Notes from Glenn Parsons’ The Philosophy of Design

[Last updated 18. March 2024]

I am currently rereading Glen Parsons’ “The Philosophy of Design”. This is a collection of quotes and notes, continuously updated as I read the book.

book summary
design theory
working note

When I first read this book in 2019, I really liked its down-to-earth approach that is thorough, but not overly pompous like a lot of design theory writing by academic designers is.

Table of Contents §

  1. What is Design?
    1. Defining Design
    2. Ontological Issues
    3. Activity, Profession and Practice
    4. The Rise of the Designer
  2. The Design Process
    1. The Challenges of Design
  3. Literature

$ Why designers should be interested in a philosophy of design Parsons draws a distinction between design theory, focusing on the practice of design, and a philosophy of design. ​(p. 1)

[A philosophy of design] would examine design, and its specific aims and problems, in light of the fundamental questions that philosophy examines: questions about knowledge, ethics, aesthetics and the nature of reality. […] What philosophy does offer to the student or practitioner is a broader perspective on their practice and its relation to the other important dimensions of human life. The ability to see one’s daily practice in this way, and to think through its place in the grander scheme of things, is one mark of an educated person, and this is what philosophy can help us to cultivate.

Parsons, 2016: “The Philosophy of Design”, pp. 1 – 2

What is Design? §

Defining Design §

§ Philosophical definitions A “philosophical definition” of a concept defines a set of conditions which are individual necessary (any instance of the concept must satisfy each) and jointly sufficient (any thing that satisfies all conditions must be an instance of the concept). ​(p. 5)

§ “Everything is design” One popular group of definitions of design sees almost everything as design, in the sense that design is “using things to achieve aims” (e.g. Papanek). Designers probably like these very broad definitions because they seem to emphasize the importance of design: If everything is design, we must pay more attention to it. But that’s a bad strategy for increasing the importance of design: a lot of everyday activities that fall under this definition are mundane and boring. Associating design with them is surely not going to do it any good. More fundamentally, is not really a helpful definition, as there are plenty of activities in which we use things to achieve aim, which would be very strange to call design, e.g. sports. ​(p. 8)

§ Towards a narrower definition of design John Christopher Jones defines design as the intentional initiation of change (similar definitions come from Herbert Simon, Nigel Cross and John Heskett). Parsons suggest to narrow the definition further, by highlighting that design is about creating new kinds of things; and not just that, it is about creating plans for new kinds of things, distinct from constructing or making which are physical activities, while design is a mental/conceptual activity. ​(p. 9) Parsons then introduces two final changes to the definition, excluding accidental discoveries “The concept of design, it seems, entails a certain kind of rational connection between the final product and the creative process […].” (Parsons, 2016: “The Philosophy of Design”, p. 10) through a focus on problem solving; and plans that obviously won’t work (the creation of which is “imagining” rather than designing). This does not include plans that could reasonably work, but in the end don’t. ​(pp. 10 – 11) Taking all of this into account, Parsons arrives at the following definition:

Design is the intentional solution of problems, by the creation of plans for a new sort of thing, where the plans would not be immediately seen, by a reasonable person, as an inadequate solution.

Parsons, 2016: “The Philosophy of Design”, p. 11

Ontological Issues §

§ Ontology: Distinctions between different types of beings In philosophy, questions involving distinctions between different types of beings are called ontological questions. Such distinctions could for example be between substances (things that exist independently) and properties (which do not exist independently, but refer to another entity); or between things (substances) and processes (casually related series of events). ​(pp. 12 – 13)

§ Types and tokens, singular and multiple works One ontological distinction that is important for both the philosophy of art and design is the distinction between types (a general kind) and tokens (an instance of a type). When talking about artworks it is more common to talk about singular (can only exists as one object) or multiple (can be realized in multiple things) works of art. Some artworks are types/multiples, e.g. a musical composition (a contemporary performance of which would still be the same artwork Interesting to think about this in the context of John Cage’s aleatoric music — even though each performance is different, they are still all performances of the same artwork.) but most artworks are tokens/singular: A sculpture or a painting existing only once, a copy of it, no matter how exact, is not considered to be the same work of art. ​(pp. 13 – 14) The intentions of the creator do not matter for this distinction, what matters is a recognized social convention to one side or the other. ​(pp. 14 – 15)

§ Are there singular designs? Intuitively, it seems that designs are always multiply realizable ​(p. 14), but some cases come to mind, where it is not always that clear. E.g. in the case of architectural designs there are many examples of seemingly singular buildings (“the” Seagram building, “the” Pantheon). ​(p. 15) However, Parsons claims that this is due to the fact that the plans for these buildings were only realized once, not that they couldn’t have been realized multiple times. ​(p. 16) He dismisses the notion of site-specific planning, as it is commonly understood, as an argument for singular buildings, arguing that the sites are not that unique – you could take the plan for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and build it on top of another waterfall. ​(p. 17) I remain unconvinced by this argument. He concedes the notion that there can be plans referring to a “site as a particular”, rather than to its general features, even if they might be rare. As examples he mentions a building built on the site of a historical event, or a tomb build to house a specific person. ​(pp. 17 – 18) As an example from an other area of design Parsons refers to a British crown, which features stones from the crowns of the king’s predecessors. This specific design cannot be recreated with any other stones. ​(p. 18) He concludes:

On the whole, then, we should think of design as ontologically more divers than either music or plastic arts such as painting. While typically multiple, design works can be singular as well.

Parsons, 2016: “The Philosophy of Design”, p. 18

Activity, Profession and Practice §

Reflecting on the philosophical definition developed above, Parsons notes that it might be too broad, as it includes the activities of many people not ordinarily thought of as designers: Artists, engineers, lawmakers and so on. “Design may note be everything we do […] but it is, apparently, a part of nearly every sort of activity in which we engage.” ​(p. 19) Instead of narrowing the definition further, which brings with it new problems ​(p. 20), he suggest to accept that design is “an activity that plays a role in many different context, including engineering” ​(p. 21)

Perhaps a solution can be found in another useful suggestion from Bamford, who distinguishes two senses of ‘design’: design as a general sort of ‘cognitive activity’ and design as a ‘social or institutional practice or profession.’

Parsons, 2016: “The Philosophy of Design”, p. 21, quoting Bamford, 1990, p. 233

This distinction is one of my favorite insights from the book, because it explains so many misunderstandings in design theory and why it often is so helplessly irrelevant to the practice of Design. In the following notes, as in the book, “Design” refers to the practice and “design” to the generic activity. Parsons highlights three features of Design practice:

  1. It is practical or utilitarian in nature. The items Designers create are primarily geared to allowing their users to change the world, rather than understand it. It is important to note the stress on “primarily” — Design might of course help the user understand something, but it is in order to then do something. This is what separated Design from Art (which aims at “enriching our understanding of the world”) and it helps classify certain items as art or Design in disciplines which sit at the border between the two, like fashion. ​(p. 22)
  2. Design focuses on the surface of things. The “surface” here does not only mean that what is visible, but also the “interactive dynamics” of the item: “[…] The Designer’s point of view on the object is that of the user, and all and only these components or aspects of the object that figure in the user’s relation to the object are the province of the Designer.” ​(p. 23)
  3. The Designer is a conceiver of plans, not a builder of objects. This distinguishes a Designer for example from a furniture maker. ​(p. 23)

Together these three characteristics give us a picture of Design practice as standing apart from design in general by its focus on conceiving, rather than constructing, the surfaces of primarily practical things.

Parsons, 2016: “The Philosophy of Design”, p. 24

In the “Design professions” the practice of Design is the main concern, but usually amongst others. And to other professions (or people outside of any profession) the practice of Design can of course be a concern too. ​(p. 24)

The Rise of the Designer §

The practice of Design is commonly considered to have emerged during the Industrial Revolution. ​(p. 24) During this era, the Designer supplanted the craftsperson, whose role was the “hand-making of furniture, tools, pottery or buildings, according to traditional methods and forms”. ​(p. 25) The craftsperson does not develop new forms, but inherits the ones that have evolved over a long time of subtle modifications.

Through the Industrial Revolution the division of labor was introduced. In the process the Designer holds a special role: They are now the only one to consider the item as a whole. ​(p. 25) The precursor to this model practice of Design can be found in architecture, where this type of role existed before. ​(pp. 25 – 26)

The advent of the practice of Design shifts the responsibility “from the traditional, collective behavior of society the shoulders of the Designer”. ​(p. 26)

The Design Process §

The Challenges of Design §

Literature §

  • Parsons, G. (2016). The philosophy of design. Polity Press.