Gerry's Home Page Preliminary Materials Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Bibliography Appendix

Sec 5.1

5.1.      Applying Heidegger’s Philosophy to Design

Heidegger’s philosophy offers what is arguably the most thorough account of the process of human understanding available. Although his analysis of interpretation is useful if one is to understand activities like innovative design, it never addresses the realm of design directly. Heidegger discusses interpretation at a high level of generality and chooses his examples from interactions between people and physical artifacts, like the use of hammers by carpenters. He is concerned with the nature of understandingly being in the world. While a person’s world includes conceptual and imaginative realms like design, Heidegger’s examples primarily come from the world of physical artifacts which can be encountered perceptually.

Design is distinctive. It has its own existential structure and characteristics. Heidegger’s philosophy must be adapted to the realm of design by reflection upon how design differs from Heidegger’s examples, and by modifying or extending his theory accordingly. Specifically, such an extension must address five concerns:

1.   Design is different from direct action in the world. It has to do with plans on paper as its artifact, rather than with the object that might someday be built with bricks and mortar in the world based on those plans. Interpretation in design differs from interpretation of one’s involvements in the world.

2.   Heidegger emphasizes that interpretation is a matter of working out what is implicit in the tacit preunderstanding that provides the necessary preconditions for interpretation. Schön, in contrast, emphasizes the role of discovery, through which designers creatively discover surprising consequences of their design moves. These two components of interpretation must be integrated in a comprehensive theory.

3.   Schön argues that breakdowns in action function as catalysts for interpretive reflection. Heidegger also recognizes the role of breakdowns, but he sees a break in the references of the situational network of significance as the underlying phenomenon. Accordingly, an adequate theory has to take into account the need to repair the network of significance through interpretation, and not just to repair the problem with the action.

4.   Heidegger’s example of the craftsman using a hammer may appeal to the ideal of the designer as solitary artist, but it conjures up a different social setting than that of a design team working on a stage in the development of a high-tech artifact like a lunar habitat. In particular, collaborative design places more stress on cooperation and communication mechanisms than does design by an individual. Collaborative design that takes place over decades—as do many NASA projects—requires communication among people who cannot directly talk to each other.

5.   Heidegger was concerned with the ontology of interpreted things—what it is to be something that is tacitly preunderstood versus what it is to be something that is explicitly codified in formalized propositions. His philosophical distinctions must be recast as operational mechanisms that can be incorporated in computer systems.

Consideration of these five concerns leads to a more comprehensive and appropriate theory of interpretation in design.

1. From artifacts in the world to artifacts on the drawing board. In common sense terms, there seems to be a world of difference ontologically between artifacts and designs. However, in important senses Heidegger treats artifacts in the world the same way he would treat design artifacts on the drawing board. That is, he is not really concerned with them as physically present objects of perception. On the contrary, his main effort philosophically is to distinguish artifacts-in-use from traditional conceptions of physically-present-objects (as discussed in point 5 below). For example, a hammer in use is not understood by the carpenter as an observed object with physical attributes, but is skillfully applied to the activities of the current situation. Furthermore, this skillful use takes place within the context of future-oriented plans and desires, such as the anticipation of the item that is under construction. This is similar to components of a design, which are skillfully arranged in terms of their relationships to other design components and within the context of the anticipated final design. Marks in a design sketch, for instance, are important for their roles within a network of significances, rather than for their physical properties as lines. Interpretation of both physical artifacts and designs is situated.

By abstracting from the world of physical artifacts, designs, in fact, present the structure of the Heideggerian situation even more clearly than it is apparent in the physical world. Designing can be a way of directly working out the situational references that are of interest. Here it is clear that the designer has created the relationships in order to achieve future-oriented goals. That is, in creating a design, the designer discloses a network of significance. Within this network, discoveries can be made and problems can be uncovered.

The situation is the context of interpreted meaning within which understanding takes place. Normally, this network of significance operates tacitly in the skilled use of artifacts. However, in design work features of the situation that emerge explicitly during phases of interpretation can be expressed in the representations of the design medium. For instance, the distinction of two independent functions within an artifact being designed can be symbolized by distinct graphical icons and by separate entries in an issue-base. Design media provide external memory mechanisms for expressing and retaining explicit by-products of interpretive reflection, such as conceptual distinctions.

The fact that designing presents the structure of the Heideggerian situation more clearly than other activities in the physical world provides an important opportunity for computer support of design. If the design work can take place within a computer system that represents the relationships properly, then such a system can provide support for the network of significance: for the semantics of the design, not just its syntactic outward structure. This opportunity will be pursued in Section 5.3, where the model of interpretation is extended to include computer support.

2. From laying-out implications to creative discovery. In the domain of design—in which the designer creates the structure of a world—it is particularly clear that the discoveries that can take place within the disclosed situation are results of the creative activity of the designer. Viewed this way, interpretation in its literal sense of laying-out (Aus-legung) the implicit meaning is seen to be congruent with creative discovery because the structure whose implications get laid out is one that was created by the designer. The interpretation process makes discoveries within a creatively constructed context by laying out the implications of that context.

In adapting Heidegger’s philosophy to design it is necessary to consider the relationship between Heidegger’s analyses and those of the design methodologists. In Section 4.3 of Part I, a contrast was made between Heidegger’s and Schön’s discussions of breakdown. Figure 4-6 of that section is reproduced as Figure 5-1 with minor changes to show the contrast between their analyses.


Figure 5-1. Two different theories of breakdown.

A contrast of Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle with Schön’s theory of reflection-in-action shows a difference of emphasis. For Heidegger, the implications of the disclosed world get laid out; for Schön, creative action leads to discovery.


Here it is clear that the two theories are describing much the same process, but emphasizing different moments within the cycle of interpretation. Putting aside for now (until point 3) the differences in their concepts of breakdown, one can see that creative discovery in Schön’s theory plays the same role as disclosure in Heidegger’s. For the sake of clarity, this process can be broken into two moments—as is done by both Heidegger and Schön. Heidegger distinguishes disclosing a world (as a context for things to exist meaningfully within) and discovering things (e.g., artifacts, other people, and oneself) within that world. With Schön, one can distinguish between creating the design structures and discovering surprises within them. Whatever the terminology, the important thing is that both aspects of interpretation be included: (1) the idea of creating a structure of significance or a disclosed world and (2) of discovering things within it that were implicit but not foreseen or intended.

Figure 5-2 shows the model of interpretation in design that is being proposed here and in the next chapter. First, the world is disclosed. This disclosure takes place on the basis of tacit preunderstanding, and is thus not a beginning ex nihilo but a continuation of the hermeneutic circle of understanding. Within this disclosed world, creative discovery (as the second moment) reveals discovered things that exist in the situation. Surprise discoveries can lead to a breakdown of understanding, requiring the interpretation of new meanings.


Figure 5-2. The model of interpretation in design.

The rectangles represent stages of understanding within the cycle of interpretation. The arrows represent transformations from one stage to another. The hermeneutic circle appears at the top of the figure. Below, the basis for collaborative design is shown.


The process of breakdown and the other pictured stages will be discussed in the following numbered points. In particular, the role of discourse and assertion as transformations related to explicit understanding will be discussed as further developments of the laying out of tacit understanding, based on Heidegger’s analysis of language in Section 4.3. The fact that understanding can become more explicit and be externalized provides the possibility of developing a computational medium for externalizing design understanding.

3. From breakdown in action to repair of situated understanding. The notion of breakdown in action plays a rather small role in Heidegger’s analysis of human understanding. As discussed in Section 4.1, Heidegger uses examples of breakdown in order to make explicit the network of references among artifacts that are only present tacitly under conditions of normal use. Yet, the notion of breakdown has been elevated to central importance in the theories that have tried to adopt Heidegger’s analysis to a theory of design and to operationalize this theory for computer support. Thus, breakdown plays an important role in Schön (1985), Winograd & Flores (1986), Suchman (1987), Ehn (1988), Budde & Züllighoven (1990), McCall, Morch, & Fischer (1990), Dreyfus (1991), Coyne & Snodgrass (1991), Fischer & Nakakoji (1992).

The fact that so many writers influenced by Heidegger have focused on breakdown does not provide multiple independent support for this emphasis. As can be seen from Figure 4-2 in Chapter 4, most of these writers have been influenced by Heidegger only indirectly—either through Dreyfus or through Schön. If one looks closely at the discussions of breakdown in Dreyfus and Schön, one can note an ambiguity in whether they are speaking about a (ontological) breakdown in the network of references or a (practical) breakdown in action. Dreyfus is certainly aware of the ontological role of breakdown, but he is concerned to make his presentation acceptable to an American audience, trained in the rationalist tradition. For the sake of concreteness, he uses examples that stress the breakdown in action. Schön is also aware of the ontological ramifications, but he has couched his discussion in terms of action (e.g., knowing-in-action, reflection-in-action), so it often seems that his examples of breakdown exemplify breakdowns in action rather than breakdowns in situated understanding. Given that it is easier to operationalize breakdowns in action than breakdowns in situated understanding, it is not surprising that people interested in producing practical results from Dreyfus or Schön’s theories would tend to emphasize the action-oriented reading of the ambiguous discussions.

Breakdowns of action and breakdowns of understanding both call for repair. However, the repair of understanding is more complex to support. To repair a breakdown in action, it is only necessary to propose a new action. For instance, in Chapter 7 a critiquing mechanism in the Janus system will be discussed that causes breakdowns in designing activities by flagging design constructions that violate rules in the domain knowledge. Early versions of this mechanism merely displayed a message indicating the rule that was violated. Thus, if in laying out a residential kitchen one located the stove in front of a window then one received a message that the stove should not be in front of a window. The repair for this breakdown in design action was to move the stove. In more sophisticated subsequent versions of the critiquing system, the designer is given information relevant to understanding the reasoning behind the rule. Then the designer can make a reasoned decision as to how to repair the breakdown. This is a step toward repairing the understanding that led to the breakdown.

In Chapter 3, a more complex breakdown was illustrated from the transcript of the lunar habitat design sessions. Here, the designers recognized that the arrangement they had sketched in with a bathroom opening onto an eating area was problematic. To repair this situation, however, required a reinterpretation of their concepts of privacy and of the functionality of bathrooms. This involved consideration of their conceptualizations from various perspectives (e.g., the European WC) and the development of new terminology (e.g., the privacy gradient). The repair of this breakdown meant a restructuring of the designers’ understanding of the situation, perspective, and language. To provide computer support for such a process would necessitate empowering the designers to explore the interpretive network of significances they are using, to review alternative viewpoints, and to generate innovative conceptualizations through reuse and modification. This would necessarily involve representations of the perspectives and language used in the interpretation, and not just the graphical representations of objects manipulated in the action within the represented design situation.

To support the repair of breakdowns in the interpretation of the situation, a computer system needs to facilitate the representation of interpreted meanings. This involves a medium for maintaining externalized expressions of the designers’ explicit understandings that emerge from their repair of interpretive breakdowns. Part III will suggest mechanisms for doing this.

4. From individual design to collaboration. The representation of explicit understanding is not something new to computer support. It is an historical product of the development of design from a craft to a technology—from “unselfconscious” to “self-conscious” activity in Alexander’s terms. Taking Heidegger’s example, a carpenter skillfully wielding a hammer does not need to keep in mind conceptualizations having to do with the hammer’s characteristics. To use Alexander’s illustrations of unselfconscious design, an Eskimo patching an igloo or a peasant selecting colors for weaving a scarf does not explicitly follow a theory of construction or aesthetics. People who work by themselves or with personal apprentices can proceed without developing systems of explicit rules and terminology. Expertise can be passed on face-to-face through concrete demonstration. However, when the contexts of skilled activity change rapidly and involve complex social interactions, then design necessarily becomes self-conscious, requiring theories for understanding, coordinating, and communicating.

As design becomes increasingly explicit and interpersonal, it becomes an argumentative process. As Rittel described it, design becomes a matter of deliberating issues from the perspectives of various stakeholders. Using Heidegger’s concepts from Section 4.3, the designers engage in discourse and assertion. Discourse is the formulation of meanings in explicit terminology. This is integral to the process of interpretation, in which breakdowns in tacit understanding lead to repair through explicit understanding. For an individual designer, this explicit understanding tends to resubmerge into a modified stage of tacit understanding in which the former breakdown has been repaired. However, in a group design context, the explicit understanding can be expressed in an assertion. The assertion is external to the individual and available for deliberation by others in the group. Assertion is the expression of discourse in an external medium.

As indicated in Figure 5-2 above, the assertion, as an externalized expression, serves as a medium for communication among design participants. The communication leads to shared knowledge, forming the basis for collaboration. Just as individual design leads through interpretation to the tacit understanding needed for further design work, so in collaborative design the shared explicit knowledge generated by deliberation on externalized assertions leads to a shared tacit knowledge that provides the preunderstanding of a shared design world. Assertion makes it possible for the hermeneutic circle to expand from individual understanding of being-in-the-world to shared understanding of social being-with-others. This extends Heidegger’s analysis of interpretation from individual being-in-the-world to collaborative design.

Heidegger and the three design methodologists all recognize the social basis of explicit understanding. For Heidegger, social being-with-others is an important constituent of individual being-in-the-world. Alexander sees the emergence of self-conscious design as a social phenomenon, tied to specific stages of increased societal complexity. For Rittel, deliberation is a social activity, essentially conditioned by the social roles of the participants. Although Schön often focuses on the work of the solitary designer, he is vitally concerned with the social context in which the designer acts and in which design practices are taught. They all recognize the role of external media of design—whether assertions, patterns, debated issues, or reflective categories—both in the work of the individual designer and in collaborative interactions.

The transformation of tacit understanding to explicit understanding via interpretation makes possible many developments that go beyond the unselfconscious skilled activity of the traditional individual designer. By externalizing explicit understanding in the assertions of explicit language, possibilities for communication, extended reflection and conceptual formalization are all opened up. Communication means that communities of design can be established, in which rules of design can be formulated and terminologies developed. The externalization of knowledge also augments the individual’s abilities by overcoming the severe limitations of human memory, so that ideas and experiments can be brought into contact with other ideas and can be reflected upon over extended periods of time. Media of communication and externalization also encourage formalization. Explicit, externalized assertions can be gradually formalized to increase interpersonal clarity and computational power, as discussed in point 3. Finally, the externalization of understanding makes possible the capture of this understanding in computer systems, providing the key to a theory of computer support. The assertions that Heidegger discusses are primarily speech acts in natural language. However, these expressions of understanding can be further transformed for use with forms of external memory offered by computer technology.

5. From ontology to computer support. Heidegger’s central concern is ontological, to determine the being of things. His discussion of human understanding focuses on the distinction between artifacts-in-use (ready-to-hand, zuhanden) and the traditional conception of physically-present-objects (present-at-hand, vorhanden). Thus, he argues that we normally use things in a tacit, skillful way without being explicitly aware of what we are doing. This tacit understanding may under special conditions (e.g., breakdowns in understanding) become explicitly interpreted. However, even when we have explicit understanding this is only possible on the basis of tacit pre-understandings that serve as preconditions for it. Thus, our ability to have explicit knowledge of physically-present-objects is derivative of our tacit skills with artifacts-in-use. The ontological distinctions correspond to transformations of our understanding.

This dissertation has hypothesized that computer support of innovative design must overcome the problem that designers necessarily make extensive use of situated tacit understanding while computers can only store and display explicit representations of information. This is termed the problem of tacit and explicit understanding in computer support of cooperative design.

The ontological transformation described by Heidegger provides the solution to the problem of computer support by indicating the forms into which tacit knowledge can be transformed. Heidegger’s analysis of the preconditions of understanding stresses that the representations used in computer systems are derivative of tacit human understandings and are the products of interpretation based on those understandings. The transformations of tacit to explicit understanding will be analyzed in Section 5.3 and will be developed into a theory of computer support in Chapter 6.

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