Wrapping up – the end of the PhD

The final stages of a PhD can, it seems, get a bit messy with the various administrative function, the need for examiners to sign off on corrections and the need for your host institution to tick boxes, dot “i”s and cross “t”s. This institutional process is perhaps exacerbated when the internal machinations of higher education, along with the external mechanics of “the world as we know it” are now clearly seen to be running into the ground. Nevertheless, and not wishing to dwell too much on that ground here, my PhD is now formally finished. This stage has been marked quite definitively by the arrival of the certificate through the post. The thesis will surely end up at the British Library eventually but for now is anyway out there somewhere and apparently being downloaded by people interested in how design can be used as a method for studying other things.

In getting to that stage, a number of loose threads have been kicking around and one of these is tied up here. The Design Research Society commissioned some work in 2016 to tie into their 50th anniversary conference which I responded to by following up previous conferences. These were tweeted, as shown in the previous post, but also written up in more narrative fashion, published on the conference website. These posts are linked to here, following the DRS from its founding in 1962 to the apparent anarchy of the 1973 London conference. After 1973 things seemed to fall apart a little and the design of the design conference, as a conflation of circus performer and renaissance man, seemed to be a fitting end point for the study. The problems that design research as a discipline seems to have with this focus on one gender and the sense of being a circus genre continues to recur through, for example, the DRS discussion board.

So here, in part, is a memorialisation of my history of that circus.

Revisiting conference past: an introduction to the project

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.32.10

Conference on design methods: Three days at Imperial College London in 1962.

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.32.50

Ephemera: Recording and recalling the past: soundings of the founding.

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.32.59

TED ’64: Early DRS members take the talks to Scarborough.

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.33.08

The Design Method: an enduring classic?

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.33.17

The formation of the Design Research Society: turning over a new page.

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.33.26

Design Methods in Architecture: a heated debate between behaviour and phenomenon.

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.33.36

Design Participation: Reyner Banham in Owens Park

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.33.43

Design Activities: the circus comes to town

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 13.33.49


Designing parliament

The UK parliamentary process looks like this:


But this representation is complicated by the fact that the system is bicameral: a piece of proposed legislation can be brought into either house first and must pass through both. The main stages that take place in both houses are:

  • First reading
  • Second Reading
  • Committee
  • Report Stage and Third Reading

This is repeated in the other house and once a Bill has passed a Third Reading in both it is given Royal Assent and becomes law. A couple of questions have arisen, in working through a thesis that endeavours to look at parliamentary debate from the perspective of design: How does this compare to stages in a design process? And what does it matter if it does?

The first of these is a kind of brake to the full on analysis of the debate transcripts which uses design concepts as a set of sensitising terms for reading the interactions between MPs and takes a step back to look at the process in which the debate takes place. This follows on from my earlier post about the design process as described at the 1962 conference on design methods at Imperial College.

The second question is one of those “so what” questions that will haunt me until I get to the end of this post, at which point I will hope to have something erudite to say about it. But first the easy bit…

Drawing on the simple Design Council “double diamond design” model that was superimposed on Ken Norris’ morphological process in that earlier post, the stages of a Bill passing through the house of commons looks a little like this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 08.33.37

In this view, the underlying principles of the project are converged into the Bill that is presented to Parliament at the first reading. This is then, in the next stage, subjected to scrutiny by a more divergent group of MPs who participate in the debate at the second reading. The MPs converge on a simple, binary vote of yes or no to decide whether the Bill should proceed and the process is repeated through the subsequent stages. The divergent stages do not always contain the same number or scope of participants and the divergent stages might be a vote or a document that contains the state of the Bill as it has been agreed at that point in the process.

Overlaying a Bill with this generic design model provides a simple description of the Parliamentary process from a design perspective. However, it doesn’t account for the specific stages of the Parliamentary process which determine how the Bill progresses from one stage to the next between these different groups of participants. This progression, marked by the dots in between each diamond, can be compared with the stage gate model of the design process which has become an established prescriptive model of design used in various environments to ensure that a product meets specific criteria before progressing to the next stage of development. Where this development involves high levels of investment, such as when moving from a prototype car into production, then these stages are carefully controlled by senior members of the design team.

In the parliamentary context this product is most clearly seen to be the Bill, which as a piece of legislation, must meet the approval of MPs responsible for its scrutiny. As the Bill also represents the approval of a significant amount of investment public funding this process can also be seen as a series of stage gates controlling the development of the railway line that the Bill describes. This view of the process is represented in the diagram below which expands the points between each of the diamonds in the earlier diagram to reflect the mechanism taking place. The votes that are taken at the end of each debate, either in the full house or in committee, are effectively the gates that control the progress from one stage to the next and these votes, like the decision in a design process, are cast by MPs who are the most senior, elected decision makers in the country.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 08.47.03

So, there are some simple comparisons to be made that allow connections to be made between established models of how design works and the formal process of getting a Bill through Parliament. This provides some structural foundations for more detailed comparisons that might be made between what takes place within these stages and how these might then be construed as design activities. It also, beyond any methodological niceties that help to tidy up a sometimes sticky chapter of a thesis, demonstrates how the design of the Parliamentary process appears to be a quite sophisticated series of shifts in perspective that bring different participants together at different times in what might be seen as an attempt to achieve the best possible result in what can be complex, controversial intractable circumstances. Witness Prime Minister’s Question Time to understand why the notion of sophisticated in relation to Parliament is not always an easy claim to make.

And this I think might be part of the answer to that thorny so what question posed above. If looking at Parliament in this way helps us to understand how it works, and helps us to have some faith in the mechanism and those who participate in it then this, in the pursuit of democracy and accountability, is surely a worthy cause. There is also the corollary prospect that, given that the UK Parliamentary process has evolved through numerous reforms and refinements over a number of centuries, there is a possibility that the way this process unfolds might also provide some useful pointers to how design processes in other fields might be improved.


The design of design models

The design process has been described, modelled and designed quite a bit since one of the landmarks in the history of design studies, the 1962 conference at Imperial College on design methods.

Jones, J.C. & Thorney, D.G. (editors) (1963) Conference of design methods. Papers presented at the Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering, Industrial Design. Architecture and Communications, London, September 1962, Oxford: Pergamon Press

An example of a kind of designing of the design process is quite clearly found in a paper given by Ken Norris (1963) at the Imperial College conference.  Norris cites the morphological method of Fritz Zwicky (1951) to demonstrate “the application of engineering first principles to take a fresh look at some old problems and to establish a novel approach to new ones.” Zwicky’s method was originally published in the Journal of American Rocket Society which suggests that, at the time, a morphological approach to design was something approaching rocket science, a notion underlined by the reputation of Norris’ engineering company who designed rocket powered cars.

Here then, at one of the earliest design conferences, is a world renowned engineer explaining his approach to design and how what he calls the “normal process of designing”, shown here in his Fig 1 (Norris, 1962:118),

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 15.07.58

might be enhanced by adopting a methodical approach to the design process that is intended to support a “very conscious way of carrying [it] out” (Norris, 1962:118). His  revised model of the process explicitly recognises a number of additional steps through which the design engineer will pass to reach an acceptable solution that answers all the questions posed by the problem, shown below in his Figure 30 (Norris, 1962:139).

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 14.24.59

This model is a single example from any number. Nigel Cross has some more (1989) which he divides into descriptive ones, that show how design is seen to be done, and prescriptive ones, that show how design should be done better. Cross includes a model from 1985 by French (Cross, 1989:21), a 1984 model by Archer (ibid:25), a 1984 model by Pahl and Beitz (ibid:27), VDI2221 (ibid:28) and March (ibid:30). Out of this long and growing pedigree Norris is notable for three reasons.

Firstly, Norris provides the two simple representations of before and after that allow a simple comparison of his own designs on design. The detail of these differences is not so important. Intervening years have produced many refinements as seen already by those outlined by Cross above (at almost exactly the mid-point between 1962 and 2016) and can are further developed, for example, in the pages of most issues of Design Studies, the Journal of the Design Research Society. But if we just take Norris’ two diagrams at face value we can isolate the changes he has introduced. These are two main interventions: the extension of the original specification stage to provide for the generation of more candidate solutions – Norris hopes for “all possible solutions” at this stage; and the extension into a more detailed specification stage that allows for those all of those solutions to reviewed as the most acceptable one is identified. The model turns a simple linear design narrative into one that creates a number of divergent propositions that converge onto a final solution. This model remains current, for example in the Design Council’s ‘double diamond‘ design process model.

doublediamondNorris’ final amendment is to the list of what kind of questions the design process can answer. To the “report” of the original model he adds a number of additional projects that include “drawings” and “prototypes” to suggest an iterative approach to design and an “etc.” that might mean the model could be applied to anything.

Secondly, the model is also notable for being the clearest visual example in the proceedings of the landmark 1962 conference on design methods. This makes it a de facto landmark model of the design process. It should be noted however that at the same conference Christopher Alexander described his method of designing  an Indian village in an early report of his Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Alexander, 1964) and various other speakers were proposing design methods as ways of approaching town planning, education, group communication and, via the connection between design and creativity, the fine art practice of a young Howard Hodgkin. Despite this the conference is generally considered to be the point at which design got scientific (Cross, 2001).

Thirdly is the status of the speaker. Here is an engineer who designed a car that had already set seven world speed records and whose driver was awarded the CBE in recognition of these achievements. At the time of the conference Norris was in the middle of developing Bluebird Proteus CN7,  a contender for the land speed record, that he used as an example in the paper referred to. Does this kind of material, and this kind of speaker, make it onto conference schedules any more?


Alexander, C., (1964) Notes on the Synthesis of Form, London:Harvard

Cross, N., (2001) Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science. Design Issues, 17(3), pp.49–55.

Norris, K., (1963) The Morphological Approach to Engineering Design, Conference of design methods, Oxford:Pergamon

Zwicky, F., (1951) Tasks we face. Journal of American Rocket Society, 84 (March 1951)

Creating a design space

The machinations and refinery of academia can sometimes be overwhelming. This can provoke a paralysis of analysis, but perhaps in a slightly earlier phase than the term’s application to, for example, public policy debate. A strategy, the success of which remains to be seen, is to attempt to engage in other activities alongside that of the PhD life and to use them to help to crash through the self imposed barriers to analytic clarity and academic conclusion. Continue reading

Drinking outside of the box – constructed worlds and designer frames

Kees Dorst’s new book, “Frame Innovation” arrived today [1a]. His first case study refers to how the proposed route Dutch high speed rail project took 15 years to get off the starting blocks due to the limited frames utilised by the politicians involved. So the book seems like a good prospect from this point alone. Also though, and more pertinently, because Dorst’s earlier work [1b] reflects, and is part, of the design canon. Continue reading

A methodological interlude

Here I attempt to make sense of a methodological quandary that occurs where studies of the design process meet studies of debates as a design process. I started this train of thought in response to feedback from DRS2014.

Debate and design
The direct study of the design process attempts, among other things, to contribute to a better understanding of how design is done by observing that process in action. The object of study is the designer or the design meeting and can be approached by analysis of e.g. think aloud protocols, responses to interview questions or of videos and transcripts from observation of design meetings. The way that the protocol is generated, the veracity of the interviewers responses or the way that the design meeting has been constructed or observed raises some methodological challenges.

Continue reading

In conference: the Design Research Society, 2014

I had the pleasure last month to present a paper at the Design Research Society Conference in Umea in Sweden. Full papers were double blind reviewed prior to acceptance and so I had high hopes that the event would be of excellent quality and that I would be able to do mine justice. With beer at £8 a pint I was at least confident that a hangover wouldn’t get in the way. It was a little odd that my supervisor’s other paper hadn’t been accepted.

Continue reading