The Space of Design
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[ 1] Doblin, J. “A Short,
Grandiose Theory of
Design,” STA Journal,
[ 2] Morris, C.
Foundations of the
Theory of Signs.
Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1938.
September + October 2010
[ 3] Ockerse, T.
Conversations with the
author when he was a
student and from time
to time since then.
Models of the process of design are relatively common. I have found approximately 150 such models, many of which are presented in “How Do You
Design?” ( http://www.dubberly.com/articles/how-do-you-design.html/).
Each describes a sequence of steps required to
design something—or at least the steps that designers recommend. Models of the design process are
common because designers often need to explain
what they do (or want to do) so that clients, colleagues, and students can understand.
Less common are models of the domain of
design—models describing the scope or nature of
practice, research, or teaching. (I have found only
about a dozen such models.) Such models may be
useful for locating individual processes, projects,
or approaches and comparing them to others; and
also help clients, colleagues, and students understand alternatives and agree on where they are (or
want to be) within a space of possibilities.
Typically models of a domain are of three types:
• Lists of events from the domain’s history
• Links between events suggesting influences
• Lists of sub-domains
• Trees branching into categories and sub-
categories and so on
• Venn diagrams indicating overlapping
• Matrices defining the dimensions of a space of
possibilities or area of potential
Among the very few spatial models of the
domain of design is Jay Doblin’s 2 x 3 “Matrix of
Design.” The rows are performance and appear-
ance; the columns are products, unisystems, and
Doblin explains, “A continuum exists between
pure performance and pure appearance. Some
products, such as crowbars or paper clips, are
clearly performance products. Others, such as
Christmas ornaments, medals, and trophies…
are purely appearance products. Still others, like
automobiles, cups, and chairs, are combinations
of both. The essential point is most products (and
messages) can be conceived as primarily perfor-
mance or appearance oriented.”
“Products, the simplest kind of design, are tan-
gible objects, which can be touched, photographed,
and comprehended. Objects such as cars, chairs
and spoons and messages such as brochures, signs,
or ads are all included.”
“Unisystems are comprised of sets of coordi-
nated products and the people who operate them.
They are more complex in design, perform more
complex operations, and are not as readily dis-
cernible as products alone. A kitchen, an airline,
a factory, and a corporation are all types of uni-
systems… . The important concept in unisystems
design is… the relationships and interactions
between the items involved.”
“Multisystems are comprised of sets of compet-
ing unisytems. The retailing field or the office
equipment market are types of multisystems….
Sears goes against JCPenny, K-Mart, department
stores, and hardware stores… . IBM, Xerox, Digital,
Wang, Apple, and Canon are all pitted against
each other” [ 1].