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Michael Hohl’s Paper Proposal

Designing, acting, understanding: Reflections on the relationship between practice and theory in the design process

“Knowledge seems to fit so perfectly into books. But to marvel at how well Knowledge fits into books is to marvel at how well each rock fits into its hole in the ground. Knowledge fits books because we’ve shaped knowledge around books and paper.” David Weinberger

In this text I set out to reflect on the role of theory and practice and how they inform each other in the design research process. In design research it is possible to distinguish between two distinct approaches: The first applies theory, often abstract ideas, in a top-down manner to frame practical works and in order to develop a particular theoretical understanding that can inform a design. Some knowledge of this kind may be applied to inform future actions. The second approach emerges out of designing and allows knowledge to emerge out of reflections upon practical design activity in a bottom-up manner. (Is it possible to clearly distinguish how differently these approaches may inform acting? (Villa Savoye vs. iPod, Krippendorff quote on design semantics.))
In this paper i will argue that the practice-led approach is currently in need of being developed further (without implying that the more abstract theory-based approach was to the detriment of the users and the profession?).

Michael Polanyi wrote that ‘we know more then we can tell’. This is also true in the design process. Here we could speak of a third kind of design knowledge, the tacit, knowledge gained through experience that we might not consciously be aware of. In my view an important role of academic design research is to make such tacit knowledge explicit (often in the form of a written text) and thus being able to communicate this new knowledge, open it up to debate and scrutiny and also to allow others to benefit from new insights.

Another goal of design research might be to develop novel approaches to share and communicate knowledge (beyond written texts [sic]), additionally to the development of innate methods and methodologies that allow practitioners to better understand the design process and thus design better things and services. How are these types of knowing different? How does their understanding inform acting? How might they be balanced? Are they relevant in different phases of the design process? If an expert demonstrates his or her skill, tacit knowledge is more likely to become visible then in a written text, as the text is confined to that which the expert consciously knows. How may we find a balance between theoretical positions and this tacit dimension? And how can we teach this?

A subtext to the paper is the concern that written texts, while well established in traditional scientific research, might not be the best medium to solely communicate design knowledge. What alternatives are there and how might they inform acting? When an expert demonstrates a design activity he or she may also communicate knowledge that he/she is not consciously aware of. Does, from this perspective, a written text imply that it can only communicate what is consciously known?

Preliminary sources:
John Dewey: How we think
Richard Sennett: Together
Sherry Turkle: Alone Together
Neil Postman: Teaching as a subversive activity
Donald Schon, The reflective practitioner
Nigel Cross: Design Thinking
Weinberger, David, 2013, Knowledge in its natural state (Blog post)
Polanyi, Michael (), The Tacit Dimension,


  1. I’m glad to see that we share the belief that there are strong connections between acting/practice; and understanding/theory.

    I am curious about what you mean by “practice-led approach is currently in need of being developed further”.

    I will be very interested to hear your reflections. I will not be surprised if they match mine fairly closely, perhaps however making demands and offering challenges that I have not yet faced!

  2. Making the tacit explicit, well that’s the challenge. Watching the expert work is a good idea and through not only textual representation but multimedia, for example audio and video, the tacit may be highlighted. The role of the many do it your self YouTube videos has empowered many people. Nice topic.

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