Design Methods

Design Methods are now so out of fashion that some of its most important documents have recently been thrown out of the Minto House library, including The Design Method (Gregory S. A. 1966)

I was trained, 1963-1968, at Sheffield School of Architecture where Geoffrey Broadbent was an influential Lecturer, so was exposed to Design Methods during my architectural education.

The Anatomy of Judgement

In the mid nineteen sixties Jane Abercrombie was a favorite of the Design Methods Movement, she had done research for the Medical Research Council on the best methods of selecting medical students and then gone on to research the best methods of selecting architecture students. The result in both cases supposedly being that no method guaranteed an outcome better than random chance, or sticking a pin in a list of similarly qualified candidates, in those days a somehow satisfactorily democratic conclusion.

If you haven’t noticed something wrong with the image above, look at it carefully again.

Jane Abercrombie was a psychologist and introduced to Design Methods ideas about the importance of visual perception.

“We tend to think of ourselves as passively receiving information from the outside world, but this is far from the case; in the process of receiving information we interpret and judge.”

“When the thing we look at is sufficiently like the thing we expect to see, and easily fits our scheme, our experience helps us to see. It is only when what we expect to see is not there that our schemata lead us astray.”

The book consequently included examples of optical illusions, including the Müller-Lyer and Ames Room illusions. The Müller-Lyer illusion works even when we know the correct answer or that what we are looking at is an illusion.


There is a large amount of literature on this illusion including a discussion in Richard Gregory’s Eye and Brain (Gregory 1978) and some indication that it is culturally dependent on a mainly rectilinear physical environment.

The Anatomy of Judgement also included a line drawing representation of the Ames Room illusion, but it is better appreciated in this modern implementation.

A couple of extra things to note about this illusion.

1) even when you know this is an illusion, there is no way you can switch it off, even if you know exactly how the room is constructed.

2) the architecture over-rides the relation to human scale even with live moving subjects; that is the body is not always the measure.

Abercrombie’s attitude to Design Methods is perhaps best appreciated through this quotation:

“Free group discussion is to thinking (ideas and abstractions) as handling things is to perception.”


A perhaps extreme exposition of Design Methods was Synectics (Gordon 1961). The scope of which can be judged from its alternative subtitles, “The development of Creative Potential” and “A new method of directing creative potential to the solution of technical and theoretical problems”.

In spite of a mechanistic reputation its Hypotheses were

i) creative efficiency in people can be markedly increased if they understand the psychological processes by which they operate;

 ii) in creative process the emotional component is more important than the intellectual, the irrational more important than the rational;

iii) it is these emotional, irrational elements which can and must be understood in order to increase the probability of success in a problem-solving situation

Apostolic Succession

The acknowledgments section of Synectics includes a certain Dr. Donald Shone, now Schön, who is credited with developing with Gordon the importance of the Hedonic response.

Hedonic response as evoked in creative process takes two forms:

1. It is a pleasurable feeling, developed toward the successful conclusion of a period of problem solving concentration, that signals the conceptual presence of a major new viewpoint which promises to lead to a useful solution.

2. It is a pleasurable feeling which occurs in a minor way acting as a moment-to-moment evaluation of the course of the creative process itself.

Gordon goes on to state:

Emotional response is distrusted in science and technological invention.

This is because the way one feels about the solution to a problem is confused with emotional response to a problem during the process of searching for a solution.

Artists and writers are EXPECTED to like or dislike their materials and subject matter. The products of art and literature are judged on a “like” or “dislike” basis whereas the criterion of technological products is “are they useful?”, “do they work?”

Synectics emphasizes that the PROCESS of producing either aesthetic or technical objects is accompanied by certain useful emotional responses, and that these responses must not be rejected as irrelevant, but must be schooled and liberated.

How to Solve It

A book that I think was influential over the whole field was Pólya “How to Solve It”  (Pólya 1945) although its subject was mathematical problem solving, it gives a series of widely applicable problem solving heuristics

Analogy – Can you find an analogous problem that you can solve?

Generalisation – Can you find a more general problem?

Induction – Can you derive a solution by generalising from examples of the problem?

Vary the problem – Can you change the problem to create new problem(s) whose solution(s) will help solve the original problem?

Auxiliary problem – Can you find a sub-problem or side problem whose solution will help solve the problem?

Previously solved – Can you find a related problem that has already been solved?

Specialisation – Can you find a problem more specialized?

Decomposing and Recomposing – Can you decompose the problem and “recombine its elements in some new manner”?

Working Backwards – Can you start with the goal and work backwards to something already known?

Draw a Figure – Can you draw a picture of the problem?

Auxiliary Elements – Can you add some new element to the problem to get closer to a solution?


Ed Gregory S. A. 1966
The Design Method
Butterworths, London
Gregory R. 1978
Eye and Brain The Psychology of Seeing
Third Edition Revised and Updated
World University Press
McGraw Hill Paperpacks
Abercrombie M.L.J. 1960
The Anatomy of Judgement
Gordon W.J.J. 1961
Harper & Row
New York, Evanston and London
 Pólya G. 1945
How to Solve It.
Princeton University Press.

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
This entry was posted in Architecture, Design, Design Methods and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Design Methods

  1. Nice post. I think the the Ames Room illusion works best when the space is viewed with one eye closed, and without moving your head, ie as in a film. Visual perception is generally two-eyed, and involves movement movement. On the subject of emotion and rationality, John Dewey talks about this in terms of aesthetics. I think that according to Dewey, every act involves us in some kind of aesthetic appreciation, involving the imagination, ethical sensibility and the emotions. This applies whether we are solving a mathematical problem, making a scientific judgment, laying bricks, writing a paper, listening to music or designing a house. This is not to say that all these activities are the same. They differ in context, the mode of explanation by which we justify our actions, and the communities in which they operate. I recall he also wrote about a difference in timing. Dewey, John. 1980. Art as Experience. New York: Wideview Perigee.


    • Richard, sorry for being so long in responding. John Dewey looks very interesting. A little on-line searching seems to indicate that he was concerned with the experience of making an experience as well as appreciating one. Just found that ‘Art as Experience’ is available in the Main Library so will get it tomorrow. Thanks.


  2. Mary-Clare O'Connor says:

    Reblogged this on Spaces and commented:
    Spaces are loving this post from Design Methods about the optical illusion room. Definitely a creative use of space!


  3. Mary-Clare O'Connor says:

    Reblogged this on Love, lust and literature… and commented:
    Spaces Magazine are loving this youtube clip posted in a blog by Design Methods. Definitely creative use of space!


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