Designing as Decisioning

I am frequently referencing this account of the Arabic word for design – as the process of turning situations into decidables – by Samer Akkach in “Design and the Question of Eurocentricity”, Design Philosophy Papers, Issue 6, 2003/4:

Although the discourse of design remains predominantly “Eurocentric,” its adaptations and assimilations into the Arab world seem to raise no noticeable intellectual, moral or practical concerns. Interestingly, Arab scholars have invented a modern term for “design,”  tasmīm, that has been used — uncontested — in the contemporary Arabic discourse. Its appearance goes back to the nineteenth century, however, its institutionalised usage has a much shorter history concurrent with the establishment of architecture schools mostly in the second half of the twentieth century.  Modern lexicographers render the new term, together with its derivations, sammama (to design) and musammim (designer), as the only equivalents to the English terms, although they were not used in this sense in pre-modern Arab-Islamic literature. In fact it is not easy to single out one term in pre-modern literature that has the same comprehensive scope and applicability in various contexts, except perhaps for the term san‘a, which denotes the idea of  “making” rather than  “designing”.  The Arabic root of tasmīm (design), samam, literally means “deafness,”  whose various shades convey the meanings of  “solidity” (asamm), “innermost” (samīm) and  “a very sharp sword” (samsām). The current usage, however, seems to be based on tasmīm as “determining”,  “making up one’s mind”  and  “resolve”  to follow up a matter. Thus in linguistic terms “design” is an act of determination, of sorting out possibilities, and of projecting a choice. It has little to do with problem-solving, the prevailing paradigm, as the designer (musammim) seems to encounter choices, not problems, and to engage in judging merits, not solving problems. But whatever the linguistic parameters or demands of the new terms were, the conceptual terrains were already prefigured in the Western conceptualisation and institutionalisation of  “design” and acts of  “designing” that were to be adopted. Modern Arab lexicographers, scholars and designers have hardly exercised any critical assessment of the overlap or match between their lexical and conceptual choices. The lack of historical and philosophical depths of the new terms seems to have assisted in their appropriation and the perpetuation of their uncritical usage throughout the Arab world.



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