Design as a Hermeneutic Process: Thinking Through Making from Book History to Critical Design

  1. 1. Stan Ruecker

    University of Alberta

  2. 2. Alan Galey

    University of Toronto

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In what ways can the process of designing be used
simultaneously for creating an artifact and as a process
of critical interpretation? Can new forms of digital
objects, such as interface components and visualization
tools, contain arguments that advance knowledge
about the world? This paper addresses those questions,
first by exploring theoretical affinities shared by recent
design and book history scholarship, and then by connecting
those theories to the emerging practice of peerreviewing
digital objects in scholarly contexts. The
paper concludes by suggesting that new forms of scholarly
creation, especially those emerging from the digital
humanities, need to be understood within the epistemic
contexts that design and book history have concurrently
been modelling in recent years.
One longstanding tradition of design is to understand
it as an invisible handmaiden to content, where form
follows function, and the typography in a book, for example,
becomes transparent to the reader (Bringhurst
2005). Good design in this school of thought is design
that goes unnoticed. An alternative tradition treats design
as creative expression, where the hand of the designer is
evident and we see a style that can be associated with
the person responsible (Rand 1985). A related variation,
sometimes referred to as “critical design,” treats design
as a rejection of the first tradition, resulting in typography
that is intentionally difficult to read, and chairs that
no one can sit in (Dunne 2005). All three of these approaches
to design have their place, and we would argue
that each of them can legitimately be understood as a
form of interpretation. However, we would also propose
that there is another distinct possibility, where one of the
goals of the designer has been deliberately to carry out
an interpretive act while in the course of producing an
artifact. As Lev Manovich has publicly phrased it (2007)
“a prototype is a theory.” One of the functions of the artifact
then becomes to communicate that interpretation,
and to make it productively contestable.
Manovich’s assertion has a close counterpart in Bernard
Cerquiglini’s claim for textual scholarship that “every
edition is a theory” (1999, p. 79). The symmetry of these
two statements extends to much of design and book history
as cognate but often separate fields. Yet design has
become a preoccupation in book history since the 1980s,
especially following D.F. McKenzie’s influential work
on the sociology of texts (McKenzie 1999; McGann
1991), which emphasizes both the centrality of physical
design and manufacture, and the importance of collaboration
between multiple agents in the construction
of meaning in books and other textual artifacts. This
attention to the design of objects as “expressive form”
(McKenzie 1999, p. 9) is poised to extend into the study
of digital objects, including electronic literature and
video games. Although McKenzie suggested a natural
extension of bibliography’s analytical and interpretive
methods to texts in all media, including film, sound recording,
and electronic text, the digital object presents
challenges to hermeneutic assumptions carried forward
from the print-based bibliography of the past century.
Anthony Dunne describes the interdisciplinary challenge
well when he asks “How can we discover analogue
complexity in digital phenomena without abandoning
the rich culture of the physical, or superimposing the
known and comfortable onto the new and alien?” (2005,
p. 17). In contrast to digital text production and software
design, we have a fairly well-defined understanding of
the traditional roles of non-authorial agents in print and
manuscript book production, such as scribes, binders,
typographers, compositors, correctors, and illustrators.
“The sociology of texts” names an interpretive orientation
which embraces these agents’ contributions to the
traditionally authorial process of meaning-making. In
essence, then, book history has embraced design as a
hermeneutic process, but has done so using a print-based
vocabulary inherited from bibliography. The challenge
now is to understand the kinds of agency that produce
meaning in digital objects, and to appreciate the critical
potential of digital objects in terms limited neither to
print culture nor to the human-factors utilitarianism of
industrial design (Dunne, 1999, p. 21-42).
By understanding how fields like book history take the
design decisions embedded in physical artifacts as interpretive
objects, we can begin to see digital humanists’
creation of new digital artifacts as interpretive acts. We
believe that the theoretical questions and convergences
described above are strongly relevant to the emerging
area of peer-review, evaluation, and authorship status
of digital objects. Just as the boundary between digital
documents and software applications has become less between traditional scholarly monographs and digital
objects such as the “interactive media submissions”
solicited by Digital Humanities Quarterly. By recognizing
that digital objects – such as interfaces, games,
tools, electronic literature, and text visualizations – may
contain arguments subjectable to peer-review, digital humanities
scholars are assuming a perspective very similar
to that of book historians who study the sociology of
texts. In this sense, the concept of design has developed
beyond pure utilitarianism or creative expressiveness to
take on a status equal to critical inquiry, albeit with a
more complicated relation to materiality and authorship.
If we take seriously the suggestion that a digital object
can embody an argument, then it should be possible to
apply to digital objects some of the standard criteria for
reviewing arguments. For Booth et al. (2008), the three
key components of a good thesis topic is that it is contestable,
defensible, and substantive. To be contestable,
the thesis must be trying to convince people of a position
that not everyone already believes. To be defensible, it
must be possible, given the right kind of argument or
evidence, that members of a reasonable audience could
be convinced to change their minds. To be substantive,
the argument must be worth the time and effort it takes
for the writer to make it and the reader to engage with it.
For a prototype, we propose that contestability might
reasonably consist of the inclusion somewhere in the interface
of either an old affordance, previously seen in
other interfaces, but now done in a new way, or else a
new affordance – one not previously seen. Defensibility
might equate to user studies of performance or preference.
For old affordances handled in a new way, the
studies could be comparative. For new affordances,
comparison is not really possible, but there are strategies
that can be adopted, such as looking at what we have
elsewhere called “affordance strength” (Paredes-Olea et
al. 2008, Ruecker 2006). Whether or not a prototype idea
is substantive is somewhat harder to determine. This is,
however, equally true for conventional scholarship.
The question of authorship is another factor to consider
in the adoption of peer review of digital objects. Unlike
research results in the sciences, arts research is still frequently
published by a single author. However, in the
case of digital objects, it is rare for a single person to be
responsible for the entire process of conceptualization,
design, development, and testing (Sinclair et al. 2003).
At what point is a contribution significant enough to
warrant the digital equivalent of authorship? Who should
be first author – the person who had the original idea, or
the person who did the bulk of the design, or the person
who did the programming? These are questions which,
if asked within a book-history context, would resonate
with Roger Stoddard’s often-quoted assertion that “authors
do not write books. Books are not written at all.
They are manufactured by scribes and others artisans, by
mechanics and other engineers, and by printing presses
and other machines” (1987, p. 4; emphasis in original).
Peer review of digital objects thus involves digital humanities
in a kind of sociology of texts with respect to
the re-evaluation of authorship, while also encountering
new aspects of digital design such as fragmentariness,
modularity, and interoperability.
Ideas about design thus enter the digital humanities from
a number of directions, each bringing certain disciplinary
predispositions with them. The goal of this paper is
a synthesis of design and book history perspectives on
the ethos of “thinking through making,” which informs
much digital humanities research and pedagogy generally.
The digital humanities must not lose sight of the
design of artifacts as a critical act, one that may reflect
insights into materials and advance an argument about
that artifact’s role in the world. Design thus provides
a lynchpin for theoretical questions that unite different
Booth, Wayne G., Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M.
Williams. (2008). The Craft of Research. 3rd Edition.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bringhurst, R. (2005). The Elements of Typographic
Style. 3rd ed. Vancouver: Hartley & Marks.
Cerquiglini, B. (1999). In Praise of the Variant: A Critical
History of Philology. Trans Betsy Wing. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press.
Dunne, A. (2005). Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products,
Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. 2nd ed. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
Manovich, Lev. (2007). Q&A session at the Digital Humanities
(DH) 2007 conference. University of Illinois at
McGann, J.J. (1991). The Textual Condition. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press.
McKenzie. D.F. (1999). Bibliography and the Sociology
of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Paredes-Olea, Mariana, Stan Ruecker, Carlos Fiorentino,
and Fraser Forbes. (2008). “Using an Affordance Strength Approach to Study the Possible Redeployment
of Designs for Decision Support Visualization.” Paper
presented at the 9th Advances in Qualitative Methods
Conference 2008. Banff, Canada. October 8-11, 2008.
Rand, Paul. (1985). Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ruecker, Stan. (2006). “Proposing an Affordance
Strength Model to Study New Interface Tools.” Paper
presented at the Digital Humanities 2006 conference, at
the Sorbonne, Paris, France. July 5-9, 2006.
Stoddard, R. (1987). Morphology and the Book from an
American Perspective, Printing History, 9: 4.
Sinclair, Stéfan, John Bradley, Stephen Ramsay,
Geoffrey Rockwell, Ray Siemens & Jean-Claude
Guédon. (2003). “Peer Review of Humanities Computing
Software.” Panel at The Association for Computers
and the Humanities / The Association for Literary and
Linguistic Computing (ALLC/ACH): The 2003 Joint International
Conference. Athens, Georgia. May 29-June
2, 2008. Draft articles online at

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None