Essays as Design Theory

The ‘Exemplaire de Bordeaux’; Essays by Michel de Montaigne with his own annotations, 1588

There are many ways to express your ideas. Depending on your talents, intentions and inclinations, you can draw, compose, act, sing, dance, paint — or you can write. You simply pick the format that is most appropriate for your idea.

In research, a common way to publish ideas is the academic paper. It is a long-established format that is ideal for the presentation and discussion of scientific discoveries. Its focus on methodology as well as existing literature and research is essential for validation and peer-reviews. The academic paper is a crucial cornerstone of scientific progress.

However, the form of an academic paper is not necessarily suitable for every idea. And I don’t think it is always the right format for discussing design. I advocate design-science collaborations. At the UCLAB, we encourage designers to participate in academic discourse. Our list of publications proves that we are quite successful in this.

However, I don’t think that the academic paper is the only format to publish ideas on design and to participate in an intellectual debate.

Design is not un-scientific. It is a distinctive form of knowledge production that differs from the scientific approach. Subjectivity, aesthetics, creativity, skill, and experience play a major role in creating design. So it stands to reason that a large part of both design practice and design research are difficult to describe and to publish in the form of an academic paper.

However, I am currently under the impression that there is a lot of pressure on designers to accept and embrace the format of an academic paper (preferably peer-reviewed) as the only acceptable format for a publication. Especially if the designers are aiming for a career in academia.

While I can see the merit in engaging the scientific community, I would like to tactfully oppose this trend. As I mentioned above, the format of the publication should fit the idea. The format has to be appropriate for what you want to say. And I don’t think a paper is always the appropriate format for ideas concerning design.

While design-science collaborations can be tremendously beneficial for both sides, there are fundamental differences between both disciplines.

An important aspect of the scientific method is reproducibility. Observations are only valid if they can be replicated. As Karl Popper noted in his book The Logic of Scientific Discovery: ‘non-reproducible single occurrences are of no significance to science’.

Design on the other hand puts a much larger emphasis on originality and imagination — qualities that are not easily reproduced. Comparing academic writing with design writing reveals very different attitudes towards the composition of the text.

Whenever I attempt to write an academic paper about a design project, I feel that someone is forcing me to use a cumbersome and unsuitable format for describing my thoughts, my ideas, and my work. It’s a bit like asking a physicist to publish her or his findings in the form of an opera. It might be possible — but it’s not ideal.

If design is an autonomous discipline, it needs unique formats for theoretical reflection that are distinct from other forms of academic writing. We should have our own voice and our own formats for our disciplinary discourse.

I strongly believe that one of these formats is the essay.

Essays are great for exploring ideas. They can be less formal and more opinionated than academic papers. They enable the author to explore a topic from various angles. They can be creative in structure, form, and content. A good essay is a Gedankenspiel — experimental, dialectic, and playful. Writing an essay is very similar to designing.

In 1947, Max Bense published his seminal text ‘Über den Essay und seine Prosa’. He was a philosopher, not a designer — but his description of essayistic writing is very reminiscent of the creative process:

‘Those write in an essayistic fashion, who compose their texts experimentally, who challenge and observe, investigate, query, touch, feel and reflect on the subject matter; who approach it from different angles and assemble in their mind what they see, and relate what the subject matter allows them to convey under the given conditions of writing.’ (Translation by myself.)

In this statement, the similarities between essayistic writing and the creative design process are striking! Essays and design have a similar nature — writing an essay is like designing a text. This closeness makes essayistic writing ideal for designers.

I suggest to regard design writing as a design opportunity. Instead of trying to conform to a way of thinking and writing that was developed for different intellectual problems, design writing should inherently be driven by creativity, experiment, and investigation. I believe that this approach results in essays that are evocative, expressive, associative, and perceptive. They can be anecdotal, subjective, or even chaotic — but they should be captivating, engaging, and insightful. I believe that this ‘designerly’ approach to essayistic writing can be very liberating for many designers.

So is the essay just an easier, more convenient way to write about design — instead of a harder, more challenging academic way? I don’t think so. As I have written before, ‘one of the fundamental principles of design is a deep and meaningful connection between form and content; form should both reflect and shape content.’ I would argue that the essay as has inherent qualities that cannot simply be transferred into academic writing.

The essay is not a format that was specifically invented for design writing. Essays have a long tradition in the humanities. One of my favourite texts on the distinct characteristics of essays was written by Vilém Flusser. It is titled ‘Essays’ — the German original can be found here, the English translation here.

As a philosopher, Flusser also recognised the difference between academic and essayistic writing — academic writing is more rigorous but depersonalised, while essays are more lively but subjective. According to Flusser, this distinction is not trivial:

‘The decision [to write academic or essayistic] will profoundly affect the work to be done. And it is not a decision with regard to form only. It also has to do with content. There does not exist one idea that can be articulated in two ways. Two different sentences are two different thoughts. The decision to treat an erudite topic in an academic or lively way is the decision to treat that topic from two different angles. The arguments presented will be different, the conclusions reached will be different, and only the topic itself will apparently remain the same. The style will inform the work.’

So academic and essayistic writing are not interchangeable — they have distinct qualities. The same subject matter will appear fundamentally different if it is written as an essay or an academic treatise. The natural sciences need to be thorough and objective. But it is not the only way to describe the world — there are many areas of study that benefit from an essayistic discourse. Design is one of them.

Furthermore, it is important to point out that the most influential texts in the history of design were essentially essays. Almost all of these texts were written by practitioners as a reflection on their design work. Sometimes they were position papers — like ‘The Crystal Goblet’ by Beatrice Warde — sometimes a complete theory — like ‘The Stroke’ by Gerrit Noordzij.

The essays of Otl Aicher, Ellen Lupton, Michael Bierut, Jessica Hische, Tibor Kalman, Gui Bonsiepe and many more have shaped the way we think about design much more than any academic papers. They reflect the thinking and the reasoning behind design practice. As such they are part of the design theory corpus.

I strongly believe that the design community would benefit from a more creative and contrasting discourse. Most of the time, design books and texts are about the ‘how’. How to design with grids, how to organise space, how to handle colour, how to use typography. Even the more methodological texts focus on the ‘how’. How to conduct user research, how to manage the design process, how to run a design thinking workshop.

Very few texts deal with the ‘why’, the ‘what’, the ‘when’. However, exactly these questions are appropriate for essays.

The problem with essays is that they are not very systematic — they do not present a concise theoretical body. Rather, they form a highly fragmented space of thoughts, ideas, comments, and positions. Sometimes, they are precise reflections on a specific design, other times they are radical, visionary ideas on future design. Sometimes these essays are long, considerate reflections — at other times, they can be condensed into a single line.

Essays on design have been around for over a hundred years. But it is about time to acknowledge them as a unique format for the design discourse and design theory. They should be recognised as a format that resembles the design process and that enables the exchange of ideas. Instead of focusing just on papers, the design community should embrace a format that resembles the design process itself: open, experimental, chaotic but also inspiring, surprising and evocative. Even if we will never have a systematic epistemological system for explaining design, I would be happy to navigate a diverse, contradicting, and inconsistent intellectual space on design. And I would like to encourage design students, teachers, and practitioners to write more essays on design.

Not everything will be profound — and it does not have to be. As discussed above, the essence of an essay is its openness and playfulness. An elegant appreciation of a letterform can be just fun and delightful.

Progress in design and the understanding of design will not only be achieved by emulating the natural sciences but rather by an open, evocative, and creative exchange of ideas, positions, and reflections.

If you want do dive into this essayistic design space — here are some starting points in no particular order:

There are many more contemporary and historic design writers. The above list just reflects my personal interests and preferences. It is by no means conclusive or systematic — there is still a lot to discover!

Finally: if your personal approach to design writing fits the academic style — go for it! There are no right or wrong ways of writing. Just more and less suitable formats. If your design work is based on objective findings and crystal-clear methodology, then it should definitely lead to an academic publication. However, if you are more interested in exploring and pondering ideas, then the essay is the better format.

No matter which format you pick — it’s good to contribute to the ongoing design debate!

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Boris Müller

Boris Müller

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Professor for Interaction Design at FH Potsdam, co-director of Urban Complexity Lab | http://uclab.fh-potsdam.de | http://esono.com