Why Study and Do Design in a College of Liberal Arts

Carl DiSalvo

Why study and do design in a college of liberal arts? Because design is a liberal art of the twenty-first century. It belongs to be studied and practiced here.

Carl DiSalvo designs interactive software to support local Atlanta food initiatives

Carl DiSalvo designs interactive software to support local Atlanta food initiatives

I can’t claim to have come up with this idea myself. It’s an argument made by Richard Buchanan, a design scholar with a background in philosophy and rhetoric. More specific than just claiming design as a liberal art, for Buchanan, design is a contemporary form of rhetoric.  Today, too often rhetoric is dismissed. To call something “rhetorical” is a pejorative statement meant to demean another statement as being empty of substance or effect. But that’s simply wrong. Rhetoric is a liberal art that provides a structured way of understanding and acting in the world. Rhetoric is the invention and delivery of arguments. And for Buchanan, design makes arguments: the products of design assert claims about how the world is, could be, or should be.

Today, too often rhetoric is dismissed. To call something “rhetorical” is a pejorative statement meant to demean another statement as being empty of substance or effect. But that’s simply wrong. 

Take any two products and compare them, for instance, an Android phone and an iPhone. Both of these products provide similar base functionality. But how they do so, and the auxiliary services they enable (or don’t enable), significantly structure our interactions with the device and with others, producing very different experiences, making very different arguments.   These differences are rarely arbitrary or accidental, they are made through processes of design: in engineering, industrial design, software architecture, interface design, and business strategy.

So, by studying design as a form of rhetoric, we acknowledge the character and agency of the things we make. This seems especially relevant for a college of liberal arts embedded in technology institute. And in addition to studying design as a form of rhetoric, we can also practice design as a form of rhetoric: we can engage in the conception, planning, and making of things as not just a problem solving activity, but as an activity that explicitly strives to shape society by articulating individual and collective desires and values.

So, by studying design as a form of rhetoric, we acknowledge the character and agency of the things we make.

The field of design is vast. If you ask some design scholars, it encompasses all technical and professional practice. It’s too vast for any one person to study. My interests lie in two specific areas of design:

The first is speculative design: a practice of design concerned with futures. Designers who practice speculative design often create fantastical future products or services. It’s similar to science fiction (in fact, some people call it design fiction), but instead of basing these explorations in narrative text, it’s done through physical and digital prototypes and images. In the best cases, these prototypes and images function to reveal potential implications of future technologies in ways that are both compelling and accessible. But often these prototypes and images require interpretation. That’s part of my research—interpreting the speculative design to understand the implicit arguments in these works and how these arguments are communicated through form and interaction.

The second field of design I work in is participatory design: a practice of design concerned with enabling people who aren’t trained designers to engage design. Sometimes this is also referred to as co-design—suggestive of a cooperative approach to designing. One scholarly aspect of this work deals with methods: how to structure these engagements and enable creativity, learning, and change in the process, in effect, how to enable others to make arguments through design. Another scholarly aspect of this work deals with the politics of participatory design: how co-operative approaches do or do not model political ideologies.  When designers and publics work together, what arguments are being made about democracy in the twenty-first century?

The topics of speculative design and participatory design are present in many of the classes I teach. But they are not the only topics of design I teach. Just as a student has to master writing and speaking before crafting a compelling speech, so too are their foundational aspects of design. These include both material skills, such as visualization, and thinking skills, known as “design thinking”. What’s important in teaching these skills in that they are not taught as just grammar, not simply rules to be followed. Rather, in the tradition of rhetoric, in the tradition of design as a liberal art, they are skills that comprise the foundation of an approach to making the world that is both informed and impassioned and recognizes the power and responsibility we have as faculty, students, and scholars at a premier technical institute.

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