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Sec 2.1
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Sec 2.3

Chapter 2

Part I. Interpretation in Design

                                                “And to imagine a language

                                                 means to imagine a form of life.”

                                                                        Ludwig Wittgenstein

                                                                        Philosophical Investigations

                                                                        (1953, §19)

Interpretation is the process of understanding something in a specific way. That is, it is a matter of explicating a non-articulated (i.e., tacit) grasp of something. This may involve the phenomenon of seeing as: a closed line in a drawing is spontaneously perceived as (representing) a certain type of object. It may involve re-interpretation, in which a passage in a novel is seen in a new light on the basis of literary criticism. A psychoanalyst might interpret a patient's dream or behavior as an expression of deep-seated fears. A designer could construe an assigned project as a problem of creating a certain kind of space, light, or form.

An attempt will be made in the following pages to interpret interpretation: to articulate an increasingly more explicit understanding of what is involved in the process of interpretation and what role this process plays in design. What factors influence how things are interpreted? What prompts designers to reinterpret, and what cognitive function does this play? The purpose of this exploration is to determine how interpretation in design can be supported by computer-based systems, and why it might be useful to do this.

The next three chapters all argue that an essential feature of the designer's work involves processes of interpretation. Chapter 2 shows that three of the foremost analysts of design stress the role of interpretation (although they may not agree on much else). Chapter 3 presents original empirical evidence from a study of designers at work designing a lunar habitat. Chapter 4 offers a philosophical framework for conceptualizing interpretation as a fundamental aspect of human understanding.


In each section of this chapter evidence will be presented in support of the claim that the process of understanding in design has the following three features:

(a) understandings of a design arise from interactions with the situation of the task in the world;

(b) the designer's unique interpretive perspectives grow out of traditions which pass on viewpoints for relating to the world, skills for behaving in the world and languages for talking about the world; and

(c) explicit articulations of interpretations in language emerge from situated, tacit understanding and then re-submerge (although they may be captured first).

This chapter will discuss the insights of three people who have provided insightful and influential interpretations of the design process: Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel, and Donald Schön. Significantly, each has been concerned at some point with the issue of providing computer support for design. Also, they emphasize the themes of this dissertation: Alexander focuses particularly on the problem of representation; Rittel emphasizes the consequences of people's differing perspectives; and Schön is concerned above all with how explicit reflection arises from tacit understanding.

Alexander recognizes the need to combine mathematical methods and analysis of patterns with intuitive sense grounded in architectural practice. In pushing the paradigm of objective analysis as far as he can, he is nevertheless frank about the limits of empirical research and the importance of prioritizing human needs that are less susceptible to empirical evaluation. Finally, the pattern language he proposes is meant as a basis for every culture and every person to build their own unique and appropriate representations of design situations.

Rittel's analysis of the “wicked” problems of design does not suggest the elimination of method in favor of arbitrary personal whim. Rather, it stresses the complexity of continually framing the problem and solving it in parallel. One's interpretation of the problem must not only be based in the specifics of the situation, but must also grow out of the exploration of potential solutions. The argumentative process of design is not simply one in which everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Rather, it is a process in which initial prejudices are supposed to be subjected to critique from other viewpoints so that they will be refined. At the same time, Rittel recognizes that people have differing perspectives for various legitimate reasons, and that agreement will not always be possible even with the best processes of deliberation.

Schön can be seen as a resolution of the objective and subjective approaches, for he stresses the interplay or dialogue between the designer (who brings tacit skills and personal perspectives) and the materials of a design situation (which provides surprises for the moves of the designer that could not have been anticipated but that constrain the design). Schön's theories about the roles of tacit knowing and explicit reflecting, drawing upon important philosophical sources, flesh out both Alexander's notion of intuition and Rittel's sense of how judgments can be deliberated. Schön's theory of design focuses on the movement between the designer’s skillful preunderstanding (“knowing-in-action”) and explicit articulation (“reflection-in-action”). This is precisely the movement that is called interpretation in this dissertation.

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This page last modified on January 05, 2004