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Differences between Science, Design, and Art

February 8, 2006

Prior to my time at Informatics here at IU, I had various opinions about the intent and purpose of science, design, and art. It seemed natural to me to make these concepts discrete, and to come up with hard and fast characterizations that would keep these different domains separate from each other.

However, I’ve gradually seen arguments for this arrangement fall by the wayside. After all, science, design, and art are all constructs of human endeavor. They are not defined by some deep underlying causal force, other than the needs of the people that practice according to their traditions. However, each of these fields maintains a certain character unto itself. These characters are easily distinguishable in a global sense, but lose their coherence in certain specific situations.


For instance, there is the example of Alba, a genetically engineered bunny that glows in the dark, which is an example of “transgenic artwork”, or artwork that explores the role of life forms in the context of art. Then there is the careful analyses of “design science”, “science of design”, and “disciplines of design” described by Nigel Cross. Finally, there are individuals that regularly produce work that straddles the line between art and design. In fact, most people equate design with aesthetics and art, drawing a much weaker distinction between these fields than between fields in “hard science”.

I would never equate art and design completely, but perhaps these people are correct in assuming that design and art share a common ground. However, I’ll go one step further. My argument is that these three domains have no definable boundaries between them. To borrow a phrase from Erik Stolterman, “They should not be considered categories, but rather dimensions.”

I’ve already given a lot of thought on the role of aesthetics in information overload, an issue that I think will continue to be developed, even if the field is relatively sparse today. (By the way, I’d also like to add Ben Fry, Casey Reas, and George Legrady to the list of people involved with this field).

I believe that information technology is a medium that has proven flexible enough to accomodate and promote elements of science, design, and art that are important to each respective field. I also think it provides an enormous opportunity to reflect back on the current state of our understanding of each, as well as to experiment with merging aspects of two or more of these fields, using information technology as a sort of translator or bridge between them.

In the future, I think the true “dimensional” nature of science, art, and design will become more apparent, as more projects and individuals operate in the “grey area” near their borders.

From → HCI

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