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Design Inquiry: Metaphors and Images

Design inquiry is distinct from other forms of inquiry in that it is ‘inquiry for action’—not merely description, explanation, prediction,  or control. At the beginning of design inquiry it is essential to make a reality check—an ‘assessment’—of the situation at hand. What constitutes the nature of the reality that designers find themselves in when they begin designing?



This assessment is too often framed as a process of ‘analysis’. When someone is directed to learn more about a situation, an organization, a person, an event or anything in the real world, the assumption is made immediately that what is needed is an ‘analysis’. Analysis is a process of breaking something into its constituent elements, which allows for a certain level of understanding and people excel at this. However, it has become clear that in order to really understand something it is important to know how the constituent elements interact as a whole—a ‘synthesis’—as well.

It turns out that it is difficult to give a name to a synthesis of elements unless it is merely a functional assembly that can be understood by what it does. For example when making an assessment of an organization everyone—student or professional—has difficulty saying what the nature, character or essence of the organization as a whole is when all the departments, divisions, staff and behaviors are taken together. Usually metaphors or analogies are used to convey what the organization as a whole is like because we don’t know how to do that directly.

A recent article in Aeon makes the case that we design metaphors to help us see things differently using words. But, when something is too full or rich for words we use images if we have the skills to do so.  Unfortunately the use of images to see and understand the essential nature of a thing—encountered or created—is not as common as is the use of words. Nor is creating or reading images very well understood except for the truncated versions found in the world of computers.


It is even more difficult to convey the nature of a whole thing when designing it—when elements are linked and connected together intentionally in such a way as to create desired synergies and emergent qualities—not merely functional assemblies—in particular or ultimate particular designs. The use of images to convey the nature of what has been created is necessary. The use of images to help us understand the value of what has been created is essential.

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