Design and mentation: Piaget’s constant objects

Ranulph Glanville

Open PDF

Some years ago I wrote about (scientific) research and design: I argued that (scientific) research is a subset of design, and we should therefore not ask that design should be a subset of (scientific) research. Indeed, not only should we not ask it, it’s not possible (Glanville 1999).

In this brief piece I want to outline an argument concerning design and thinking, but not to argue it in detail. The central thesis is that design is the essential part of thinking: that is, thinking is a type of design activity. So it’s not just science and research that are design activities: to design is to be human, and vice versa! To construct this outline, I shall look at Piaget’s account of how babies learn to recognise their mothers, surely one of the primitive human acts of mentation. I use the somewhat awkward word mentation to reduce arguments about cognition and perception.

Before I undertake this, I should say a word or two about how I wish to talk about design: what I consider to be at the heart of that activity. For me there are many tasks the designer must undertake and somehow find a satisfactory response to. These include functionality and well-made-ness. But there is one activity which is particular and central to design, the activity by which we create form (truly, this is in-form-ation) and where we seek the distinctiveness, the novelty, that is essential to what we believe we do. This activity has traditionally been associated with sketching — and doodling. (I use the word doodle precisely because it has no pretence to special status: it’s a word that removes grand purpose, downplays an activity to the everyday, to the child-like: which is exactly what I consider this activity to be — purposeless, child-like and everyday.)...

ISSUE 0 | July 2006 | 05/10 | Past Radical Propositions