Design turn – ok yet again!

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I am not inclined to do a search of the number of times I have written about the idea of the ‘design turn’.  It is now over 7 years since I first encountered the term in Ray Ison’s book ‘Systems Practice’.  The book is even in a second edition now and still I ‘re-learn’ about my understanding of design turn when I am prompted to reflect on it.

The latest insight has come not from considering the phrase ‘design turn’ as a whole but making a connection with another context where the word ‘turn’ is used.

In social science, there are texts about the ‘interpretive turn’ (e.g. Yanow and Schwartz-Shea, 2014).  This is used to mark a shift in the social sciences from a sole focus on positivist methods of research to also embrace methods that draw on philosophical, conceptual and theoretical ideas associated with an interpretive paradigm.  As Yanow and Schwartz-Shea say in their introduction to the volume referenced above:

The “turn” metaphor developed a life of its own, finding expression also in the linguistic turn [examples given], the rhetorical turn [examples given], the narrative turn [examples given], the historical turn [examples given], the metaphorical turn [examples given], the argumentative turn [examples given], the cultural turn [examples given], even the practice turn [example given] (page xiii)

As a PhD student (aka researcher-in-training), I like to see these ‘turns’ as signposts into different communities in a landscape of research practices.  The pluralist in me recognises that a ‘turn’ towards one particular combination of epistemological and methodological ideas doesn’t negate the existence of the others.  It just makes me consider – is it useful to see things through this set of ideas, if yes then why and what are the limitations, if no then why not – justifying my turns and getting ready to defend those choices.  I have written about this landscape of research ideas before here and here

So where does this take me on design turn.

Ison (let’s move to reference the second edition, 2017) speaks about ‘the’ design turn (p269-272) but as students we were also invited to take a design turn which made me feel like it was a very personal thing.  I interpreted the talk of ‘aha’ moments (or lack of them) amongst my peers as whether you had ‘done it’, whether you had achieved that epiphany moment of “A” design turn as if it was a one-off moment of getting it.  The ultimate learning objective was ‘to turn’!

But actually looking at it now maybe all I should have thought is that a design turn is a useful stance or perspective to take – looking at something from the perspective of design (as with interpretive turn – looking at something from the perspective of interpretivism).  This isn’t a one off epiphany, the pinacle moment in an MSc STiP but simply another option or stance available to me.  Sometimes I default to that mode, I am there because it is natural to think that way.  Other times I have to consciously remind myself it is there as an option – a choice in a landscape of turns.

So when I do take that ‘turn’ – the design one compared to any of the others, what does that part of the landscape help me to consider…

There is something about creating my future – being aware of the decisions I take in terms of the paths that they take me along and the contexts they will offer.   Each path offers different experiences and therefore different opportunities to learn and know.  In other words, they will each create a different ‘me’.

There is something there that if I want there to be ‘desirable’ systemic change, it isn’t just about changing myself but acting in a way that influences the context ‘nudging’ away at making the culturally infeasible, feasible.  Using the framing that Ison (2017) uses to end his book – it makes me seek and cultivate opportunities.

There is something there about my relations to others.  Not just thinking I need to ‘tell’ or ‘control’ but that I can act and interact (whether verbally or in writing) in a way that encourages and supports their reflection and learning.  By that I mean I recognise that my actions and interactions and the ‘artefacts’ they create form part of the context in which others think, act, interact and experience – that is learn.




Ison, R. (2017) Systems Practice: How to act, Second Edition, London/Milton Keynes, Springer/Open University

Yanow, D. and Schwartz-Shea, P. (Editors) (2014) Interpretation and method: empirical research methods and the interpretive turn, New York, M.E. Sharpe





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