ETH Zurich – Institute for Urban Design
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Design as Qualitative-Heuristic (Thought) Experiment

Following Donald Schön’s theoretical paths, designing can be conceptualized as a use-test-entity that has both a productive and and an inquiring dimension. On the one hand, it projects contingent possibilites to illustrate differences to actual reality. Therefore, designing can be understood as a tool for producing (new) recources in order to achieve the projected difference. On the other hand, designing can be seen as an inquiring qualitative-heuristic (thought) experiment that investigates the qualities of actual reality. Additionally to Schön’s concept, a third dimension can be added: the theoretical dimension of design that leads to knowledge through experience and judgment, while combining aesthetic and ethical deliberations.

The aim of this work is to critically examine and systematize processes of thinking and cognition in the design process, and, if possible, to present the design process in a way that is as inclusive as possible. Therefore, the central thesis is that design can be thought of as both the source and mouth of three different dimensions: As an instrument of change, as a means of gaining knowledge and as a resource of a theory of practice. By relating these three dimensions, and thus instead of trying to stratify and specialize design practice, design theory and the use of design in research collectives, as is customary today, this work tries to link these roles as an integral form of thought through the basic action of design. In this line of thought, the design process can be extended beyond the mere creative act to a more extensive formation of thought and the work of the designer can be better connected to other intellectual virtues.

This theoretical recombination should firstly improve the understanding of design, secondly arrange these insights theoretically and thirdly accompany the design practice in a structuring way. In order to be able to use this research project as a tool for teaching, design thinking is not only outlined theoretically, but is also presented step by step using simple examples and finally described in a more detailed case study.


Contact Simon Kretz