The Architecture Faculty is a highly appreciated, self-willed and essential part of TU Delft. With its design tradition the Architecture Faculty, together with Industrial Design Engineering, takes up a special place within our Delft University of Technology.
It is characteristic of both Faculties that they utilise the developments in both science and the art world. Not only do they improve everyday products – for instance a house or the heel of a women's shoe – but because of their creative designs they also add value to these products.
An issue is that the outside world tends to classify design studies as not being truly scientific. This often makes it more difficult to obtain extra funding for research, and the education is not always given its real merit by the evaluation committees of the Ministry.
I feel this is unjustified: to me, architecture and industrial design engineering are academic studies in the same way that applied physics or electrical engineering are academic studies. I do think, however, that the formulation of theories with regard to academic design needs to be further developed. For this reason this aspect has received increased attention within the Delft University in recent years.
At first glance an architect will design something differently from a chemical technologist, for instance. To be able to compare the academic level of both professional areas irrespective of these different angles, criteria have been formulated that an academic designer must comply with. To this effect Anthonie Meijers, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Technology at TU Eindhoven and TU Delft, interviewed representatives from different technical fields. Based on these interviews he concluded that the architect and the chemical technologist share a common design framework. For instance, he noted that all groups of academic designers will first redefine the problems before they start to look for a solution. They are all able to design at system level and with a high degree of complexity. It also became clear that matter-of-factness is an important characteristic that all engineers share. Both architects and chemical technologists are able to cope well with risks and changes to the definition of the problem in the course of the design process.
Based on these findings the three Universities of Technology in The Netherlands have formulated criteria with respect to the skills an academic designer must possess when he or she graduates from a University of Technology. For instance, engineers must have no difficulty with abstract thinking and with taking certain liberties in their designs. They must also be able to re-formulate poorly structured design problems in order to arrive at a better solution.
In addition to these criteria I also feel it is essential that designers are prepared to look at their own design process. In doing so it is important that they are able to distinguish between the context of discovery and the context of justification. In the context of discovery one describes how a certain design was created. However, I feel this alone is not enough. In the context of justification one reconstructs or analyses the decisions made during the design process, and then proceeds to justify these decisions. This approach makes it possible to come to a critical exchange of ideas about the academic level of a design.
At the same time this process can remove a lot of the perceived mystery that tends to surround the design process.
In order to facilitate a constructive debate about, for instance, the context of justification, it is important that the different parties involved speak the same language. I am therefore a proponent of the development of a ‘design language’.
Louis Bucciarelli is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was a guest lecturer at TU Delft some years ago. He too was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of a design language. Bucciarelli concluded that, like science, the design process has also changed considerably in the last few decades. The design process has evolved from the application of fairly simple, traditional experiential knowledge to the use of advanced technology. According to Bucciarelli, design has now become a social process: it is a multi-disciplinary collaboration between different specialists. Increasing numbers of specialists collaborate on the design of a building or product. In order to develop a good product an exchange of knowledge, negotiation and an understanding of each other's wishes is essential - especially because, according to Bucciarelli, each party focuses on safeguarding the criteria of his own discipline within a design. In aircraft design strength is the focal point for a structural engineer, and speed comes second. An engineer who is responsible for propulsion, in contrast, will focus mainly on the engines and not so much on the structure. In a building process we can see a similar division. An architect wants to realise a high-profile design of the building as an object in the built environment; politicians seek to use the building as a means with which to impress the public; the structural engineer wants the design to be stable and structurally sound; the project developer wants the building mainly to be profitable for a long time. They all will mainly look at the same building from the perspective of their own interests.
A common design language could contribute to increasing the transparency of the discussion between these parties. Bucciarelli suggests that each discipline should compile a terminology list that is relevant to the professional field in question. In the list terms must be ranked in order of importance. Based on these terminology lists it would then be possible to devise a design language. It would, however, be essential to the development of this language that each party acknowledges the expertise of the other parties, and accepts their proposed terms. If this kind of acceptance is not realised consensus will never be achieved. And bearing in mind the strong-willed types of people usually involved in the design process, this will not be a simple task.
I feel that the development of a design language is a challenge par excellence for engineers of Delft University of Technology. We are able to analyse problems matter-of-factly, but enjoy finding inventive and creative solutions. There may be architects who fear that a design language will restrict their creativity, but I don't think such fears are justified. Musical notation has never inhibited the creativity of composers. Quite the contrary: such notation allows composers to discuss their ideas with other composers and make it clear to musicians how the music must be played. I expect that a design language will fulfil a similar function, and that it will contribute to creative and academic designs that can be discussed in debates that push back frontiers and open up new horizons.
Prof. Jacob T. Fokkema
Rector Magnificus, Delft University of Technology