Book: The Design Way

designWayIn The Design Way 1 Nelson and Stolterman promote design culture as a way of making sense of and creating change in a world that, despite the attempts of science and technology, is unpredictable. A design approach, in contrast to scientific, artistic, economic or spiritual traditions, embodies unique attributes and competencies that embrace the “reality of the human condition by intentionally embracing the richness of possibilities; the complexity of choices and the overwhelming challenges of getting it right” [p. 2]. Other traditions, they say, focus on one aspect or dimension of the human experience.

Design, Nelson and Stolterman argue, is a “tertium quid — a third way — distinct from the arts and sciences” [p. 11]  and they argue for a “reconstitution of sophia — the integration of thought and action through design” [p. 11] (Chapter one unpacks this in the context of Western philosophy). “Design wisdom requires the reconstitution of sophia. Design wisdom is an integration of reason with observation, reflection, imagination, action, and production or making.” [p. 18]

Design is not a mid point between art and science, rather it is “a third culture with its own founding postulates and axioms, with its own approach to learning and inquiry. Design is inclusive of things found in science such as reason, and in the arts such as creativity.” [p. 12]

“Design is the ability to imagine that-which-does-not-yet-exist, to make it appear in concrete form as a new, purposeful addition to the real world.” [p.12]  They even suggest that design is the “first tradition” among many traditions of inquiry but note that it does not have a long or well-developed scholarly history.

“… the design tradition’s thread of continuity frayed, and finally broke, over the centuries, as the Western world lured its resources on the development of analytic and reductive thinking to the detriment of synthetic and integrative design thinking. Yet, to be able to successfully deal with change in the twenty-first centre, it is now critical that we pick up this frayed design threads, and weave them back into new patterns, integrating their wisdom into a more holistic fabric of life.” [p. 21]

The design process results in an ultimate particular: “a single and unique composition or assembly” [p. 31], something that cannot be achieved using a scientific approach.

Nelson and Stolterman see service as a defining element of design: “All design activities are animated through dynamic relationships between those begin served … and those in service” [p. 41]. And, later: “The presence of a binding service relationship in design contribute to a clear distinction between the tradition of design and the traditions of art or science.” [p.41]

Designers, they say, are other-serving, in that “self expression is not dominant in a design relationship, as it is in the traditions of science and art” [p. 42].

“A service relationship is a distance, complex, and systemic relationship, with a particular focus on responsibility, accountability, and intention. Designed products, whether concrete or conceptual, only have value and meaning because of this intentional service relationship. Therefore, it is through the presence of a service relationship that intentional change, and the consequences of intentional change, can come to have meaning and give meaning to individual and collective lives. For a designer, the service relationship is the bail teleological cause, that is to say, the purpose of design.” [p. 42].

They distinguish between “finding meaning” and “making meaning”. Finding meaning is reactive and adaptive, while making meaning is proactive and intentional. “To be in service is to be proactive. This means the designer cannot wait around for things to just fall into place.” [p. 43] They note that being service is not servitude. “Instead, service treats the other as an equal. This does not mean being similar, as in categories of social science, or equivalent, as in egalitarianism, but equal as in equitable partnerships. Service is also distinct from helping, which, by its very nature, creates an unilateral relationship.”

A generative relationship is one of the higher goals in design.

Nelson and Stolterman explore design through processes desire, interpretation, communication, judgement, composition and materials.


Nelson and Stolterman discuss the idea of desiderata in some detail. Desiderata, or desired things, is seen here as “an  inclusive whole”. That is, they view desiderata as including three approaches to change: aesthetics, ethics and reason.

“These three approaches to intentional change have the following correspondence. What we want can be seen as our aesthetics. What we believe ought to be relate to our ethics. That which is or needs to be corresponds to reason. In any particular situation, however, there is never just one approach present. Depending on what we perceive as the basis for intentional action, there will be different proportions and balance among the three: aesthetics, ethics, and reason. In real-world contexts, everything is blended.” [p. 106-107]

“… there are problems with focusing too heavily on need as the key human motivation for hang or innovation. Need implies that the desired situation is clearly understood, and that the real state of affairs, which is also clearly understood, is an undesired one. The deference between the desired state and the actual state i framed as the problem. It is also assumed that there is no difficulty in in determining the reds that must be satisfied in order to realise the desired state. It is assumed that the process of satisfying needs can be efficiently accomplished through a rational and pragmatic problem-solving approach.” [109-110]

“However, focusing strictly on our needs has allowed the fields of our desires to go fallow. … Human intention, when motivated by desiderata rather than need, reshapes the entire process for intentional change.” [p.110]

“Needs-based design is founded on the erroneous assumption that a need or problem is easily discerned. The reality of course is that needs are not clearly understood at all.” [p. 110]

“… we would be wise to approach the world from a design perspective and look to our desiderata for direction in our approach to intentional change.” [p. 111]

They suggest that most professional design falls into the realm of redesign. “However, if progress, rather than just improvement, is desired, the process must be initiated with the client’s expression of desiderata.” [p. 115]


“Every design situation is unique and complex, constitution an ultimate particular, which is unique and singular in and of itself, without measurable qualities.” [p. 119]

Nelson and Stolterman suggest a holistic approach to evaluating the world in design situations in which interpretation plays a key role.

“Interpretation is a subjective process. Interpretation, as part of at the design process serves the same purpose as evident and proof do in science. Interpretation is part of our endeavor to grasp the conditions and contexts that exist in a design situation, which will set the stage for the conceptualising new designs.” [p. 120]

They suggest that to interpret the full complexity and richness of reality, designers need to use a variety of methods: interviews, surveys, studies, observations etc. Many scientific tools and methods are helpful in design too, because they enable us to form a basic, factual understanding of the world. But designer are interested in using facts to create something , rather than replicate something that is true, therefore “a designer is obliged to use whatever approaches provide the best possible understanding of reality from a design perspective. This does not mean that anything goes, in an undisciplined way, or that one method of interpretation is as good as any other method. It simply implies that the means of validation and acceptance of pieces of information have different criteria in design that they do in science.” [p. 121]

“The act of interpretation allows us to observe and understand the world through the lens of our design desiderata. It is a means to discover if the real world holds a valence for our designs and if there is good fit between our chosen design and a specific situation.” [p. 121]

“Interpretation in design is not a search for the objective, true, and precise design imperatives, hidden somewhere in the richness of reality waiting to be observed. Instead, design interpretation is an act of judgement.” [p. 122]

The do not dismiss scientific methods of understanding, rather, they would like to “bring scientific decision making and judgement together in a way that is guided by intention and is holistic in its approach.” [p. 122]

Such an approach is difficult because it is “a move towards meaning making rather than meaning finding. Thus, it is not an approach focused on deductive or inductive scientific reasoning, but on making connections and seeing relations among a diversity of candidates pressing for attention. The making of meaning is not an activity of scientific inquiry; however, as a designer, it is vital to your process.” [p. 122]

Imagination and communication

The ability to imagine something is essential in order to create it and to interpret it: “every ultimate particular design is envisioned through imaginative thinning. It can never be merely copied from a template example.” [p. 128]

Nelson and Stolterman suggest that imagination has not be emphasised in traditional disciplines: “This is predictable, when you consider that science has, as its major purpose, the creation of true knowledge about reality ? the given. There has not been a similar kind of focus on how to change reality through the process of imagining and creating new additions to reality.” [p. 129]

While the ability to imaging a new design is vital to designers, they also need to be able to communicate their idea. They note that a common belief among the general public is that design is about drawing pictures, but their definition sees design as a form of intention: “The communication of intention involves more that the creation of visual representations of finished design concepts. Design communication is essential throughout the whole design process and is heavily dependent on the creation and communion of images.” [p. 131]

They make the case for an ‘allopoietic’ design communication process that involves imagining and creating things that don’t yet exist, but that were desired, in the service of humanity. “It is about the significance of human intention and purpose in the creation of the real world. This is quite different from a typical Western technological approach, which prescribes that something ought to be created, simply because it can be done.” [p. 132]


Judgement, too, is essential for design and is at the heart of design wisdom: “The ability to make solid design judgements is often what distinguishes a stellar designer from a mediocre one.” [p. 139]

“Judgement is not founded on strict rules of reasoning. It is more likely to be dependent on the accumulation of the experience of consequences from choices made in complex situations. However, judgment is not irrational, because it follows its own form of intuitive logic.” [p. 139]

“Although design judgment cannot be separated from the designer, designers can reflect on the nature of their own judgement making and begin to improve on their ability to make good judgments as an essential key to gaining access to design wisdom.” [p. 142]

They explain design judgment as “nonmetric decisions or understanding”: “Design judgment making is the ability to gain subconscious insights that hav been abstracted from experiences and reflections informed by situations that are complex, indeterminate, indefinable, and paradoxical. This results in the emergence of meaning and value, through the creation of relationships and connections that cause the appearance of unities, forms, patterns, and compositions, out of apparent chaos. Judgment is, in effect, a process of taking in the whole, in order to formulate a new whole.” [p. 145]


“The process of composing and assembling design elements should be based on a thorough understanding of what can be done, what should be done, but  most of all, what is desired to be done.” [p. 160]

Composition is about “making judgments on how to best inter ate a particular design into a specific context and fit it into its environment. In particularly, it is about how to match a design’s actual potential to the client’s expressed desired.” [p. 161]

Judgments about framing, composition and connections are all creative acts: “the level of creativity in a design is expressed in the way things are brought together — in how they are related and connected in ways appropriate to the ultimate particular conditions and intentions.” [p.161]

“Compositional assembly — the creation of real things — is an overwhelmingly important aspect of design. To compose connections — to shape the world — is a great responsibility, as the designer and his or her design becomes part of the ongoing creation of our reality. That is a daunting prospect, but when designers dive in fully, it is one of the most inspiring and rewarding activities imaginable.” [p. 171]

Craft and material

Craft is one of the more down-to-earth strategies associated with designing. Craft is “the skill set a designer needs to use when working wight the right materials, in the right proportion, with the right tool set in order to produce a final desired, designed outcome.” [p. 13]

‘The final production of a design should not be separated from its conceptual designing. When this happens, the design does not mature in consonance with the formative ideas underlying it.” [p.174]

Nelson and Stolterman focus on two aspects of production: materials and craft. Materials encompass the physical materials a design is made with, and also the abstract materials: process, symbols, system, people, culture.

“Materials are what a designer brings together using structural connections or compositional arrangements.” But materials are not passive, they “speak back” to the designer [p. 174]: “When the ‘materials speaks back’ it does so by showing the designer its limits and restrictions, as well as possibilities, impossible to imagine without having them voiced in a concrete way.” [p. 175]

The resonates with the ideas of affordance and constraint.

“Craft and material too often are seen primarily as the concrete and practical aspects of designing and are not included in the broader understanding of design as a tradition of inquiry and action. However, no understanding of design is complete without a deep appreciation of craftsmanship and materials and their place in the essence of designing.” [p. 179].

  1. Nelson, Harold G & Stolterman, Eric (2012) The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World, 2nd end. MIT Press