Herbert Simon offers a goal-centered perspective of design, a sociological approach of the science of artificial things that makes us reconsider some basic concepts.

In my research I am often surprised how design approaches sociology. Talking about this, a good friend of mine, a professor of Sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and expert in artificial intelligence applied to social analysis, recommended me The Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert A. Simon, American sociologist and economist.

Reading the book, I realized that although designers have made great strides to systematize the profession, there is no real scientific analysis of design. In this regard, Herbert Simon provides an approach from a sociological perspective useful for both social scientists and designers.

1. The Sciences of the Artificial

Simon defines the study of design as the science of the artificial, that is to say, of artificial things (called artifacts) and phenomena created by people to achieve goals.

Thus, design is the creation of artifacts to achieve specific goals and, consequently, the designer is the person who is concerned with how things should be to attain those goals.

2. Goal-centered design (where is the user?)

The artifacts fulfill their purpose as a result of the relation between three terms:

  • The Inner environment: the characteristics of the artifact, the substance and organization of the elements of which it is made up.
  • The goal.
  • The Outer environment: the surroundings in which the artifact operates.

Artifacts attain their goal as a result of the relation between three terms

For example, in the case of a knife, the three elements are the following:

  • Inner environment: the material of the knife’s blade.
  • Goals: to cut.
  • Outer environment: the hardness of the substance to which the blade is applied.

! At this point, I must disagree. I would add a fourth fundamental element to be taken into account: The user. To perform its function properly, the knife needs the person who handles it. If this person has no strength, doesn’t know how to use, has difficulties to hold it or has a phobia of sharp objects, the device will be useless or will not achieve its goal successfully.

3. The interface between the inner and outer environment

An artifact can be conceptualized as the meeting point or interface between the inner and outer environment.


Artifacts as the interface between the inner and outer environment

To design artifacts that reach their goal, the characteristics of the artifact (inner environment) must be appropriate to the characteristics of the outer environment.

It is for this reason that, for example, we design knives for bread, for cheese… Although all them have the same function and can be used in different situations, their performance varies slightly. We need to adapt the size and shape of the blade so that it suits to the different substances.

! At this point, I must add that there is another way to achieve our goals: changing the outer environment. However much we hit a piece of iron with a hammer, hardly we will change its shape. But if we heat the iron, with just a few hammer blows we will be able to mold it as if it were clay.

4. Adaptation to the outer environment

In many cases, the artifacts are able to maintain a stable relation with their goals, regardless of changes in the outer environment. This adaptability is an important property of good design.

This can be achieved through either the insulation of the artifact or modifying some variables of its inner environment based on the changes that have taken place in the outer environment (reactive feedback) or to changes that will take place (predictive adaptation).

5. Good design

Limitations included, good design can be defined as the ability to discover the behavior or most appropriate procedure to the outer environment so to achieve as nearly as possible a goal.

! In fact, the subject of this definition can be both an artifact and the designers themselves. We can design devices with the ability to adapt to the environment to perform its function properly, but this is only possible if, previously, the designer has set the parameters, conditions and actions needed to make this happen.

Similarly, in the case of simpler artifacts without the ability to modify their inner environment, the adaptation of its characteristics lies with the designer.

6. Goal-seeking systems

To find the most appropriate procedures to achieve a goal, artifacts (and designers) need to obtain information on the state of the world and information on the actions that are being carried out.

Through this information, goal-seeking systems must be able to:

  • Represent the present situation (A).
  • Represent the desired situation (B), this is, the goal.
  • Represent the difference between (A) and (B).
  • Represent those actions that could change (A) into (B).
  • Select the sequence of actions that eliminate the (B – A) difference.
  • Detect the progress obtained to try alternative actions.

How goal-seeking systems adapt to attain their goal

The role of the designer is to discover and combine the sequence of actions that will take us from A to B or, in other words, that will allow us to erase the difference between the present state and the desired state.

7. goals as new starting points

According to Simon, the goals are determined by the client (although we could talk at length about this). However, the client or user has a dual nature, as people are themselves designers seeking to achieve their own goals.

It is important to keep this in mind because when designers change the environment through their actions, people will respond to this change by adapting their behavior. Each step creates a new situation that provides a new starting point. Design encourages an activity that, in turn, generates new goals.


Goals are new starting points

Thus, there are no final goals. In reality, the result of design is to establish new initial conditions for the next stage of action.

By acting on the environment, we set off a chain of reactions that result in new environments to which it is necessary to adapt. The function of design (achieving goals) is dynamic, adaptive and approximate.