Dialectic and Inquiry in Design: Understanding Surroundings and Systems, Designing Environments

Richard Buchanan

Dialectic and Inquiry are two well-established strategies of design practice as well as design theory and research. Dialectic is the art of finding and interpreting systems in the relationships and interrelationships of our surroundings. In contrast, inquiry is the art of transforming surroundings into environments for human thought and action.

The intersection of these two arts is the theme of this presentation. To make the theme concrete, the focus is on John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, a book that is well-known in the context of progressive education. It has influenced all levels of education in places as different as the United States and China and across many disciplines. It is the foundation text of education as inquiry, encouraging creative thinking in the study of what is known and what is unknown. In the context of this presentation, however, the argument of Dewey’s book will be explored as a rhetorical inquiry into society and the role of design in encouraging new social and cultural practices.

In the course of my presentation, I will discuss different kinds of systems and how design contributes to the invention and discovery of new systems. The intersection of dialectic and inquiry is fertile ground for exploring new dimensions of design practice and theory in the complexity of contemporary life.


Richard Buchanan, PhD, is well known for extending the application of design into new areas of theory and practice, writing, and teaching as well as practicing the concepts and methods of interaction design. He argues that interaction design does not stop at the flatland of the computer screen but extends into the personal and social life of human beings and into the emerging area of service design, as well as into organizational and management design.

In keeping with this conviction, Buchanan has worked on the redesign of the Australian Taxation System, the restructuring of service products and information for the U.S. Postal Service, and other consulting activities. At Weatherhead, he has researched “collective interactions”, focusing on problems of organizational change and the development of management education around the concept of Manage by Designing. His most recent projects involve strategy and service design, including patient experience, information services, and public sector design.

Buchanan is a widely published author and frequent speaker. His books include Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies, The Idea of Design, and Pluralism in Theory and Practice. He is co-editor of Design Issues, the international journal of design history, theory and criticism. Buchanan has served for two terms as president of the Design Research Society, the international learned society of the design research community.

He received his AB and PhD from a prestigious interdisciplinary program at the University of Chicago called the Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and the Study of Methods. Before joining the Weatherhead School of Management faculty in 2008, he served as head of the school of design and then as director of doctoral studies in design at Carnegie Mellon University. While at Carnegie Mellon, he inaugurated interaction design programs at the masters and doctoral level.

In 2009, Buchanan received an honorary doctorate from the Faculté de l’amánagement (Environmental Design Faculty) at the University of Montréal.

PhD, The University of Chicago, 1973
AB, The University of Chicago, 1968


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