The underrated writings of Bruce Archer

Well looks like we can all just pack up on design thinking and call it a day!

There is an author that i had left out of my initial posts on the history and development behind design thinking, and his name is Bruce Archer. Bruce is not as well known as some of the other fundamental theorists in design such as Schon, Rittel and Webber and Simon….and frankly, i dont understand why he isn’t a household name. Mr.Archer’s writings and thinking on design are as innovative and groundbreaking (imho) as the authors we commonly associate with design theory. This is because everything that we are still struggling with, writing about today has been discussed and clarified by Bruce, way back in the first generation of design theory. The innovativeness of his thinking at such an early and formative time for design is reason why i believe he deserves more accolade than current researchers have provided.

So why did i leave Bruce out of my posts on the history of design thinking? Well, like most of you, i had undervalued his ideas…primarily because he wasn’t as widely cited and referenced as other authors. If researchers don’t get the citation ball rolling by deeming an author appropriate and worthy of recognition, it can create a vicious cycle of ignorance. As i have been cleaning up my thesis for submission i had read over a few references that i scattered around from Bruce. Upon re-evaluation i realised that his ideas were quite innovative, and upon further research, came to the conclusion that Archer is one of design’s hidden gems. I make it sound like he was a nobody, and he certainly wasn’t. Bruce’s name is known within academic design circles, and even has a place in the timeline of design thinking on Wikipedia, (heck, he was part of the establishment of the design methods movement). Yet, i still feel (from reading many theses in design) that his significance is disgracefully under represented.

Who is Bruce Archer?

Bruce was scientifically gifted but an artist at heart. He was educated as a mechanical engineer, a career (according to Wikipedia) he was pushed into and away from the arts which was where is interest lay. Soon enough, he was able to transition into industrial design and became a design researcher, establishing a department for design research at the Royal College of Art that ran for 25 years. Bruce contributed significantly to research on establishing design as an academic discipline, and in doing so, contributed towards the definition of design as a practice. This is what i want to highlight here in this post. Most of what i will be discussing here are ideas from an article by Bruce titled, Systematic Method for Designers, found in Developments in Design Methodology that was first published in 1965. Cutting the ramble short, here are my reasons for why Bruce needs to be elevated to design Dumbledore status

1.Bruce is perhaps the first to use/coin the term “design thinking”*

(*to my current knowledge- fyi THIS IS A PRETTY MONUMENTAL DISCOVERY!!)

Design thinking, as a general concept and theory underpinning design practice, has been discussed in various depths throughout design history. Hopefully i have made this case clear in my history of design thinking. But the exact term itself, that is the exact words “design” and “thinking” used together and in context of a designerly approach, was first known to be published by Peter Rowe in 1987 in his book Design Thinking. Some people have tried to establish an earlier reference of the phrase, and perhaps there does exist some exact references prior to Rowe’s 1987 text, but i have doubts if there is a reference that can be found earlier than what i found from Archer… In his article Systematic Method for Designers first published in 1965, during the first generation of design theory, Archer comments on the changing landscape of industrial design:

In the face of this situation there has been a world wide shift in emphasis from the sculptural to the technological. Ways had to be found to incorporate the knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking. (p.57)

Here is a screenshot if incase you don’t believe me

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 2.24.30 pm

!!! ! Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 2.25.03 pm !!!!

Here, Bruce relates the term “design thinking” to the cognitive and multidisciplinary practice becoming of industrial designers. Let’s just all take a moment to let this sink in. #mindblown.

2. Bruce offers us a damn good definition of design

Us design research monkeys have chased our tail and thrown a few faeces tantrums, trying to assimilate the often disparate characteristics and disciplines of design. Bruce had already established his definition of design that perhaps could have saved us a lot of time and trouble

Before we can look at the systematic methods of designers, we must know what we mean by ‘design’. An architect preparing plans for a house is clearly designing. So is a typographer preparing a layout for a page of print. But a sculptor shaping a figure is not. What is the difference? A key element in the act of designing is the formulation of a prescription or model for a finished work in advance of its embodiment. When a sculptor produces a cartoon for his proposed work, only then can he be said to be designing it. (p.58)

Now compare the above phrase with:

The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.” (Simon, p.111)

 Sounds a lot like Herbert Simon doesn’t it? Simon published the above text in Sciences of the Artificial in 1969 mind you, a good four years after this article.

Bruce goes on in his discussion on a definition of design, adding details and characteristics that paint a pretty good holistic picture of design practice and thinking that (unlike some other historical attempts) is applicable to design practice today. I have summarised Bruce’s definition of design for you:

Bruce Archer’s definition of design:

1. There has to be a prior “formulation of a prescription or model for a finished work in advance of its embodiment” (p.58)

2. The prescribed formula or model must be embodied in/as an artefact

“ Hence the formulation of the idea for an office filing system may be designing, so long as it anticipates the laying down of ‘hardware’. Similarly, the discovery of a chemical formula in general is not designing, but the prescription of a formula for (say) a new plastics material may be” (p.58)

3. There must be a creative step in the process

“There is also a sense in which the act of arriving at a solution by strict calculation is not regarded as designing {…} it is characteristic of creative solutions (and often the most successful designs) that they are seen to be apt solutions- but after completion and not before” (p.58)

4. It must have purpose. Intent over exploration.

“ It implies purposeful seeking of solutions than idle exploration” (p.59)

5. It is intuitive but not spontaneous

“ In this sense the composition of music, for example, although in many ways analogous, is not designing” (p.58)

6. It must begin with a need

7. It must reconcile

“We have already said that the art of designing is the art of reconciliation […] reconciliation implies that conflict is resolved” (p.60)

8. It must be holistic and consider the artefact in a system and not of itself

“The current tendancy in design, as in many other fields, is to try to consider the whole system of which the product is part, instead of considering the product as a self contained object” (p.60)

9. Design problems are complex (oh hey Rittel & Webber who published wicked problems 8 years later…)

“A single design problem is a complex of a thousand or more sub problems. […] But although each sub problem can be resolved so as to produce and optimum solution, or even a field of acceptable solutions, the hard part of the task is to reconcile the solutions of sub problems with one another.” (p.62)

10. Design is about the optimisation of solutions (sorry simon you were also 4 years too late)

“Often, where the optimum solution of one sub problem competes the acceptance of a poor solution in the other, the designer is forced to decide which of the two take priority” (p.62)

3. Bruce recognised that computers could never replace design thinking and judgement

I find this a rather silly argument that many from engineering/computer science fields still like to throw around. Artificial Intelligence isn’t at the stage of achieving complete rational and emotional judgment and i hardly think it will happen for some time (and if it does, it wont replace designers).

But ill let Bruce do the talking: “Although resolving a large number of sub problems and their combinations and permutations is the very thing that computers are good at, it is unlikely that any computer will replace the designer in the role of criterion giver or judgment maker – at least for a very long time to come.” (p.63)

4. Bruce realised we could never come to some kind of agreement on a definition of design

“Unfortunately, the science of design method has not yet reached a degree of sophistication which will permit the use of agreed axioms, or even the use of an agreed terminology. The several scattered research workers in this field each have their own favorite models, techniques and jargon. However, a certain amount of common ground is emerging. For example, a basic breakdown of the nature of design procedure is largely agreed, although there are some differences about whether it should be described in threes tages, four or six. The present author favors six” (p.64)

I like his no BS approach, stating that there is “jargon” in definitions of design, much like we find today in design thinking. What i find humorous about this statement is “a certain amount of common ground is emerging”. I think i have read this about design practice and design thinking in texts over the last 20 years. Yet, in particular to design thinking, there are more publications stating that there is no consensus or common ground on a definition. I think its funny that the fundamental core of our research and practice has been consistently confused since 1965.

5. Bruce recognised that design problems are fuzzy and unclear

“Most designers, good and bad, find that the problems they are asked to solve are seldom clearly defined by their clients” (p.67)

This situation will probably always remain the same and central to design practice. Here, Bruce acknowledges the fuzziness and ambiguity in design and particularly during the formative phases of design practice.

6. …And as such, realised the importance of problem-definition

Bruce references heuristics as an important element behind the formative phases of design practice and thinking, particularly when the problem is unclear. In his discussion he makes quite explicit the nature of problem-solution co evolution that is famously attributed to Kees Dorst and Nigel Cross’ research in design:

“To have defined the problem properly- even to have put a finger on the crucial issues- is not the same as having solved the problem itself. Nevertheless, it has gone some way toward a solution and, having formulated some sort of plan, the designer can offer estimates of time and cost.” (p. 70)

I believe much of the reason behind why many scholars don’t cite Bruce Archer more than they do is that it is freaking hard to get a hand on many of his texts. This article i have referenced from is one of his earlier texts and shows the early stages of his thinking towards design definitions and establishing design as a distinct discipline. His later articles evolve on these lines of thought, centering on why design is a practice distinct from the sciences and humanities.

Much like the other theorists of his time, Bruce predicted many things that continue today. However, difference of Bruce is that where other theorists identified one or two aspects common or fundamental to design that may apply to today’s practices, Bruce clearly identified and articulated a very close holistic depiction of design as it currently stands. You have to admit that this is fairly impressive, and it is the reason why i feel we should hold Bruce Archer at the forefront of our mind when we think of fundamental figures in design theory. For me, at least, he is front and centre.

**again this is taken from my thesis, please cite where necessary and blabla.

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9 thoughts on “The underrated writings of Bruce Archer

  1. Rus Thom says:

    This post is really relevant right now for me. I am currently finishing of my MA in Design, is there any chance you can point me to where you got this article. I can not find it anywhere online or offline. I have been looking at design thinking for the past 3 years and found it quite strange that Rowe would have been the first to use the term design thinking.

  2. owen says:

    did you finish your research, have you published it,

    • stefdr says:

      Hi Owen,

      Apologies for the late response. My thesis is currently under examination and should be returned very soon. I am hoping that it will be published before the end of the year!

      I will definitely make an announcement on this blog when it becomes available 🙂



  3. Thomas Wortmann says:

    I’m also curious what article you’re looking at … currently writing a PhD proposal, and trying to summarize what is known about the (architectural) design process. Archer is getting cited here and there, but he comes across as distinctly outmoded (having phases to the design process and all that), which is why your post made me curious.

    • stefdr says:

      Hi Thomas,

      In what way do you feel Archer is distinctly outmoded? In terms of architecture and design thinking, Donald Schon’s The Reflective Practitioner writes about the design process from an architectural / urban design standpoint. Bryan Lawson is another architect / author that contributed significantly to the development of design thinking.



      • Thomas Wortmann says:

        Hi Stef,

        To be clear, I haven’t read much of Archer himself (except a weird, old article in the AA files with lots of cybernetics diagrams), so please correct me if I’m wrong.

        In my thinking, there’s three basic models of the design process: Analysis Synthesis (Broadbent, Asimov, etc.), Generate-And-Test (Simon, Mitchell), and Co-Evolution (Dorst, Cross).


        In Analysis Synthesis, the definition of the problem more or less automatically leads to an (optimal) solution.


        In Generate-And-Test, we come up with designs (somehow!), and keep testing them, until we find a satisfactory (not optimal!) one. Importantly, the impetus for a design can be completely separate from its evaluation (aka “the problem”), something that Archer seems to miss completely.


        Co-Evolution is similar to Generate-And-Test in the sense that the problem does not suggest its solution. It’s even worse in the sense that the problem keeps on changing however. In other words, we generate-and-test designs to throw a new light on the problem, leading us to generate-and-test even more designs.

        In my reading, I don’t think Archer’s quote suggests co-evolution at all:

        “To have defined the problem properly- even to have put a finger on the crucial issues- is not the same as having solved the problem itself. Nevertheless, it has gone some way toward a solution and, having formulated some sort of plan, the designer can offer estimates of time and cost.”

        Rather, it sounds like good-old Analysis-Synthesis to me, albeit with a caveat. I understand Archer as saying that first you define the problem, then you do some designing (according to a plan!), then you find a solution. For me, the key concept of co-evolution is that the design problem can actually change during the design process, and I don’t see this insight reflected here.


        I also don’t think that Archer has anticipated Rittel – a “wicked” problem is much more than “just” complex – one cannot even properly divide it into sub-problems, as Archer seems to suggest you can: “A single design problem is a complex of a thousand or more sub problems.” The whole idea of design as resolving conflicting sub-problems is spelled out very clearly in Alexander’s “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” (1961), who himself abandoned not much later.

        I think a contemporary, constructivist, Schoen-like view would be that, of course, you can divided a design problem into sub-problems – it’s just that there’s more than one (in fact, indefinitely many) way to do it, so the partitioning is not something that’s inherent to the problem, but rather something that evolves (that word again!) during the design process.


        I also don’t agree that Archer has anticipated Simon: Simon is all about “Satisficing” as distinct from “Optimisation” – we have to accept good enough instead of best, because the design space often is indefinitely large, so we have no practical way of finding, or even recognising (!) the optimum. According to Simon, one neither can “generate all the admissible alternatives and compare their respective merits”, nor “recognize the best alternative, even if we are fortunate enough to generate it early” (1996, p. 120).


        So for me, Archer, is missing all the insights developed after 1965 (unsurprisingly, and we can hardly blame him, of course): Co-evolving, wicked problems without definitive sub-problems, and satisfactory, less than optimal, solutions that are generated quite separately from the design problem.

        Thanks for this discussion, btw, great to chat with another history of design thinking buff. Let’s me know what you think!

  4. Steph – Congratulations on discovering Archer – Have a look at this:

    Part of the reason Bruce’s work is still a bit obscure is that most of his them are in the RCA library in England and haven’t been published, scanned and put out on the web.

    BTW – If you compare the core features of DT with nearly anyone else’s method the others typically fall short on at least one major point; the nature and process of Empathic Inquiry.

    In order to really understand the reasons for the foundational differences, you need to know David Kelley’s story;

    Best Regards

  5. Raymond Pirouz says:

    This is VERY interesting and definitely a fantastic contribution to the overall discussion, especially since it’s been laying dormant for so many years. The one disagreement I have with the overall definition has to do with item 2 in that it “must be embodied in/as an artefact” because it insinuates that only the tangible qualifies as design and that design must manifest in a tangible result or it is not design.

    Having attended design school and having never been offered a coherent definition of design, I took the liberty of crafting my own definition after years of contemplation and my point of view focuses on the process rather than the output. I am not a proponent of the Design Thinking meme per se and don’t follow that dogma either so I hope you have a chance to consider my offering as exhibit C:

    • I have a copy of Systematic Method for Designers and have read a lot of opinions on Archer. He was amazing and brilliant and tried to bridge the gap between artists and engineers, but to really get to the roots of Design Thinking you need to go back further to John Arnold at MIT.

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