University of Calgary

Associate Professor Barry Wylant on design as more than just applied art

Submitted by jwalla on Thu, 2013/07/11 - 12:21pm.

Design is often referred to as an applied art. This perception can seem self-evident given the activities designers typically undertake in pursuing their profession. Designers sketch, draw, make maquettes, develop CAD models, make physical models, generate specifications, and oversee the fabrication of their design intent. Such activities do require skill, and a large part of design education can revolve around the development of such skills.

Yet design should never be seen as the simple execution of skill. All of us must live with the results of the design effort. It touches us in the way we use a smartphone, enjoy a meal, turn a door handle, navigate a pathway, ride a bike, enter a room, etc. It touches us in the way we harvest the materials we build with, and dispose of items once we’ve grown tired of them. Such events hold significant impacts. Designers must therefore anticipate the future consequences implied by their work. Anticipating the future, even a near future, is not easy. It requires a study of the past, insights offered by a world of ever evolving knowledge and the imagination necessary to knit this all together and foresee potential experiences which have yet to occur. To begin to do this, designers must study, listen, debate, observe, and most importantly, pursue rigorous, disciplined, and yet imaginative thought. The execution of design skills offers the necessary arena for this thought to occur.

Some theoreticians (notably Archer and Buchanan) argue that the thinking which attends design represents a third way of knowing. That is, knowing in a manner unique and distinct from the way knowledge is generated in the sciences and humanities. It is an integrative means of thinking which draws information from a variety of disciplines. It requires that designers understand such things as the science of soil conditions to the poetics of blowing autumn leaves. The idiom is that design bridges knowledge from both art and science. Any piece of information could be important, and so designers must foster an openness of thought, balanced against a critical appreciation of potential importance. The application of knowledge in the specifics of a given design exercise is not incidental. It is not about checking items off of a list. It requires a critical capacity to recognize value, and the creativity necessary to synthesize across disparate pieces of information to generate an effective design response.

This third way of knowing constitutes my research and teaching focus. It is difficult to appreciate theory without also understanding the impacts that arise in professional practice. I am therefore very fortunate to be able to teach, supervise, write and practice, all contributing to an ever evolving appreciation for this endeavor we call design.    

Barry Wylant is an industrial designer and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design. He teaches courses in design thinking, design drawing, and people and technology. He also maintains a design practice and has generated industrial designs for a number of consumer products, sporting goods and medical devices.

Click here to learn more about Wylant's research or for more Featured Facutly Research.