To what extent does industrial design have a tradition of theoretical discussion?
And what are the key issues in this tradition?

by Trygve Ask
PhD student
Institute of industrial design 
Oslo School of Architecture
Oslo, 1998

Industrial design with its short and practice oriented history is not thought to have a strong tradition of theoretical discussions (Norwegian: drøftning) if we think of theory in a strict academic sense. But throughout the development of industrial design as a profession there have been many attempts to establish or construct theoretical, ideological, moral and even political fundaments for the practice of design. These attempts stretch from the emotional manifests of the pioneering 1920s to the rational and methodological attempts to make design scientifically acceptable in the 1960s and on to the debates on design research today.

The question we would like to answer in this essay is whether industrial design have a tradition of theoretical discussion (drøfting). In Norwegian the word "drøfting" have some of the same meaning as "discussion" or "argumentation". But it also implies some kind of thrall reflection on the subject you are writing on. "Drøfting" might be explained as a Pro et Contra argumentation that is written in an attempt to present as many perspectives as possible before arriving on a conclusion. In his unpublished essay "Argumentation in design research",  Oslo 1997, the Norwegian computer design researcher Birger Sevaldson, writes that " "Drøfting" is to conceive and to perform a discussion with yourself. But it also means to investigate, to weight arguments and to conclude." In this essay we will use the term "theoretical discussion" in our attempt to identify possible theoretical traditions. We will then in every separate case try to decide if the discussions presented can qualify as "drøfting" as we have described it.

Due to the interdisciplinary structure of most design educations and practices there have been room for many strands of theoretical or ideological discussions and focuses. In this essay we will attempt to draw attention to some of the areas subjected to a growing theoretical investigation within the realms of industrial design. When I say theoretical investigation I mean attempts to produce theoretical writings, discussions and debates on these issues. These attempts can be recognised by the organising of conferences, establishing of scholarly  journals and the publishing of theoretical articles and books.

Industrial design is, as mentioned, not a well-defined academic subject but a interdisciplinary profession. Industrial design is made up of different fields of knowledge which have their own separate theoretical traditions. There will not be room for a discussion on these traditions within  the framework of this essay. In this essay we would like to focus on  the theoretical discussion concerning what industrial design is or should be. To do this it might be helpful to make some distinctions concerning the areas of discussion.

1. Internal theoretical discussions concerning the nature of industrial design:
· Design methodology
· Product semantics
· Design research

2. External theoretical discussions on the nature of design by other disciplines:
· Design history
· Design management

3. Theoretical discussions belonging to autonomous fields or subjects applied in design.
· Ergonomics/human factors
· Technology
· Marketing
· etc.

The main focus of this essay will be the internal theoretical discussions. We will also take a look at the external discussions and to what extend these have contributed to the theoretical discussion within industrial design. The theoretical discussions of the autonomous subjects within design will not be discussed within the limits of this essay.


Design methodology
One of the theoretical strands of discussion within industrial design is the one concerning design methodology. The development of design methodology is based on a general assumption that in order to make design more scientific there had to be established a rational method of design. In his book Development in design methodology, London 1984, Nigel Cross defines design methodology as "the study of the principles of practices and procedures of design in a rather broad and generalised sense. It’s central concern is how designing both is and might be conducted."(1) Design methodology can by this be seen both as a descriptive and a normative theory of design. It is also interesting to note that Jerker Lundequist, in his book Design og productutvikling. Metoder och begrepp(2) sees the development of design methodology as synonymous with the development of design theory.

The first efforts of developing a design methodology began between 1951 and the beginning of the sixties depending on which source to quote. The first conference on the subject is said to be Conference on Design Methods held in London in 1962(3). There seems to be a consensus that Hochschule für Gestaltung, Ulm had a central role in much of the earlier work. One of the heads at Ulm, Tomas Maldonado, founded his design methodology on a theory of scientific operationalism, which was based on the idea that design was a process which could be systematised and rationalised(4). This concept of rationalism can be seen as a continuing of the functionalist’s focus on function and rational form.

Much of the first attempts to establish a method of design was influenced by system-engineering, space research and other areas where complex problems had to be solved. A reaction to this approach to the design process came with what Cross calls the second generation of design methodology(5). The second generation was anti-expertise, stressed the negotiating aspect of design and saw the role of the designer to be more like a mid-wife for users ideas.(6)

Geoffrey Broadbent, one of the leading figures in the movement of design methodology, criticises in the late 1970s both these earlier generations. He finds their design process to be both to rigid and to intensive-organised. Broadbent takes a critical stand towards the earlier design theories which he considers to be ideologies rather than scientific theories. Scientific reasoning in design should, according to Broadbent, be concerned with investigating these ideologies rather than producing new design ideologies. Accordingly the third generation of design methodology concentrates much of its efforts on questions about knowledge and especially the tacit knowledge implemented in the design process. Philosophers as Popper, Peirce, Chomsky, Heidegger and Wittgenstein is central to the development of design theories during the 1980s.(7)

Design methodology, with its three generations, the continuing organising of conferences and the publishing of papers and books can be seen as having established a tradition of theoretical discussion within industrial design. But as we have noted there are at least three quite contradictory traditions of design methodology. Broadbent refers to Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigms and compares the different theoretical positions within design methodology with political ideologies. The question is then whether the discussions within the tradition of design methodology and between the generations can be seen as "drøfting" or mere polemic argumentation for ones own ideological position.

As in any other discipline, professional or academic, there are many participants that argue solely to impose an ideology or a political world view on the practice of a discipline. The first two generations of design methodology might be perceived as polemic and idealistic. The first generations had their trust in the designer as an objective expert guided by a systematic and rational design process. The second generation were just as sure that the solution to all design problems were to be found by analysing the need of the user. In both these generations the idea of one guiding principle did not give much room for reflective thought on whether their principles might be true or not. This is reflected in that most books on methodology is "how to do" books rather than books reflecting on "why". Morris Asimov presented his Design morphology in 1962, Bruce Archer presented his check lists in 1963/64 and Christopher Alexander presented his methods in 1964(8). As newer examples we have The design of everyday things (1988) by Donald A Norman and Vilda ideer och djuplodande analys (1994) by Jan Landquist. All these books are books explaining what to do without any strong discussions on why.

The third generation of design methodologies claim to be more reflective, more philosophical and by that more oriented towards reflective discussions on their own positions. Due to growing interest in design as knowledge and the way designers work, the approach to design methodology has become more descriptive rather than normative. With this new approach the methods of research has been altered and most of the work done in this area have the form of case studies or action-research. The impact of CAD in the design process has especially been subject to huge interest by the design methodologists. This change in method has also led to more theoretical reflection concerning the results of the case and action research.

But the neither the results of, nor the objects of the research in design methodology is no longer restricted to industrial design as was mainly the case when it all started at Ulm some 40 years ago. Some of the researches claim that design methodology should be relevant to any profession involved in planning and execution of projects. So even if design methodology has gained a more reflective and mature level of discussion it has also moved beyond the realms of industrial design and established itself as an autonomous field of research and theoretical discussion. Although industrial design can use the results from research or theoretical discussions in design methodology the discussion itself is no longer a discussion on what industrial design is or should be.

This move from a theory within industrial design to a general theory of all kinds of design and planning might be compared to the act of going to the kitchen to fetch something and then when you are there, you have forgotten what your were looking for. By this stage the design methodologist seems to enjoy the kitchen so much that he chooses to stay there. Design methodology was based on the functionalist assumption that the form could be derived from function, the production process and other determinant factors. Design methodology was thought to be the tool to control all these factors. Since the first development of design methodology industrial design has been subjected to deep changes in its fundament. Design methodology has thus become an autonomous discipline almost irrelevant to the basic theoretical questions concerning industrial design.

Product semantics
Product semantics have since the 1980s been the theme for several conferences and books indicating that this might be an area of growing theoretical discussion. On of the head theoreticians behind product semantics, Klaus Krippendorf, describes this as a change from design for function and use to design for understanding. Krippendorf will even go so far as to describe product semantics as a paradigm shift in design.

Product semantics is based on semiotic theory from different theorists like Sausurre, Peirce and Barthes. Originally a theory of linguistics, semiotics is a tool to analyse the use of signs in language or in culture. But while semiotics is concerned with all aspects with the use of signs product semantics seems to more concerned with the sign directly connected to the use and function of the product. (Semantics is the part of semiotics concerned with the meaning of the sign.) This indicates that product semantics, rather than being a paradigm shift, to a large extend takes the role of a rescue operation for modernism in design.(9) At least that could be seen as Krippendorfs intention.

Even though product semantics claim to represent a shift from focus on function to focus on use they do not seem to be interested in discussing the wider theoretical consequences of using a cultural analysis, like semiotics, in product design.

The theory surrounding product semantics follow much of the same pattern as seen in connection with design methodology. Very few participants discuss the theoretical basis of the theory, some are suppliers of methods and "how to do" models, but most of the research is focused on case studies of "suitable" cases(11). When the case studies are designed very few of the researchers makes any critical investigations into the models presented by Krippendorf and others. There are numerous aspects concerning product semantics that are left to be investigated. It would be interesting to know to what degree product semantics subscribes to all theoretical models within semiotics. Furthermore the use of a mainly descriptive theory of language as a normative model of design also imposes theoretical complications. Non of these theoretical problems seem to be taken under investigation of the participants in this field of design theory.

This leads us to conclusion that in spite of conferences, publishing of papers and case studies product semantics remains shielded from theoretical investigations and critical discussions. Most of the studies based on product semantics refers to the established notion of what product semantics is and should be. In cases where there seems to be differing ideas these seem to go by un-debated or at least without any deep theoretical implications. To my knowledge there are no papers that try to line up the different approaches to product semantics and discuss the theoretical pros and cons of each. Most theoretical papers on the subject usually find it sufficient to present their own idea of how product semantics should be understood, and by that they are not contributing to a theoretical discussion or "drøfting" on the subject.

Design research and the establishment of scholarly journals
The last decades there have been a growing interest in research on design. Several journals have been established to present the work and results of what is considered design research. Some of the most known are Design Studies published in Britain, Design Issues published in USA and form diskurs published in Germany. If there should be any tradition of theoretical discussion within industrial design we should expect this to be reflected in these journals.

The aim and scope of Design Studies, according to themselves, is "to provide a forum for the discussion and development of the theoretical aspects of design, including its methodology and values."(12) It is also interesting to note that the editor of Design Studies is Nigel Cross, the author of Development in Design Methodology. Design Studies makes a point of being interdisciplinary in their coverage of engineering, architecture, planning and industrial design. The background of the editor and this interdisciplinary approach are both reflected in the focus on design methods, design management and the application of new techniques and methods in the practice of design.

The dominant focus on case studies and developments in design methods and processes does not make much room for more theoretical discussions on the nature of design. There has however been mediated a short debate on the nature of design research. One of the contributors was Charles L. Owen, a staff member at the Institute of design, Illinois Institute of Technology. He emphasises the evident lack of a theoretical knowledge base or theoretical literature on design.

To avoid the discussion whether design research should follow the methods of other sciences Owen goes on to look at how knowledge is used and accumulated as he sees building knowledge is the goal of research. This quotation reflects to things we have mentioned earlier. The apparent lack of theoretical knowledge or discussion within industrial design and the interest in, and turn towards knowledge building in design research.

To address the discussion on design research Owen presents a dualistic model of knowledge-using contra knowledge-building. This division is an analytical model to show how design traditionally is based on the knowledge-using end of the sale and the need to balance this with more knowledge-building. Owen is quite open to how knowledge-building could be achieved, and most of his recommendations are of a practical nature. On the theoretical end of the scale he suggests a distinction between research and professional education in design, the initiation of the study of the philosophy of design and the establishment of means of communicating knowledge such as conferences, symposia, text book publishing and journals.

Design Issues is another attempt to establish a scholarly journal of design. Founded in 1983 at the University of Illinois(14)  it represents the US counterpart to Design Studies. Design Issues want to link history, theory and criticism in their contribution to building the field of design studies. By this signature Design Issues distinguish itself from Design Studies with a more cultural and historical approach to design and design theory. However, in the editorial statement of 1993 they signal a change towards more articles from practising designers, because "the practice today are an important window into the evolving nature of design that must be addressed more thoroughly".(15) Design Issues also picture their readers to be from all walks of design but with a passionately interest in design. This indicates that Design Issues want to be a serious contributor to discussions within design but not solely theoretical in their approach.

A journal that, in its name at least, is committed to the theoretical discussions within design is form diskurs, a subsidiary of the German design magazine form. According to the editorial statement the magazine are trying to focus entirely on theoretical discussions on design.

The magazine usually presents a theme for each number, opening for diverse reflection on one issue connected to design and theory. The articles are however of varying quality. Like the contributions in the other theoretical journals, the articles tend to present a view, a case or a theory without any clear will to reflection or discussion on the subject. "Drøfting" as we defined it as a reflection or discussion with one self seems not to be a common way of presenting theory in neither of the three journals we have been looking at.


Industrial design has also been subject to theories from "outside" disciplines that have design as their object of research. The two most significant contributors to theory about design from the "outside" is design history and design management. Design history has mainly developed from art history and architectural history and increasingly marked their own territory through the organising of conferences and establishing of scholarly journals. Design management is mainly a subject thought at economical and marketing schools. Both areas has through their work contributed to the knowledge-building within design.

Design history
Design history has traditionally been the history of the pioneers of the modern movement and the different shapes and forms this movement has taken through the 20th century. In this approach design history has taken the side of the design promoters, describing the designers struggle for the elevation of product quality and  public taste. But lately there have been a shift towards a more broad and critical perspective on product culture and the notion of "good design" and "good form". One example is Jonathan M. Woodham’s book Twentieth-Century design Oxford 1997. In this book he have included a presentation and reflection on consumerism, commerce, nostalgia and heritage, aspects that are not commonly associated with our notion of good design. He also makes room for a critical look at the aggressive post-war design promotion.

One design historian continuously publishing articles critical to modernism in design is Jan Michl. Since the 1980s he has been reflecting on the implications of the fall of modernism to design arguing that the way design is practised and thought today do not fit the reality of the designers tasks. Michl is in this way commenting directly on what design is or should be like, an activity usually thought to be the territory of designers. In general it seems to prove hard to be taken seriously when a non-designer has ideas of how design should be practised or thought. Thus making the impact of the criticism and comments from non-designers on the teaching, practice or theory of design limited.
Design management
The growing field of design management has also contributed to comments and reflection on design from the "outside". Founded in 1975 the Design Management Institute sees it self as the leading authority on design management. They are also responsible for publishing the Design Management Journal. According to the editorial statement they want to present a "careful mix of practical and theoretical articles, representing the leading edge of contemporary design management thinking"(17). Even though many articles are written by managers and practitioners of design management there are also presentation of research and case studies on design management. But still a young discipline the pure theoretical reflections have been limited.

With its background in the fields of economy and marketing, design management have had their own agenda on what issues to prioritise in research and reflection on the design activity. Some of these issues have been the economical value of design, how to manage the design process in general and designers in particular and how design can contribute to the building of a brand or a corporate identity. In the research on the economical value of design they often share a common goal with the design promoters and in the research on the design processes they have had company with the design methodologists. But in general the research in design management have been pushing the focus of what design is and should be towards a more commercial, economical and marked oriented perspective. Design management has in the same way as design history contributed to the agenda of issues within the reflection on design. Despite the unwillingness from designers to take advice from the "outside", design management and design history is continuously influencing the self-image of industrial design. Hopefully this influence will have an impact on the theoretical reflection within industrial design in the future.



As we have tried to show in this essay industrial design can not be said to have a strong tradition of theoretical discussion. There have been many contributions from both designers and non-designers to the growing amount of theories and thoughts on design. But these contributions have very seldom the aspiration to produce a thrall reflection on the their own theories. More often these theoretical contributions take the shape of statements, manifests or mere repetitions of what "guru" designers have once said or written. In this way design theories appear more as different choices of faiths and beliefs equal to the choice of religious or political conviction.

In spite of the conferences and continuos  publishing of books and journals within the different areas of industrial design there has not been established a distinct tradition of theoretical reflection or discussion. But as we have also seen there is a growing number of means of communicating theoretical discussions or reflections. The different scholarly journals and conferences together with the growing interest in design from other disciplines, could open up for a development of what we might consider a tradition of theoretical discussion. Charles L. Owen saw these means of communication as a prerequisite for the establishment of good research on design.

Owen also suggested that the study of design should be divided into a theoretical degree for the purpose of doing research in design and a more practical oriented professional degree. This suggestion points to the fact that few designers are trained in the art of theoretical discussion and reflection. This fact would to a large extend explain the lack of a tradition of theoretical discussion. Most designers seek towards this profession because of the practical and creative implications of designing. Within the complex context of designing, a theoretical perspective and reflection would often only ad to the confusion. Designers often seem to be in desperate need of a few guiding principles so they, instead of tackling theoretical problems, can concentrate on the more practical and pragmatic problems within design. On this background it is no surprise that the suppliers of theories on design wants to present them as uncomplicated and unquestionable as possible. If we should avoid  this development in the future, Owen’s suggestion to establish a parallel theoretical degree in industrial design might just be the right medicine.

1. Cross, Nigel, Development in Design Methodology, The Open University and John Wiley, London 1984.

2. Lundequist, Jerker, Design og productutvikling. Metoder och begrepp, Lund 1995.

3. Cross, Nigel, Development in Design Methodology, The Open University and John Wiley, London 1984.

4. Sparke, Penny, An introduction to design and culture in the twentieth Century, London 1986

5. Cross, Nigel, Development in Design Methodology, The Open University and John Wiley, London 1984.

6. Ibid.

7. Lundequist, Jerker, Design og productutvikling. Metoder och begrepp, Lund 1995.

8. Bürdek, Bernhard E.,  Design, Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis der Productgestaltung. Köln, 1991

9. Michl, J. "[Book reviews of] Väkevä, Seppo, ed. Product Semantics '89 Helsinki 1990; Vihma, Susann, ed. Semantic Visions in Design. Helsinki 1990." Scandinavian Journal of Design History 2 (1992): 123-7.

10. Krippendorf, Klaus, "Product Semantic; A Triangulation and Four Design Theories" i Product Semantics `’89 Conference, red. Väkevä, Seppo, Helsinki 1990,  side a5

11. The priority of research focusing on usability and understanding is reflected in the choice of interfaces and way-finding as suitable cases to study. But other areas where semiotic could have practical impact, such as analyses of lifestyles, choice, desire and other aspects of modern consumer culture, seems to be neglected.


13. Owen, Charles L., "Design research: building the knowledge base", Design Studies Vol. 19 No 1. January 1998.


15. Ibid.





Bürdek, Bernhard E.,  Design, Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis der Produktgestaltung. Köln, 1991

Cross, Nigel, Development in Design Methodology, The Open University and John Wiley, London 1984.

Krippendorf, Klaus, "Product Semantic; A Triangulation and Four Design Theories" in Product Semantics ’89 Conference, red. Väkevä, Seppo, Helsinki 1990

Lundequist, Jerker, Design og productutvikling. Metoder och begrepp, Lund 1995.

Michl, Jan "[Book reviews of] Väkevä, Seppo, ed. Product Semantics '89 Helsinki 1990; Vihma, Susann, ed. Semantic Visions in Design. Helsinki 1990." Scandinavian Journal of Design History 2 (1992)

Owen, Charles L., "Design research: building the knowledge base", Design Studies Vol. 19 No 1. January 1998.

Sevaldson, Birger Argumentation in design research,(manuscript) Oslo 1997

Sparke, Penny, An introduction to design and culture in the twentieth century, London 1986

Woodham, Jonathan M., Twentieth-Century Design,  Oxford 1997