences in the 1980s2 when scientific realists reacted to the authors in the journal Social Text which suggested that (shock, horror) society and politics – not just scientific methods – shape scientific knowledge.

This schism between objectivisim and relativism is perhaps exemplified by one seminal figure in graphic design – Paul Rand. In Volume 2 of Looking Closer, he is interviewed by Janet Abrams and on the Sunday prior to their meeting, Rand’s then newly published book Design, Form and Chaos is reviewed by design historian Victor Margolin. Rand responds to Margolin in what is described by Abrams as a “splenetic outburst”:

“The review of my book was written by an academe character, not a practicing artist. He makes absolutely irresponsible statements about me at the end of the essay: that I am not interested in social things and that it’s too bad I’m not interested in the latest stuff. He’s dead wrong. I could flunk this guy in two minutes on a design history test” Rand in Abrams (1997) Paul Rand in Looking Closer 2, edited by Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., & Holland, DK. 1

The rhetoric around his credentials for design history aside, Rand draws attention to the problem of the peer-review process. We know it tries to instil ‘robustness’ and legitimacy into research but, as a largely anonymous process, who are the reviewers to judge on the contribution of our utterances to knowledge? We cannot make broad and unsubstantiated claims in our writing (often the criticism of work which is not peer-reviewed) but when designers are at the centre of authorship, what claims does anybody else have on our authenticity? 3.

Herein lies the problem of research in design, as it has tried to give account of itself in the wider faculty: by attempting to lift itself out of the margins it has ‘scientised’ its lines of inquiry, reducing the human phenomenon (social, political, personal) of designing to an ontological and epistemological child of the sciences. We have thrown our baby out with the bath water4.

How might we respond to this? I argue that we should embark on a concerted programme of narrative inquiry and sociological analysis, building on our creative traditions and on the foundations of scholarly work from sociology and Science & Technology Studies (STS). The sociologists are decades ahead of us in terms of finding methodological, ontological and epistemological ways of building knowledge in the field that is both diverse and inclusive, critical and – importantly – does not cater to the blind faith in the scientific method. We already know that designing – as an abductive way of thinking – is different to other ways of building knowledge. Let us maintain it’s ‘specialness’ by being far less dogmatic about how we understand the ‘what ‘how’ and ‘why’ it happens.

The Short Read:

My paper was rejected and I feel aggrieved. It has me self-reflecting both on the authenticity of my authorial voice but also on the peer-review process. Design research has become a domain of positivist-leaning, single-minded reductionists who cannot see the richness of the social shaping of design and the human experience of designing.

The Even Shorter Read:

Apparently my writing sucks and I’m only good for blogposts (and probably not even good at that).


1 The volume is dedicated to “Paul Rand (1914-1996). He was graphic design.” Rand had died just prior to publication of the book.

2 Ross, A. (1996)  Introduction in Social Text, (46/47), Duke University Press. pp.1–13

3 Michael Rock explored the question of designers as authors over twenty years ago in Rock, M. (1996). The designer as author. Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design (Archive : 1990-2005), 5(20), 44–53. He asked us to think about the authority of the author (the designer) and invited us to rethink process, methods and historical frames, reorienting from who made it to what it does and how it does it.

4 Callon, M., & Latour, B. (1992). Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath School! A Reply to Collins and Yearley. In Science As Practice and Culture.