Design Thinking and the Ephemerality of Software

I recently read Richard Buchanan’s Wicked Problems in Design Thinking (Design Issues, Vol 8, No 2, 1992, pp5-21) on the recommendation of my esteemed colleague Mahesh Senagala. The article frames design as a liberal art, partially drawing on design as an approach to wicked problems. The arguments for the inclusion of design thinking as an necessary liberal art are compelling, but I was already in that camp before reading the article. What I found more interesting about this paper from 1992 was the omission of software design as a design category.

Buchanan categorizes the areas explored by design into four areas, and the terms and examples are his:

  1. symbolic and visual communications: graphic design, typography, advertising, book and magazine production, scientific illustration, photography, film, television, and computer display
  2. material objects: form and visual appearance of everyday products as well as the “physical, psychological, social, and cultural relationships between products and human beings.”
  3. activities and organized services: logistics, decision making, strategic planning
  4. complex systems or environments for living: systems engineering, architecture, urban planning

The author uses the shortened phrase “signs, things, actions, and thought” to refer to these four areas impacted by design thinking. It is worth noting that the author acknowledges that these are not separate fields of study, and that any significant design exercise will incorporate all four.

In the article, there is no treatment of software design, despite the fact that it had been studied within the Computer Science and Software Engineering disciplines for decades prior to this article’s publication. I scribbled a few notes in the margins, wondering if the author meant to include software design as part of systems engineering, since he does not extrapolate. (It’s also worth noting that Buchanan addresses the inherent problem in the word “design,” that different people use it to mean different things. Here, I am talking about the “internal” design of software—how it works—not interaction or interface design.)

I posit that software design is significantly different from all other manifestations of design because when software has been fully designed, it exists. A significant corollary is that when software exists, it has been designed. Flaws in software implementation are evidence of errors (of commission or of omission) in its design. Recognizing the intangibility of software leads to its ephemerality, characteristic of modern continuous integration systems. An “instance” of software—a build—may only exist for milliseconds. Even if software design then is included in Buchanan’s characterization of system design, it is substantially different from architecture.

(I noticed that my argument echoes in software Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence. Also, it reminds me again that “software architecture” is a misleading term, since software design is characteristically different than traditional architecture.)

I would be interested to know if the science of design literature contains subsequent work to Buchanan’s, and whether philosophies of design include “design of the intangible and ephemeral” within their ontologies.


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