Reading notes: “From a Design Science to a Design Discipline” (Cross, 2007)

This text is an overview* of the article “From a Design Science to a Design Discipline: Understanding Designerly Ways of Knowing and Thinking”, written by Nigel Cross.

Source: This Is Engineering, from Pexels

rofessor Nigel Cross is a british academic and consultant in Design Education and Research, also editor-in-chief of Design Studies, an acclaimed scientifc journal. In the 80’s he sustained why Design is a particular area with its own culture as well as body of knowledge different from arts, humanities and sciences.

The article is contemporary, published in 2007 as a book chapter of Design Research Now: Essays and Selected Projects, edited by Ralf Michel, a designer co-founder of Swiss Design Network. The book shows selected works by other exponents in international academical Design field, as the professors Gui Bonsiepe, Richard Buchanan and Klaus Krippendorff.

I do not pretend exhaust the topic with this notes, these just point the main ideas contained in his article.

Argument and theoretical assumption

Cross starts his article with this following assumption: nowadays the Design’s paradigm as academic field has changing from design as a science to design as a discipline.

He sustains his argument using a historical overview based on 20th century sociocultural phases and how the Design education was inserted in these dynamics along the past century.

Other important aspect in this article is the temporal distance of author to relate and discuss the facts (the text was published in 2000’s decade), as well as the author had an important role in the process of design theory in second half of 20th.


I will divide the text comprehension in the next topics:

Part 1: Historical

  • Timeline for Design vs. science’s debate evolution;
  • The search for Design as a science;
  • Criticism for Design as a science;
  • The rise of a body of knowledge;

Part 2: Assumptions

  • Scientific Design, Design Science and Science of Design;
  • What does science have to learn from Design?;
  • Simon vs. Schön perspectives in Theory of Design;

Part 3: Propositions

  • Cross’ taxionomy;
  • Design knowledge by people, processes and products;
  • How designers think? — Methods to collect data and understanding them.

PART 1: Historical


As an overview, I traced below a timeline to synthesize how the Design theorists debated their arguments along 20th — mainly its second half. It’s important to observe three decades highlighted by Cross: 60’s, 70’s and 80's.

Source: Grilo (2021) based on Cross (2007)

1960s: The search for Design as a science

Firstly, Nigel points that 1960 decade was the epicenter of discussions about Design as a science. In the past, early years of 20th and before, this thinking has exists, but 60’s was characterized by an accentuation of positivism addopted by Design theorists.

The historical context for that was the heritage from World War II, substantially signed by accentuation on rational thinking of belic strategies and management decisions.

Source: Pexels

1970s: Criticism for Design as a science

Second, the 70’s rose as frontal opposite to positivism thinking, with the antipositivism movements growth in academic discussions. While the positivists proconize rationalism, deduption and prediction as method, antipositivists oppose this argument describring it as incomplete or insufficient to explain some phenomena, among them the creative processes in Design. About that, exponents as the architect Chrispopher Alexander get out the scientific design movement after conceive the design works unruly the scientific method, thus Design, according Alexander, couldn’t be viewed by science lenses.

1980s: The rise of a body of knowledge

Third, despite these oppositions, the search for Design as science grows up in 1980s, when emerge different publications in Design studies and methodology, as well as books published on studies within industry and engineering as research locus.

1st ed. of Design Studies Journal, 1979–1980. Source:

PART 2: Assumptions

Scientific Design, Design Science and Science of Design

Aiming dissolve the questionings and misunderstandings about relation between Design and science, Cross points 3 interpretations: Scientific Design, Design Science and Science of Design.

  • Scientific Design refers to industrialized and modern design, different from pre-industrial driven by craftwork.
  • Design Science is an approach explicitly, rationallly and sistematically organized of Design, considering the Design a scientifical activity within itself, i.e., beyond use of scientifical knowledge of artifacts.
  • Science of Design would be the “science of science” according to Cross. In other words, a set of subtopics or disciplines in which Design is a commom topic for them.

What does science have to learn from Design?

Source: Pexels

At one point, the theorists realized that discussion about Design versus science was moving away from the nature of Design essentially: the creative processes in Design are inherently based on incertain and chaos, differently from hermetic scenarios presented by scientifical method. Therefore, it would be important for scientists to observe how designers work and their behaviours along design processes, aiming to elucidate which is the knowledge contained and generated in Design activity.

Simon vs. Schön perspectives in Theory of Design

Cross explains the differences between the Simon’s and Schön’s paradigms for a Theory of Design.

The north-american economist Hebert Simon, as positivist, considered the Design by rationality lenses and predictive methods.

In other side, the USA pedagogist Donald Schön has proposed a reflexive professional beyond the pragmatic aspects of projetual processes. In Schön, there is an intituitive nature of Design, with uncertain, instability, singularity, and value conflicts.

In fact, one project cannot or should not be identical to another. Each problem is resolved by different ways considering contexts and constraints. There are not a recipe (or, academically, methods and techniques) to replicate Design thinking totally.

Thus, since Schön theoretical proposals, Design moves to be a discipline (that works interdisciplinary), and no more a science as before.

PART 3: Propositions

Cross’ taxionomy

Cross (2007:48) define his own taxionomy for Design studies:

Design epistemology — study of designerly ways of knowing
Design praxiology — study of the practices and processes of design
Design phenomenology — study of the form and configuration of artefacts

Below I highlighted some important point claimed by professor:

We have come to realise that we do not have to turn design into an imitation of science; neither do we have to treat design as a mysterious, ineffable art. We recognise that design has its own distinct intellectual culture. (Cross, 2007:48).

Therewith, the professor advocates design in its own intellectual compendium, reason for we do not need make design an imitation of science.

Design knowledge in people, processes and products

Considering the elements discussed in design research, the author cite three aspects contained in Design knowledge: people, processes and products.


Design is a human ability that capacites designers but also other people to projectual act, differently from animals or (maybe, cf. author) machines. Thus, it is important to understand how people design things and how the designers think.


Other dimension of design is about “how” design works. It resides in methods and techniques, but also entire methodology of Design that explain different ways to projectual activity. The author consider the “modeling” an essential part of the design process, as a language of projectual act, and reflect that contemporary age has transitioning the modeling from the manual to computer modeling.


Finally, the product was considered inherent part of design knowledge (Cross, 2007:47):

Third, we must not forget that design knowledge resides in products themselves: in the forms and materials and finishes that embody design attributes. Much everyday design work entails the use of precedents or previous exemplars — not because of laziness by the designer but because the exemplars actually contain knowledge of what the product should be.

After historical and theoretichal explaining, Cross suggests some practices in Design research to understand how designers think.

How designers think?

Methods to collect data and understanding them

Source: Pexels

Firstly, Cross observes that is common in design research studies related to how designers work in undergraduate contexts and different design segments.

However, Cross underlines an important aspect, according him, to really extract how designers think: its important to examine the design processes and discurses of high performance designers.

Personally, I initially thought it was a somewhat segregating measure to separate or define a group of high-level designers in their segments. Then, both in-depth reading and in class discussions, I was able to understand Cross’s point of view. To demonstrate it, here I bring a known example about the designer Dieter Rams:

Dieter Rams, iconic designer in tech industry and reference for Apple design

How did Dieter Rams come to his conclusions in design processes that led to such innovative products in the industry? What design practices put you as a reference, even, to base products like Apple’s?

It’s known the similarity between design style of Apple products (designed by Jonathan Ive) and Braun electronics designed by Rams.

Braun T3 and the original iPod. Source: Ultralinx
Braun ET66 and the calculator app on the original iPhone. Source: Ultralinx
For Cross, is important to understand how high performance designers think to elucidate what the elements and dynamics of theirs creative processes. It not about innovative solutions, but also innovative problematization. Image source: Dezeen

Back to the text, Cross cites some qualitative studies conducted with professionals of architecture and design, in which was observed the different ways to projectual activity between participants. For example, while some individuals generate a set of alternatives in projects, other professionals decide to deep in one of alternatives. Therefore, design thinking is complex and uncertain.

All the same, the use of qualitative methods and techniques is ideal to extract detailed data of design processes, and the interview seems to be an useful technique for that. But, some limitations are underlined by Cross:

  • There is a difficult to map all design process only throught relates from participants, it depends of temporal distance of professional and can reveals some incompletions of details that influenced the project.
  • Frequently the impact projects in industry has secret accordings and terms that denies the designers to elucidate all the factors involved in decision making in design process.

Nigel Cross finalizes his article calling design research community to deepening and increment methods to collect data about the creative process of designers, in direction to solidify the knowledge of design process and methods and consolidate Design as discipline with different segments and professionals with singularities in theirs processes, amplifying the understanding of projectual thinking.


Cross, N. (2007). From a Design Science to a Design Discipline: Understanding Designerly Ways of Knowing and Thinking. In: Michel R. (eds) Design Research Now. pp. 41–54. Board of International Research in Design. Birkhäuser Basel.

* These reflections are insights emerged during reading exercises of the subject ‘Theory of Design’, at Doctorate Program in Design from Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

About me

André Grilo. Designer and academic researcher. Ph.D. student in Design & Technology, M.Sc. in Design. Design Manager working on IT projects. Research interests in Design Competences and Innovation by Design in tech-based organisations.

Ph.D. student, MSc. in Design, Designer and Researcher