Mark Nelson wrote up an interesting bit on design as the third discipline, in which he suggests that design is a kind of third-term offset against the old science/humanities split.

Mark notes that Whitehead is a precursor to such thinking, albeit in his educational writings rather than his metaphysics:

There are three main roads along which we can proceed with good hope of advancing towards the best balance of intellect and character: these are the way of literary culture, the way of scientific culture, the way of technical culture.

Nelson found this via Nigel Cross’s Designerly Ways of Knowing (warning: absurdly expensive Springer book). Cross contrasts the sciences, humanities, and design along three axes: subject, method, and values.

The phenomenon of study in each culture is

  • in the sciences: the natural world
  • in the humanities: human experience
  • in design: the artificial world

The appropriate methods in each culture are

  • in the sciences: controlled experiment, classification, analysis
  • in the humanities: analogy, metaphor, evaluation
  • in design: modelling, pattern-formation, synthesis

The values of each culture are

  • in the sciences: objectivity, rationality, neutrality, and a concern for “truth”
  • in the humanities: subjectivity, imagination, commitment, and a concern for “justice”
  • in design: practicality, ingenuity, empathy, and a concern for “appropriateness”

I haven’t read this book, but I wonder how Cross would characterize, say, engineering or craft. Are those design? They certainly deal with “artificial” objects, with practicality and ingenuity, and with modeling, but they also deal with rationality and human experience.

It’s interesting to note Cross’s attempt to third-termify the nature/culture divide by means of the artificial world. It’s instructive, perhaps, to contrast this with OOO proponents’ refusal to distinguish between natural, human, and artificial objects. Seen in this light, the orientation of design is not much better (“better”) than a scientific or humanistic one.

published August 11, 2010


  1. Mark N.

    Asking how designers / design researchers would characterize engineering is definitely interesting. In the stuff I’ve read, they include it, but emphasize the parts where humans are making decisions about what to build, or revising their designs based on material constraints, etc., but somewhat downplay the more problem-solving aspects that engineers foreground. For example, in architecture, design’s focus is squarely on architects, rather than on structural engineers.

    That seems somewhat contra Whitehead’s view; he seems to have been just as interested in problem-solving and engineering as elements of this third culture. On the other hand, engineering in Whitehead’s day seems to have often been much messier mixture of design, problem-solving, and craft: the architect was also the structural engineer and maybe competent in a machine shop too, so maybe Whitehead didn’t need to decide which parts he found most interesting.

  2. Tim Morton

    Thanks for this Ian. Indeed, it seems as if Design on Nelson’s view takes the place of the aesthetic, the traditional “third way” between science and ethics…just look at the terms: artifice, modeling, empathy, appropriateness.

    Of course, the “arts” have excluded the artisanal for too long, so in that sense the concept is welcome.

  3. Carl DiSalvo

    Ian, I am excited to see the subject of design being brought up.

    Cross is an excellent resource. But for a fuller exploration of design as a third discipline the work of Richard Buchanan is key. I’ve listed 2 references at the bottom, should you or others be interested. The discussion of the realm of design being “the artificial” is most thoroughly explored in Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial. There are a lot of problems with this text and Simon’s ideas about design. Nonetheless, it is an important text. As Buchanan has noted, one could interpret Simon’s title and text as a curious re-working of Aristotle’s Poetics.

    In regards to the place of engineering and craft, it depends on who you talk to. At the Design Research Society conference, and in journals such as Design Issues and Design Studies both craft and engineering are discussed. Most design researchers would agree that design is a component, or an activity, within engineering and craft, but many would argue that the fields of engineering and craft are distinct fields. There are (at least) two important distinctions that can be made. The first concerns the kinds of artifacts created – designers (such as industrial, graphic or interaction designers) create very different kinds of artifacts than engineers. The second concerns the relationship to production – designers are usually distanced from final production of artifacts, whereas craftspeople usually engage in final production of artifacts. For example, most furniture designers do not actually produce the furniture they design.

    Hmmm, makes me think I should get back to blogging and write up a longer post on this.

    Buchanan references:

    Design research and the new learning

    Design Issues, Vol. 17, No. 4, 2001, pp. 3-23.

    Design and the new rhetoric: Productive arts in the philosophy of culture

    Philosophy & Rhetoric, 2001 , Vol 34, No. 3, 2001, pp. 183-206.

  4. Mark N.


    I’d definitely be interested in reading a post rounding up more of this third-discipline writing. I’m familiar with Simon’s work (he’s part of our canon in AI, though our take on him is probably different than design’s is), but I haven’t read Buchanan.

    Cross’s bulleted contrasts struck me as a nicely provocative way of putting it, as much for what they say about the state of other fields as design: I don’t think he intended his “humanities” bullets to be negative, but they resonate nicely with some of what Graham Harman’s written about the humanities having made a mistake by allowing themselves to get boxed into the “castle of the mind”, with everything outside human experience removed from their purview. I’d be interested in reading more about how Cross’s conception of design as a third field relates to that of other design researchers, though.

  5. Robert Jackson

    Was going to post a comment, but it went on a bit, so I posted a post instead.

  6. GW

    It seems clear to me as someone who both teaches and practices design (in an architectural context…the bricks-and-mortar kind, not the software kind), that “design” subsumes all of engineering, craft, and practical aesthetics, while the same cannot be said for any of those categories with respect to one another. Therefore, I think it’s very appropriate to look at the “Third Discipline” in the context of design and not those more specific sub-geni.

    Actually, the whole discussion reminds me quite a lot of the argument over the Problem of Universals and whether or not Conceptualism really is a legitimate third way approach to Realism and Nominalism (via the re-framing of what is traditionally considered to be a purely ontological issue into an integrative ontological and epistemic issue), or belongs to one or the other.

    I tend to agree with your broader point that the issue of making these sorts of distinctions becomes more or less unnecessary if you do away with the split between the sciences vs. the humanities. But at the same time, these disciplines really are distinct, and their distinctions are persistent and inescapable. Applying the methods of science to the humanities almost invariably results in scientism and cargo-cult belief structures, while applying the methods of humanities to sciences often produces little more than pure nonsense.

    And then we have design, which I have immersed my whole life in, neither fish nor fowl, in neither camp, but connected inextricably with both.

    Love the blog, by the way. I’ve just discovered it via your wonderful “Turtleneck Hairshirt” manifesto, and spent a diverting afternoon perusing your writings. This is great stuff!