Philosophy of/and/by Design

The Syllabus for a Senior Seminar in Design Studies at Parsons The New School for Design in Fall 2010 by Cameron Tonkinwise

This course is an exploration of what philosophers have explicitly said about design, about what can be inferred about design from what other philosophers have said about related maters, and what design can teach philosophers about the relation between humans and their artificial environments. The course will examine the distinction between action and making, and between making meanings and making artifacts, and between the making of equipment and artworks. The course will also examine the ways in which the behavior of humans is influenced by the designs of the things they use. Students will read extracts from philosophers, and then test the ideas that they have read about by designing while critically reflecting on the process and outcomes. Selected outcomes from the class’s designing will be included in an exhibition looking at ‘design as critical gift.’

Learning Outcomes
Participating actively in the class and completing all aspects of all assignments will allow you to acquire the ability to:
• understand what key philosophers have had to say about artifact making and design
• develop and refine concepts
• articulate a coherent and comprehensive design philosophy
• develop propositions for designs that articulate non-verbally philosophical concepts


1: Sep 2nd
Questioning, Languaging

Martin Heidegger “The Thing”
in Hofstadter, D. ed Poetry, Language, Thought
Harper & Row, 1971

Sep 9th
Rosh Hashanah

Jan Michl “On Seeing Design as Redesign”

2: Sep 16th
Designing as Evolving

Jan Michl “On the Rumor of Functional Perfection”

3: Sep 23rd
Designing as Crafting

Chapters 4 “Material Consciousness” and
8 “Resistance and Ambiguity”
Richard Sennett The Craftsman
Yale University Press, 2008

4: Sep 30th
Designing as Envision Testing

“Part One”
Chris Alexander Notes on a Synthesis of Form
Harvard University Press, 1964

Chapter 2 “Traditional Methods”
John Chris Jones Design Methods
Wiley, 1992 (2nd Edition)

5: Oct 7th
Designing Usefuleness

Terry Winograd and Ferdando Flores Understanding Computers and Cognition
Addison-Wesley, 1987

6: Oct 14th
Designing as World Disclosing

Martin Heidegger “Origin of the Work of Art”
in Hofstadter, D. ed Poetry, Language, Thought
Harper & Row, 1971

7: Oct 21st
Designing Focal Things

Martin Heidegger “The Question Concerning Technology”
in Lovitt, W. ed. The Question Concerning Technology
Harper and Row, 1972

8: Oct 28th
Designing as Anthropomorphic Disburdening

Bruno Latour “Where are the Missing Masses: The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts”
in W Bijker, J Law – Bijker, WE and Law, J. eds Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change
MIT, 1992

9: Nov 4th
Designing as World Sensitizing

Chapter 5 “The Interior Structure of the Artifact”
Elaine Scarry The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World
Harvard University Press, 1985

10: Nov 11th
Designing as Gifting

Clive Dilnot “The Gift”
in Victor Margolin & Richard Buchanan eds The Idea of Design [Cambridge, MIT Press, 1995]

11: Nov 18th
Designs as Questioning

Anthony Dunne Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design
MIT, 2005

Installation Proposal Presentations

Nov 25th

12: Dec 2nd

Installation Preparation

13: Dec 9th

Installation Installation

14: Dec 16th

Lecture by Prof.Elaine Scarry

Assignment 0 – Class Participation
10% of Overall Grade

Assessment Criteria
• Evidence of having completed each week’s readings
• Willingness to ask questions (of readings, of colleague’s comments)
• Willingness to critically self reflect

Assignment 1 – Design Essence
Due in Class September 16th
20% of Overall Grade

Having read Martin Heidegger’s “The Thing” and Jan Michl’s “On Seeing Design as Redesign,” prepare a multi-media presentation of the ‘essence’ of a design you love. Your multi-media presentation should involve:
1. Images (photographs, illustrations and/or videos)
2. Citations (from designers or critics)
3. Written descriptions (by you in a variety of forms: prose, poetry, narrative)

Your presentation can be a collage – it need not have a linear flow. Your presentation should cover:
A. The designed artifact itself (capturing its various and variable material qualities)
B. Precedents for the design (with attempts to find the line between this kind of artifact, and other kinds, related but of a different essence)
C. The artifact-in-use
D. What withdraws about the artifact, what is not immediately, or ever, apparent

The presentation should be the equivalent (if digital) of 5 pages.

Assessment Criteria
• All components of the assignment (1-3, A-D) completed
• Depth of research (into precedents, and observations)
• Creativity of effort to access essence (diversity of perspectives, new insights)

Assignment 2 – Personal Design Philosophy
Due in Class November 18th – Non-graded but compulsory Progress Draft October 28th
40% of Overall Grade

A ‘Design Philosophy’ is often less a ‘philosophy of design(ing)’ and more like a personal manifesto of design values. In this assignment, you will produce one of the latter, but one that explicitly relates to the former.
Produce a 6-10 page (or digital equivalent) ‘Personal Design Philosophy’ that articulates your position in relation to:
• Design and/of Essences (Weeks 1-2, 6)
• Design as/vs Evolution (Weeks 2-3)
• Design as/vs Craft (Weeks 3-4)
• Design and/by Envisioning (Weeks 4-5, 7, 9)
• Design and/by Problem Anticipation (Weeks 5, 8-9)
• Design and/as Worldmaking (Weeks 5-7)
• Design and/of Focal Things (3, 7-8)
• Design as/by Anthropomorphism (Weeks 8-10)
• Design of/as Gift (Weeks 9-10)
Your ‘Personal Design Philosophy’ should reference the readings from the course, and others of your own choosing. The form of your submission is open to you, though it should obviously be appropriate to the nature of the ‘personal design philosophy’ you are articulating.

Assessment Criteria
• All components as the assignment covered (all dot points with literature references)
• Self-criticality – evidence of having attained insights or changes in perspective
• Ability to develop clear and distinct concepts
• Care in production – of both written language and overall form

Assignment 3 – Design as Critical Gift
Due December 10th
30% of Overall Grade

This assignment will involve attempting to articulate a series of philosophies of design via art objects or events, rather than verbally. Groups in the class will be producing installations for inclusion in a small exhibition in Aronson in the last week of semester under the rubric ‘Design as Critical Gift.’ Brief setting, prototyping and production of artifacts will be done in class over the course of the semester.

Assessment Criteria

• Effort at articulating philosophical concepts through primarily non-verbal design
• Professionalism – including capacity to collaborate


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