The Design Space: the design process as the construction, exploration and expansion of a conceptual space

Chris Heape

Publikation: AfhandlingPh.d.-afhandling


The Design Space:

the design process as the construction, exploration and expansion of a conceptual space.



The principal motivation for this dissertation and the research endeavour as a whole was the concern that current descriptions of the design process, generally conceptualised as a linear progression of sequential events and as an altogether rational, decision making process, do not reflect the actual nature of designing. These process descriptions are fed back into design education to influence students’ design activity and create difficulties for them as they are put in a position where expectations focus on a rational and expedient resolution of design tasks, at odds with their actual experience of designing. 

The aim of this research endeavour was to reconceptualise the design process. To do this a series of research experiments were established as an educational proposition and given to the students as an overall design process course, the design tasks of which became increasingly more complex. The tasks were designed to challenge the students’ design practice and to introduce alternative perspectives on designing, alternative ways of appreciating and reflecting on their design activities and to a range of methods to engage those tasks.

The intention being that the analyses of the data and the material generated from the research experiments would in turn contribute to the development of a concept of the design process that more closely reflects the actual process of how the students were dealing with the ongoing nature of their design activities and what was meaningful to them throughout that process.

The methods used throughout this study were a combination of an explorative, integrative cross-case study that utilised situated experiments to set up the encounters in design, design engineering and engineering educational contexts. Interventionist, participatory, co-learning and action-response or re-experiment methods were used to engage with and respond to an ongoing interaction with the design students and the research project as a whole. As the aim of the experiments was to also understand what was meaningful to the students in their process of designing, a hermeneutic phenomenological research perspective was also adopted throughout this study, where human actions and language are considered as expressions of meaning in the context within which they occur.

From the empirical examples and their analyses, it emerged that it is possible to describe an alternative concept of the design process, namely as the construction, exploration and expansion of a conceptual space, a Design Space, where there is a transactional relationship between those three principle processes, the one effecting the other. As much as the processes of construction, exploration and expansion of a Design Space can be described in general terms as social and as design activities, it also emerged that there are a number of interrelated processes, sensibilities and skills in constant transaction with one another that the students deploy.

One can describe a Design Space as a fluid, dynamic, emergent and systemic whole of interweavings, traced by trajectories of exploration, experiment and change. The parts and relationships of this whole are continually structured and restructured to reflect the shifting flow of adjustments and perspectives necessary to relate to the ongoing contingency of a design task. From these interweavings a design proposal is gradually pulled to the fore as an emergent composition, a figure of parts that is directly related to the structure and ground of a Design Space as a whole. 

Related concepts of inquiry, movement, place and doing emerged as natural expansions to that of interweavings. There is a close relationship between having a sense of somewhere to go in a Design Space and a place within which one can do, of naming a place and of experiencing a place. This led to the conclusion that one can consider the design process as principally motivated by Inquiry. An inquiry that initiates a series of distributed tasks carried out in places in a Design Space, which draw on and involve a range of activities or doings in those places to support or change that inquiry. This expansion or change in the inquiry, or simply what has been learnt, then influences the projection of a trajectory as further movements to other places of inquiry. Inquiry comes to the fore and the modelling of tasks and activities involved recedes, now dependent on how that inquiry emerges and develops. This as opposed to considering the design process as a series of tasks to go through and as driving that process forward.

As a result of this shift to an emphasis on inquiry, it also became apparent that the rather more pragmatic planning of a design project need not be in conflict with the emergent character of the interweavings in a Design Space. A design project’s planned structure can now be considered a means of mediating and guiding the interweavings in a Design Space and the unfolding process of inquiry, in transaction with other mediating processes and the process of emergence in general, as opposed to being a prescribed set of tasks that are imposed on a design process in order to control it. 

One conclusion that can be drawn from the concept of Design Space is that it is possible to conceptualise the design process in a way that more closely reflects design students’ actual experience of designing, as the interweavings in a Design Space take their departure point in those resources of the how of the students’ doing that naturally emerge when they engage their design tasks. As became clear from the empirical descriptions and analyses this enables the students to more readily identify with and reflect on their process and as a result engage their resources of imagination, exploration and experiment more freely. 

Another conclusion is that it is possible to describe a concept of the design process both verbally and visually that takes into account its emergent and dynamic character, as opposed to idealising that process as a linear progression of sequential events and as an altogether rational, decision making process. 

One question to emerge from the findings in this dissertation is whether some research into the design process has in fact been about the design process or more concerned with the description of the task oriented course of a design project? There is a difference! A design project and its structure are part of a design process and not the design process in itself.

ISBN'er, tryktISBN 978-87-991686-6-8
StatusUdgivet - 2007

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