Design Enquiry: Tacit Knowledge & Invention…

RUST,C. (2004) Design Enquiry: Tacit knowledge and invention in science Design Issues 20 November 2004

Design Enquiry: Tacit knowledge and invention in science

I wrote this paper between 2001 and 2003 as my first serious attempt to work out the implications of the ideas on “Knowledge and the Artefact” that I presented at the 2000 La Clusaz Conference on Doctoral Education in Design. I went to La Clusaz full of enthusiasm for my ideas but the very intense and quite scary environment of that conference brought me down to earth with a bump.

I rethought my presentation to stress the provisional nature of my La Clusaz paper and the questions that it implied and proposed it as a research problem. This seemed to do the trick and I had a lot of encouragement, hence my efforts in this 2004 paper which explored how Michael Polanyi’s ideas about tacit or personal knowledge could be seen at work in some of the various design research projects that I was involved with at Sheffield Hallam University.

Full Text available to download from


For some years there has been discussion and speculation on the subject of “design enquiry” and a number of people, for example Richard Buchanan and Clive Dilnot , have looked for forms of enquiry appropriate to, or fruitful for, design as an academic and professional discipline. From a different perspective, Ranulph Glanville has suggested that the relationship between design and science might be redefined to acknowledge similarities of method that are disguised by forms of narrative employed by scientists. However most contributions in these debates deal with generalisations so I would like to propose some specific ways in which designers can explore and develop the concepts and practices of design enquiry.

In particular I would like to discuss a kind of enquiry where designers can play a role in forming and pursuing questions which arise in the natural sciences and I will suggest that this role might be extended into some other fields. In doing so I will make reference to the subject of tacit knowledge, a concept which was formalised by Michael Polanyi in his consideration of the philosophy of science 50 years ago and which has attracted continuing interest , but also some shallow interpretation since then.

I believe that Polanyi has a great deal to offer the design community, perhaps more in some respects than the widely cited work of Donald Schön who dealt with general questions of practice relevant to many disciplines while Polanyi addressed the relationship between enquiry and creativity in a very direct way.

In the natural sciences enquiry is concerned with uncovering or discovering that which exists. “Invention” is not considered to be a feature of scientific enquiry and is perhaps not compatible with the dispassionate relationship with knowledge that scientists have traditionally claimed. Design, by contrast, claims invention (and personal ownership of it) as a central principle so it is difficult at first to see where the two traditions can overlap. In this paper I will set out some ways in which they can cooperate and, in doing so, support the distinct goals of both.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: