“There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method”
Herman Melville


In the context of increasingly complex technological and economic developments, such as e-commerce, social media, and new production technologies, the social significance of design continues to grow. These developments have inevitably been accompanied by certain highly charged questions, concerning such issues as fair working conditions, sustainable development, and the upholding of personality rights—questions with which designers are now directly confronted. Yet how are we to research these social aspects of design (“social design”) and shed light on the conditions of their emergence? The present research project takes this question as the starting point from which to examine the particular rationales underlying various methods and procedures in design. The “Intrinsic Logic of Design” project investigates the development of eight projects pursued within the Design Department of the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) and thereby gives an impression of the actors involved in them. The research project’s hypothesis is that these various design processes are all governed by their own, intrinsic logic of creative production, which can be reduced neither to standardised design methods nor to established procedures in other disciplines. In unfolding the complexity of these singular design processes—or intrinsic logics—the project aims to contribute to the development of both research into design methods and design theory.

Situating the Discipline

Until now, the social effects of design have received little scholarly attention and the research findings in this area are scattered across various academic fields, including sociology, science and technology studies, anthropology, and history. The fundamental assumptions concerning, and the means of assessing, the influence of technology on design, as well as the latter’s social significance, are equally varied. The present research project is based on the assumption that the social significance of design is not only manifested in the elaboration of a design solution (and its commercial success) that is conditioned by a particular social framework; design is rather understood as a product of the reciprocal influence of the social and the technological. What is in question here is thus whether and how societies change in response to the establishment of design practices which structure what is visible and expressible from the outset. Against this background, various potential forms of action and experience take shape, which are determined by design in conjunction with a variety of agents, approaches, and objects (products, systems, services, communications networks).

If one pursues this idea, it becomes clear that the products of design underlie social dynamics, which, in line with actor-network theory, can be investigated under precise laboratory conditions, experimentally tested, and brought together.

The question of method, as addressed through so-called design methodology, occupies a central place within international design discourse, which deals both with the methodological awareness possessed by designers and with theoretical questions. The appeal to a method here serves as a reflexive legitimation of the discipline, presenting the design process, the object it produces, and the use this object receives, more as the calculated result of planning rather than as the indeterminate result of an associative process. Particular design logics come to be consolidated by incorporating established methods, both within the discipline and in its wider social spheres of influence, such as the economic sphere. The design process thereby comes to be absorbed into a professional classification system, in which, in a very particular manner, a wide variety of factors are arranged, complied with, and tested.

In this way, the reference to methodology in the design-based disciplines is often tied to the attempt to present the design process as theoretically comprehensible and thus reproducible. Concealed within the appeal to method lies a desire to define and ground design as a discipline. In contrast to the notion of a rule-based approach, the extremely broad and varied range of methods found in design practice gives grounds for thinking that even the most individual approach is raised to the status of a method, thereby removing any binding normativity from the notion of method as a fixed procedure. “A design method is any action one may take while designing.” It was with this statement that, back in the 1970s, John Chris Jones declared design to be a method without method. And it is from this observation that the novel notion of an intrinsic logic of design derives, a notion that remains to be theoretically elucidated. If research and development in design is conceived as a singular and informal process, then reflection on method—rather than as the consideration of a set of standardised procedures—can be seen as an idiosyncratic productive process that might provide insight into the particular conditions governing informal processes (into, for example the methodological thematisation of exemplary cases). On this interpretation, the reduction of the design process to rule-based procedures, which are well established in academic research, art, and the manual trades, appears hardly desirable.