Designed for learning

learning – teaching – research – design – technology

phenomenology, representation, design

I’m working on a paper on “the grand challenges of learning design”. One of the issues I’m exploring is representation: what would be a good representational infrastructure for learning design? I thought I should look for analogies in other design practices, e.g. architecture. But then: what are we representing? Reading Jones (2011), I thought: are we representing the object, or the phenomena? What does an architectural drawing capture? And to what purpose? Is it a contract between designer, inhabitant, builder? Or is it a metaphor for a lived experience? Or maybe that’s what sketches are for – as Tversky & Suwa (below) note – sketches allow the designer to express “what the designer wants to create”, overlaying spatial information with functional properties. So are sketches our way of articulating phenomena?
Then there’s Latour and Yaneva who are not the least bit impressed my the whole phenomenological project:
All this is very well, except it does nothing more than to reproduce, at the level of architecture, the usual split between subjective and objective dimensions that has always paralyzed architectural theory—not to mention the well known split it has introduced between the architectural and engineering professions (and not to mention the catastrophic consequences it has had on philosophy proper).
The paradoxical aspect of this division of labor envisioned by those who want to add the “lived” dimensions of human perspective to the “objective” necessities of material existence is that, in order to avoid reducing humans to things, they first had to reduce things to drawings.
Jones, D. (2011), An alternative (to) reality, in ‘Proceedings of the Researching Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments Conference’.
Latour, B. & Yaneva, A. (2008), ‘“GIVE ME A GUN AND I WILL MAKE ALL BUILDINGS MOVE”: AN ANT’S VIEW OF ARCHITECTURE’, Explorations in architecture: Teaching, design, research , 80-89.
Tversky, B. & Suwa, M. (2009), Thinking with sketches , pp. 75-85 .
Suwa, M. & Tversky, B. (1997), ‘What do architects and students perceive in their design sketches? A protocol analysis’, Design studies 18 (4) , 385-403 .

November 28, 2012 - Posted by | design | , , , , , , ,


  1. Right, this might get a bit metaphysical (and I have yet to properly sit down and really think about this) but…

    I would sympathise a great deal with Latour and Yaneva – phenomenology is very easy to misuse and allows a thinker (or practitioner) to gloss over quite a bit of detail and rigour when it is invoked as an explanation or philosophy in itself. But it is not an explanation (except in later philosophies) and is only a philosophy if you apply it with respect to its own ontology (you can’t just borrow bits of it – something architects are really good at).

    I would have to admit that I use phenomenology very much as a starting point – as a way into a consideration. I would also have to say that I also firmly subscribe to embodied theories of it too – i.e. those that do not attempt to apply a rigorous separation of reality and self. To separate like that makes more of a claim that you might think and it is this that many people reject. But take from this (at least) that there is some notion or conception of something that we might wish to make ‘real’ – like an idea.

    Next, representation in architecture has a wide range of functions and reasons. We can sketch to think (U101 makes big use of this), making use of the thousands of neurons between our brains and hands. We might sketch because we don’t have enough space in our head to keep all the ideas, so we need to ‘extend’ our heads by committing and then extending the thinking using these. Or we might represent to communicate to others the thing we need to (and this is not necessarily the thing itself – it might be to convince, cajole, prove, inform, etc).

    In the last couple of hundred years, representation started to be used to derive certainty and predictability. At some point we need to generate some discrete set of symbols that says ‘this is what it will be’ (read: ‘this is how much you have to pay’ … ). Note that this is independent of what the thing actually will be and is a necessary part of creating something tangible from the intangible. If we mix this up with distinctions of phenomenology then we make a fundamental mistake – especially if we suppose that representation (in itself) is the means by which we generate such a division. Sadly, however, that is the way it is done. Gone are the days when the emergence of a building was possible as an act of design*ing* and build*ing* on site (ask the folk that did the Acropolis…).

    We have perhaps become guilty of ‘valuing what we measure’ instead of ‘measuring what we value’ (Meadows, 1998). The ‘too well-crafted drawing’ that Latour and Yaneva refer to is a problem in this regard. It represents a particular thing in and of itself – and this might have very little to do with the original conception or idea… But it has everything to do with the process, politics and sociology of creating a building. The ultimate object has to be finite, discrete and tangible – even though the reality is that this is not what people want or need!

    And therein lies the problem for learning design… In many ways we are not designing an object, we are designing a process with objects in it. Or we are designing a Learning Objective that has opportunities to lead up to that. So what is it more important to represent: the process or the outcomes? Is the internal contradiction in architectural representation similar in education?

    What I might try to suggest (in a pretty blunt way) is that both of these things are actually inseparable. You cannot have learning outcomes without the means by which to achieve them. Similarly, you cannot have an activity that does not in some way have some learning outcome. We separate these things (perhaps) just as architects separate the idea from the representation – for expediency, to communicate, to design, to get funding or validation(!)

    This is what attracts me to phenomenology (Melrieau as a vague misused philosophy – I might chose some phenomena and then use that as a vague conception that is the phenomena, object and representation at the same time(!). This is what Jornet and Jaherie (2011) did with their design of museum space – phenomena, process and object were one thing.

    So, with this, you cannot have the representation without both the phenomena and object (which answers Latour and Yaneva’s criticism), you cannot have the phenomena without the representation and object (which answers philosophical criticisms of phenomenology – ish), and you cannot have object without the phenomena and representation (which allows education design to remain a process and object at the same time!).

    Brain has run out of dopamine. Will re-charge and think some more (some of that is brutally unsubtle…)

    Jornet, Alfredo, and Cecilie F Jahreie. 2011. “Designing for Immersive Learning Environments Across Schools and Science Museums . Conceptualisations of Space.” In ReLIVE11 Researching Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments, 122–131

    Meadows, D. H. (1998). Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development. A Report to the Balaton Group . Hartland Four Courners, VT, USA: The Sustainability Institute. Downloadable from

    Comment by Derek Jones | November 28, 2012 | Reply

  2. ah, so the fallacy of subject-object duality is to go down the drain, along with the fallacy of mind-body duality? “Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where do I start?” (Beteson, 1970)

    Does Schön (1984) mean phenomena in the same way when he says: “In answer to the situation’s back-talk, the designer reflects-in-action on the construction of the problem, the strategies of action, or the model of the phenomena, which have been implicit in his moves”

    Bateson, G. (1970), ‘Form, Substance, and Difference (Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture 1970)’, General Semantics Bulletin 37 , 5-13.

    Schön, D. A. (1984), The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action , Vol. 5126 , Basic Books .

    Comment by yishaym | November 29, 2012 | Reply

    • Bereson’s blind man has already started. If he taps, he is already embodied…

      Scon’s a bit trickier. He was actually a philosopher before he moved to observation of design (on train so will dig out a great paper on him later). He does (IMHO) have his own voice in philosophy so I wouldn’t like to say. I suspect it is but with a Schon-type twist. Will have a think about that one (tunnel approaches)

      Comment by Derek jones | November 29, 2012 | Reply

      • …and as you can tell, I can’t type with my thumbs (should have read Bateson and Schön, not Bereson and Scon (that sounds like a bakery)).

        Paper on the life of Schön is :
        Waks, Leonard J (2001) ‘Donald Schon ’ s Philosophy of Design and Design Education’, International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 11(Walsh 1997), pp. 37–51.

        Comment by Derek Jones | November 29, 2012

  3. “In many ways we are not designing an object, we are designing a process with objects in it.”
    Isn’t that true to all design? We perceive a certain configuration of mind-body-environment, and wish to engender some change in it. Fundamentally, the change is in the mind. We are not interested in designing barstools for penguins. You design an espresso cup in such a way because you want to change my experience of water steamed through ground roasted seeds. But you cannot affect my mind directly, you cannot describe the change you’re aiming for, so instead you sketch a black porcelain cone, and hope that we share the same semiotics.

    Comment by yishaym | November 29, 2012 | Reply

    • “representation in architecture has a wide range of functions and reasons.”
      i believe that the design process can be described as a non linear spiral, since a new level it may lead to a new design, one did not think of. yet, it is difficult to think of an absolute scope for defining or articulating the process it self and meaning that the designer wished for

      Comment by | November 29, 2012 | Reply

    • This is perhaps what we *should* do but in reality, all too often the object overtakes the design in many, many ways. So I might start with the conception of changing what you think about drinking coffee but I end up sorting out all the details (such as water-proofing, materials, manufacture, etc). At each stage, I *should* ask ‘will this still change Yishay’s mind about coffee?’

      For the coffee cup here, life is simple – we only have one immediate design conception but I’ll bet there would be more (or a single more complex one). Even with that example, I could easily respond by designing a super-glue laced cup which would most definitely change your attitude to drinking coffee (from a cup designed by me). In reality, the conception here would be much more complex.

      So there is only so much complexity we can handle in our minds and I (designer) might need to get rid of options by communication with you – this is where the semiotics kicks in and your point about hoping we share a language is important. Believe it or not, in a good design process, a lot of time is doing precisely this – aligning our language. So I wouldn’t just do a porcelain cone to hope that you understand, I would do that to test your understanding, learn where I understand more, where you understand more, and slowly we reach a shared language.

      As another example, the ODS2.0 requirement ‘searchy’ came from this – everyone understands what it means in their own way but until we start to talk about what this means with respect to each other, we don’t get anywhere (and a lot of problems (a *lot*) in architecture arise through this simple difference between expectation and reality.

      Comment by Derek Jones | November 29, 2012 | Reply

  4. My good friend Irenee Scalbert has pointed me to Latour’s “A Cautious Prometheus?” (2008). Latour lists 5 “advantages” of design, which are humility, attentiveness to detail, semiotic skills (considering meaning), remedial intent (design is always redesign – improving something to solve a problem) an ethical dimension – pursuing values. Latour then highlights the work of Peter Sloterdijk, and concludes with a challenge:

    “Now here is the challenge: In its long history, design practice has done a marvellous job of inventing the practical skills for drawing objects, from architectural drawing, mechanic blueprints, scale models, prototyping etc. But what has always been missing from those marvellous drawings (designs in the literal sense) are an impression of the controversies and the many contradicting stake holders that are born within with these.
    […] four hundred years after the invention of perspective drawing, three hundred years after projective geometry, fifty years after the development of CAD computer screens, we are still utterly unable to draw together, to simulate, to materialize, to approximate, to fully model to scale, what a thing in all of its complexity, is.
    [..] So here is the question I wish to raise to designers: where are the visualization tools that allow the contradictory and controversial nature of matters of concern to be represented?
    [..] What is needed instead are tools that capture what have always been the hidden practices of modernist innovations: objects have always been projects; matters of fact have always been matters of concern.”

    Latour, B. (2008), A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), in Jonathn Glynne Fiona Hackne & Viv Minto, ed., ‘Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society, Universal Publishers’ , pp. 2-10.

    Comment by yishaym | November 29, 2012 | Reply

    • Now we’re getting into my other area of research(!) – Building Information Modelling (BIM). (sort of what it is(ish): )

      Looking at how we can communicate and make sense of qualitative data like this just now. My current thinking is that it’s probably not possible – we would end up with too much information with very few efficient validation mechanisms and there is absolutely nothing in the current industry that values this as a mainstream method of design. Here’s a hint at why wrt information :

      But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The Acropolis example I chucked in above is there because the designers created that ‘object’ on site. There are elements carefully placed on that site that have been done only with consideration of the journey through the site (Athena comes into (and out of) view too nicely… more like a cinematic event). The conception was a shared one sketched out on site – this is perhaps the closest we can get to realising this level of complexity and conception (and it was arguably simple in that it was a religio-socio-cultural artifact, not a messy interstitial, culturally ambiguous apolitical building).

      It’s maybe a problem of embodiment itself. If I were to record myself designing a building I would only be recording the artifacts and representations I produce. How would I record the nebulous intention or conception that can only be expressed through (necessarily) imprecise language that needs conversation to convey its meaning…

      Comment by Derek Jones | November 29, 2012 | Reply

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