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Design & Making [Design
Posted on March 17, 2016 @ 07:48:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Nobel Laureate Herb Simon wrote an influential book on design (and other topics) called The Sciences of the Artificial (Third edition 1996, first published in 1969). In Chapter 5 called "The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial" he introduced the importance of design this way:

Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artififacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes professions from the sciences. Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine are all centrally concerned with the process of design (p. 111).

There are three aspects of this statement that want to highlite in today's blog.

1. Herb claims that the intellectual activity used across these diverse examples is fundamentally the same. The intellectual activity he is referring to is problem solving. Herb believes the problem solving element of design can be rigorously taught. Herb, in collaboration with others, developed a simulation of problem solving in the early days of AI called the General Problem Solver (GPS) which was largely an implementation of means ends analysis, one of the main techniques of problem solving and design.

2. Herb defined design as "courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones". This is a good definition but he went a bit further and gave a formal definition of what is involved in design:

The reasoning implicit in GPS is that, if a desired situation differes from a present situation by differences D1, D2 ..., Dn, and if action A1 removes differences of type D1, action A2 removes differences of type D2, and so on, them the present siatuion can be transformed into the desired siatuion by performing the sequence of actions D1, D2 ..., Dn.

This reasoning is by no means valid in terms of the rules of standard logic in all possible worlds. Its validity requires some rather strong assumptions about the independence of the effects of the several actions on the several differences. One might say that the reasoning is valid in worlds that are "addititive" or "factorable". (p. 122)

Even if the world does not exhibit the independence that is required, that is often something we don't appreciate until we engage in exploratory design.

3. The final point I want to discuss is Herb's statement that "Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training". In this chapter of his book, Herb Simon was concerned with coming up with a curriculum that could be taught to such professionals so that a core element of being a professional, the ability to design, was actually taught to them in a scientific manner. These are the topics he would cover and they are also the list of topics he discussed in more detail in this chapter.

1. Theory of Evaluation: utility theory, statistical decision theory.
2. Computational Methods:
a. Algorithms for choosing optimal alternatives such as linear programming computations, control theory, dynamic programming.
b. Algorithms and heurisitics for choosing satisfactory alternatives.
3. The Formal Logic of Design: imperative and declaritive logics.

4. Heuristic Search: factorization and means-ends analysis.
5. Allocation of resources for search.
6: Theory of Structure and Design Organization: Hierarchic systems.
7. Representation of design problems.

One problem I have with Herb's curriculum is that it is a curriculum for "professional training" but design has become much more democratized skill these days. I doubt that this curriculum will be used to teach the masses about design. This is not to say it isn't worth studying for powerful ideas about design, but I would suggest that a book like The Makers Manual: A Practical Guide To the New Industrial Revolutions (2015) is a much more relevant and inclusive curriculum for teaching design. Here you will see 3D Printers, Milling Machines, and Laser Cutters and be introduced to the software for controlling them. You'll learn about GitHub, Processing, Raspberry Pi and Auduino. You'll learn about ways to finance a business startup that might arise from your design and manufacturing work.

Since Herb Simon published his book the Maker Movement has come on the scene and becoming increasingly relevant. They are talking about a new industrial revolution happening and the skills required to be a part of it. Should we be teaching design or should we be teaching making instead? And when should we start teaching it and to whom?




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