Re-thinking Design as Third Knowledge Culture

The Second World War and the decades that followed changed the way knowledge production was understood and practiced in the highly industrialised countries of the Global North. The so-called military-academic-industrial complex intertwined academic, industrial and political interests, and promoted new theoretical and methodical approaches such as cybernetics, operations research, technological forecasting, and design methods. Interdisciplinary cooperation, an orientation towards “applied” research, and an emphasis on managing risks and uncertainties were at the heart of post-war knowledge production.

I explore the role of design methods and design thinking within this historical period. I focus on Western discourses and practices that propagated design as a third knowledge culture alongside the humanities and natural sciences. Expanding on C. P. Snow’s much-discussed “two cultures” argument, design educators and researchers, such as Tomás Maldonado, Herbert Simon, Bruce Archer, Nigel Cross and Horst Rittel, called for design to be recognised as a practice-based epistemology. They highlighted the fundamental contribution design could make to the process of world-making, the creation of artificial systems, and the resolution of ill-defined problems. “The ability to design”, to them, was an “essential and universal aspect of human culture” (Archer, Baynes, and Roberts 2005, 3).

I investigate the theoretical ideas and practical proposals for new design curricula and design methodologies that forestalled and ultimately produced the contemporary Western practice of design thinking in the mid-twentieth century. The following institutions and movements were pioneering in this regard: 1) the Ulm School of Design in Germany (1953–1968), 2) the design methods movement in the UK around 1960, and 3) creative engineering programs at MIT and Stanford University starting in the mid-1950s (the precursor to the Stanford of design thinking). Although these ostensibly different institutions shared a desire to understand and systematize design, each of them was shaped by particular circumstances and guided by somewhat different ambitions: Design was seen, amongst other things, 1) as a vehicle for democratic re-education and the reconstitution of a liberal democratic society after WW2 (as was the case in post-war Germany); 2) as a strategy to enhance human productivity and creativity, and 3) as a practice-based epistemology for modelling and constructing artificial habitats and systems.

I examine historical institutions, individual actors and their role in shaping transnational debates on design and a third knowledge culture, paying particular attention to transnational knowledge transfer. Against the backdrop of the contemporary diagnosis of a “design turn” (Wolfgang Schäffner) in the humanities and natural sciences, the project asks how the historical debates on design can contribute to a better understanding of interdisciplinary collaboration, speculative epistemologies and material culture studies today. At the same time, it points towards the unquestioned presuppositions, the limits and blind spots of a Western, universalistic concept of design as propagated in the mid-twentieth century.