A philosophical analysis of designing : results from the Delft dual nature of technical artifacts program

P.E. Vermaas, W.N. Houkes, J. Ridder, de

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Introduction Designing sometimes yields results that are miraculous from a technical point of view. The first light bulb must have been magical to those who first encountered it, as may be the new 555 passengers Airbus A380 to us when we see it take off from Schiphol Airport. From a philosophical point of view designing is, however, wondrous at all times. Design methodologists typically characterise designing as a process that starts with goals or desires of clients, and ends with a material description of a new product by which the client is helped. Philosophically speaking, goals and desires are intentional concepts by which we describe the thoughts and actions of conscious beings, whereas those material descriptions of products usually are phrased in structural concepts, by which we describe physical objects. Whereas philosophers have for centuries been trying to make some headway in understanding how these intentional and structural ways of describing the world are related, designers, apparently, move freely and systematically between these two modes of describing the world. As part of the Dual Nature of Technical Artifacts research program – funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and carried out by and large in the period of 2000-2004 at the Philosophy Department of Delft University of Technology – we have analysed design processes from this philosophical perspective. In this contribution we sketch some of the main results. The starting point of the program is that material technical artefacts – henceforward called simply products – such as light bulbs and airplanes, have, philosophically speaking, a dual nature: they have an intentional nature that is captured by, for instance, the ascription of technical functions to products, and they have a structural nature captured by a physical description of the product. Central tasks of the program were to analyse the notion of technical function, and to capture the relation between the intentional and structural natures of products. Answering these questions lead us first to describing using and designing in terms of what we called use plans for products (section 2) and to defining functions of products relative to their use plans (section 3). Secondly, we coupled this description and definition to the more usual descriptions of using and designing (section 4) and the more usual understanding of functions (section 5). Thirdly, we answered our philosophical question by giving at least the conceptual relation between intentional and structural descriptions of products (section 6). We end this contribution (section 7) with presenting a more detailed picture of design processes as they appear from our use plan account.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDesign research in the Netherlands 2005 : proceedings of the symposium held on May 19-20, 2005
EditorsH.H. Achten, K. Dorst, P.J. Stappers, B. Vries, de
Place of PublicationEindhoven
PublisherTechnische Universiteit Eindhoven
ISBN (Print)90-6814-587-8
Publication statusPublished - 2005
Eventconference; Design research in the Netherlands 2005 symposium, 19-20 May 2005, Eindhoven - Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, Netherlands
Duration: 19 May 200520 May 2005

Publication series



Conferenceconference; Design research in the Netherlands 2005 symposium, 19-20 May 2005, Eindhoven
Othersymposium held on 19-20 May 2005, Eindhoven University of Technology


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