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The Carletonian

What is design?

< the word a lot in my articles without bothering to define what it means.

In short:  Design is research through creation.

There are two other types of reasoning that are well taught in college: inductive and deductive.  Inductive reasoning is the process of using logic to infer implications made by specific arguments.  Deductive reasoning is posing specific statements and testing their validity. Abductive reasoning is making something and seeing what happens.

I’ll use an example.  Let’s say three people are in a cave, trying to figure out where they are.  The inductive reasoner feels the cold on their skin, sees the lack of light and makes a reasonable assumption that they are probably in a cave.  The deductive reasoner posits a theory: If I am in a cave and I throw a rock, I will hear it bounces off the walls unevenly; they then test the theory.  The abductive reasoner lights a fire because they cannot see. (For those who cannot see the difference between deductive and abductive, deductive reasoning needs the hypothesis, abductive refuses to ever use it.  It is a subtle but powerful difference.)
Inductive reasoning is a big part of the humanities, it’s the way we can best understand the state of our culture, fuzzily.  Deductive reasoning is a big part of the way science is performed; it is methodically and brutally precise.   

Abductive reasoning is different though, it posits that because inductive reasoning is often too vague, and deductive reasoning is often too contextual, that the only way to truly understand the world is through experience. 

It is also important to note that design isn’t art.  Both are inherently acts of creation.  However, art isn’t about research, art is about making statements.  For example, back in the cave, a fourth person can build a beautiful statue that brilliant and eloquently captures their emotional conditions without telling any of them where they are or how they got there.  Art is beautiful, meaningful, and important; however, it is not design.
Colleges teach both deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning incredibly well, in pretty much every single department.  However, abductive reasoning is not taught, in large part because abductive reasoning is not well understood.  The only department that really focuses on it is Computer Science, whose philosophy centers on this type of understanding of the world. 

As we can see, it’s a very powerful understanding.  Software is, to quote a Wall Street Journal article, eating the world, in large part because of the power of abduction.  But abductive reasoning does not need to reside solely within any single department.  It can be taught in and utilized by every department, in conjunction with deductive and inductive reasoning.

Back to our definition.

Design is creating things to understand problems more deeply.  It’s powerful because it rests on the understanding that all creations only reveal part of the picture.  It doesn’t require a question or a theoretical starting point.  It is in fact, grounded in material existence.  First we will make something, and then we will try to understand the results.  The constant process of rethinking and recreating that allows abductive reasoning to paint a more accurate picture of the world. 

Combining abductive, deductive, and inductive reasoning offers the potential to understand the world deeply, fluidly, and creatively within many different contexts.  It is for this reason that it should become an integral part of any liberal arts education. 

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