Lawson: What Designers Know

What do designers know? In What Designers Know, Brian Lawson’s 2007 follow up to “How Designers Think”, he claims they use language a lot more than we give them credit for.

Lawson is a strong proponent for paying attention to language in design (when an architect suggested that “90% of our thinking is held in our sketches”, he retorted “but 100% is in the conversation!”).

Design Conversation

Design Conversation

Some notable examples of the use of language for design include:

  • Seymour/Powell and ‘heroic’ trains for Inter City,
  • architect Jirvicna starts with statements and twists them in.

Above all, he notes the evocative and highly concentrated nature of design talk:

[designers] use words is special ways when they know they’re talking to other designers….Words are selected carefully to evoke and communicate subtleties of design concepts which would take many words and drawings to communicate to an outsider but which might be summarized in short phrases or even single words. The evocativeness of words is key.

– Lawson, 1997

Schön also writes on design archetypes with very evocative words.

It may be done in groups — where people often assume roles (learner, informer, critic, collaborator, informer) — or with oneself.

He also points out that the drawing phenomenon for briefs is a recent one (e.g. in 1940 stone worker Benfield just gives a verbal description to a mason, another example is George Stuart) and it can give too much info. [I do wonder though about the use of sketches with people such as Da Vinci: is this for more of a scientific purpose?]

Lawson believes that this shared language amongst designers becomes an issue when talking to clients. The most provocative statement I’ve seen about the importance of language and design, comes from Hodges (1991), who blames the soulnessness of 20th century architecture on communication breakdown:

…In fact it has been suggested that the commonly felt lack if character in the twentieth century built landscape is due to the insufficient vocabularies of graphically oriented designers to describe and evoke multifaceted design possibilities and emotional responses, so others who are involved in implementing heir ideas cannot share in their visions

 (Hodges 1991)

And, just because you never know when diagrams will be useful, a few diagrams from the book:

User Needs

User Needs

Conceptual Model of Design Problems

Conceptual Model of Design Problems

Finally, I can’t resist an attempt at wit: Lawson effectively says we as designers need to name and frame the situation!

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