GEOG 468
GIS Analysis and Design

Lesson 4: What is Design?


My experience has shown that many people find it hard to make their design ideas precise. They are willing to express their ideas in loose, general terms, but are unwilling to express them with the precision needed to make them into patterns. Above all, they are unwilling to express them as abstract spatial relations among well-defined spatial parts. I have also found that people aren't always very good at it; it is hard to do..... If you can't draw a diagram of it, it isn't a pattern. If you think you have a pattern, you must be able to draw a diagram of it. This is a crude, but vital rule. A pattern defines a field of spatial relations, and it must always be possible to draw a diagram for every pattern. In the diagram, each part will appear as a labeled or colored zone, and the layout of the parts expresses the relation which the pattern specifies. If you can't draw it, it isn't a pattern.

Christopher Alexander (1979) in The Timeless Way of Building.

One anxiety inherent in the design methods is the hierarchical nature of complexity. This anxiety moves in two directions, escalation and infinite regression. I will use a story, "The Warning of the Doorknob," to illustrate the principle of escalation.

This has been my experience in Washington when I had money to give away. If I gave a contract to a designer and said, "The doorknob to my office doesn't have much imagination, much design content. Will you design me a new doorknob?" He would say "Yes," and after we establish a price he goes away. A week later he comes back and says, "Mr. Eberhard, I have been thinking about that doorknob. First we ought to ask ourselves whether a doorknob is the best way of opening and closing a door." I say, "Fine, I believe in imagination, go to it." He comes back later and says, "You know, I have been thinking about your problem, and the only reason you want a doorknob is you presume you want a door to your office. Are you sure that a door is the best way of controlling egress, exit, and privacy?" "No, I'm not sure at all." "Well, I want to worry about that problem." He comes back a week later and says, "The only reason we have to worry about the aperture problem is that you insist on having four walls around your office. Are you sure that is the best way of organizing this space for the kind of work you do as a bureaucrat?" I say, "No, I'm not sure at all." Well, this escalates until (and this has literally happened in two contracts, although not exactly through this process) our physical designer comes back with a very serious face. "Mr. Eberhard, we have to decide whether capitalistic democracy is the best way to organize our country before I can possibly attack your problem."

On the other hand is the problem of infinite regression. If this man faced with the design of the doorknob had said, "Wait. Before I worry about the doorknob, I want to study the shape of man's hand and what a man is capable of doing with it," I would say, "Fine." He would come back and say, "The more I thought about it, there's a fit problem. What I want to study first is how metal is formed, what the technologies are for making things with metal in order that I can know what the real parameters are for fitting the hand." "Fine." But then he says, "You know, I have been looking at metal forming and it all depends on metallurgical properties. I really want to spend three or four months looking at metallurgy so that I can understand the problem better." "Fine." After three months he will come back and say, "Mr. Eberhard, the more I look at metallurgy, the more I realize that it is the atomic structure that's really at the heart of this problem." And so, our physical designer is in atomic physics from the doorknob. That is one of our anxieties, the hierarchical nature of complexity.

Eberhard (1970) quoted in Teague & Pidgeon (1985) and Yourdon (1989).

Spatial system capabilities and reach have undergone rapid changes in recent years, moving from networks of expensive high-end workstations to "clouds" of inexpensive desktop personal computers. During this time, organizations have addressed data quality and redundancy issues by moving from project-level systems to enterprise-wide solutions and service-oriented architecture. These developments have dramatically increased the accessibility and efficiency of spatial systems. However, the design and implementation of such systems and their support within organizations often does not meet the promise and expectation. Investigations into the problems provide evidence of human and political issues that lead to the success or failure of such systems. This includes social forces such as fear of losing control, autonomy, independence, complexity, or power.

There are many available design approaches to increase the possibility of meeting expectations. These include participatory design, soft-systems methodology, rapid prototyping, human-computer interaction, and computer-supported cooperative work. However, each of these approaches requires "people" skill to successfully understand and articulate the goals of the design process, evaluate the work environment, and effectively interact with the people in it. The key interactions with people in design might be described as negotiations. There is an implied assumption, however, that all participants in the negotiations are expecting to benefit from a successful outcome, which may not always be the case in organizational contexts.

Lesson Learning Objectives:

  • Recognize design as a human experience concerned with our ability to mold the environment to suit our needs
  • Understand the uniqueness of spatial system analysis and design
  • Understand the role of the leader in spatial system design


If you have any questions now or at any point during this lesson, please feel free to post them to the Threaded Discussion Forum. (That forum can be accessed at any time by clicking on the Communicate tab, above, and then scrolling down to the Discussion Forum section.)

Now, let's begin Lesson 1...