Fred Malven
personal design safety design safety
experience projects instruction

Design: Background

Systematic Design. One of the first classes I took at The University of Wisconsin's Environmental Design Center focused on formal "design methods." It was taught by Gary Swetish, a young, idealistic and enthusiastic industrial designer (now President of Renquist Associates Incorporated in Racine, WI). The course was fairly tightly wrapped around Design Methods, a book by J. Christopher Jones. There were two central themes in Jones' book, and Gary's course. First, design is (or should be) "systematic," a fairly regular, step-by-step process. Formal methodologists like Jones believe that virtually every step a designer takes can be categorized under a relatively narrow range of steps, occuring in a fairly standardized order-- a so-called "design method paradigm." While each designer's paradigm might have variations in label name, sequence, specificity, etc., they all tend to follow roughly the same kinds of steps, in about the same sequence.

Systemic Design. The second major theme of formal design methods is that each step in the design process can be completed using one or several unique approaches, what the methodologists call "procedural tools." For woodworkers, there are several different tools for cutting wood, ranging from axes and saws to laser cutting methods. Similarly, for the design "investigation" step, as an example, there are a number of procedural tools for collecting information, ranging from library or internet research, through interviews and questionnaires, to full-blown instrumented field research. Therefore, if you can buy for the moment definition of a "system" as a sort of "collection of rather specialized (and often interchangeable) parts organized or reorganized for special purpose(s)," design methods can be understood as being "systemic" (system-like). On a day-to-day basis, each step in the process can be handled by one or two familiar, easily used, general-purpose procedures. But, for highly specialized projects, equally specialized processes might be employed to complete certain steps. Gary Swetish's course solidified this idea, defining common paradigms and then examining a wide range of techniques useful for completing each step.

The whole UW--Madison experience, 1972-1974, was an incredible growth experience. In the company of some very strong influences on my growth as a designer/theorist, Gary probably made the strongest contributions. He formulated a very orderly, systematic and systemic approach to teaching a course on orderly, systemic and systematic design methods. It really hooked me up with the whole idea. It was another of those watershed moments where I finished the semester a significantly changed person-- formal methods had become a big part of who I was (am) and what I did (do).

Object-Oriented Environmental Design. Another great influence on me-- one I clumsily abused, repeatedly-- was Ed Dorsa, a teaching colleague and sometimes collaborator. Ed came from Ohio State University's industrial design program. At ISU he pushed convincingly, tenaciously, but unsuccessfully to get a product design (or "industrial design) program going in our college. He influenced me most in terms of his respect for and focus on objects. In a mileau of individuals (landscape architects, graphic and interior designers, architects) seemingly dedicated to the co-joining of every single element of their respective built environments, Ed inspired in me the idea that two individually well-conceived and executed objects might bring satisfaction to the occupants of an otherwise mediocre setting. In the world of Betsy McCall-like matching of everything, for as far as the eye can see, that is anathema. It doesn't have to be perfect to work-- that's the axiom of vernacular design. If it is "perfect," it probably DOESN'T work-- that's the all-to-prevalent legacy of big "D" Design. I'm not at all sure Ed would share this view but, after a few years of being around him, that's where my views have landed.

By the way, for all you Eds out there, my belated regrets and apologies for some thoughtless appropriations of team effort, as though I were sole proprietor!

Detail-Oriented Objects. There was a sweatshirt in one of public radio's mail order catalogues, a couple of years ago-- the bold text encouraged, "Only Sweat the Details! (Realizing It's ALL Details)". Good point. I wish I'd bought one of the shirts.