The continuum of science, art and design

Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer; art is everything else.

– Donald E. Knuth

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The definition of categories of design, science and art are not clear-cut. Neither one have a universally-agreed on definition, and professor Martin Kemp at University of Oxford argues that though these categories are not always invalid or misleading (“much of value has been done within respective intellectual frameworks”), he assess that

(…) operating on the assumption that if we do not begin by classifying each visual product as either a work of art or a scientific product then some very interesting things begin to happen.

Edward Tufte suggests that the premise of art and science is the same: it is about intense seeing which is the “universal principles of analytical thinking”. Martin Kemp shares the sentiment, and argues that art and science share in process rather than product: he argues the procedure of both are “observation, structured speculation, visualisation, exploitation of analogy and metaphor, experimental testing and the presentation of a remade experience”. Artists and scientist he says, both play important parts in constructing human mental and physical landscapes.

It is also interesting to note that what we might see as “hard” science (such as chemistry, mathematics, physics, astronomy) have been, and sometimes still are, informed by aesthetics. Scientists speak of elegant experiments, beautiful proofs and pretty explanations. Many scientists from all ages have employed aesthetics as an important component, sometimes with success, sometimes not. An example of misguided use was the idea that heavenly bodies must be perfect spheres and they must move in perfect circles. A successful example is the discovery of the structure of DNA from a 2D image (Photo 51, “the Mona Lisa of modern science”. James Watson and Francis Cricks’ process is described by Kemp:

the procedure was less a matter of steady linear progress according to remorseless logic than of obsessive “fiddling” with alternative, ramshackle assemblages of shape in which mathematical theory and X-ray data provided the rules within which the constructional game could be played”. He goes on to say:  “(the double helix model) exuded such an air of rightness (…), the structure was too pretty not to be true.

It is worth noting the terms Kemp choose: fiddling, game, pretty. The product of this process was universals, the process was just as messy as any art or design process.


Science is a term that means different things in different fields and to different people. Kemp goes so far as to say that the term – as it is used today – is a “crude and indifferentiated descriptor”. However, he add that the category is not meaningless, but that it needs careful consideration.

A simple view is to see “the scientific project” as striving towards reducing complexity and by way of theory and hypotheses aim at creating universal knowledge that are independent of situated, specific situations and artefacts. Simply put, Stolterman suggests science strive towards discovery of “what is”. The premise is replicability through observation, hypotheses, experiments and theories with the aim of generating knowledge that will be true regardless of time and space, and (generally) about reducing complexity, and to create objective knowledge free of personal bias. Martin Kemp, however, explains that

(…) even the hardest acts of quantification and mechanistic reductionism rest on often unstated assumption that rely on qualitative judgements. The most austere judgement that all there is in nature is “bottom-up” mechanism is a philosophical stance, a kind of negative faith, not a demonstrable certainty.

Turnbull further argues that though the knowledge might be distilled to “universals” eventually (as in the example of discovery of the DNA double helix), all scientific enquiries are situated: the process is not free of time and space, and he calls this an illusion of the “positionless”. The idea of the neutral, passionless scientist is in need of qualification.


Architect, artist and industrial, furniture and graphic designer Charles Eames defined design as “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose”. In this way, Stolterman echoes Eames, in saying that design have a specific purpose, client, situation; with specific requirements and limitations. If science is about “what is”, design is about the “non-existing” or “what can be”. The designer Alberto Cairo simply calls design a tool to a purposeful end, “the functional art”.


There is a widespread notion that the artist works expressively rather than cognitively: that the creation of art is a work of self development and autobiography rather than understanding. The romantic myth of the artist as a passionate, fiery, instinct-driven creator, says Kemp and Frayling, is in even more need for qualification than the image of the analytical, passion-free scientist.

The notion that the scientist explains why, and the artist is off in a different direction without being accountable or subject to scrutiny as to the logic of “rightness from wrongness”; is too simple. Artists, as much as scientists, insistently asks “why?” and think deeply about their work. Art is not the diametrical opposite of analytical thinking according to Kemp. He argues that for both, “every act of looking has the potential to become and act of analysis”. The advantage of art, Kemp suggests, is that it is not bound by “literal description and logical demonstration and can use techniques of implication, suggestion and allusion to supplement the obvious tricks of illusion”.  He says that there is no fundamental endpoint of “proof” in art, but that art has “a sense of rightness” as strong as science. What we might call works of art might well be exploring and contributing to science, and sometimes to appreciate the work one needs an understanding of the challenges of a scientific field. An example is artistic exploration of artificial intelligence, or the work of Eduardo Kac and Joe Davies in the 1980’s: exploring how to modify DNA of bacteria to carry messages, the work was thought “outrageous” both artistically and scientifically. These days this is a recognised scientific field. The freedom from conventions is “precisely one of the gifts the arts can bring to research”.

To sum up; I hope to have demonstrated the interrelatedness of the terms science art and design. Perhaps they do not really exist on a continuum, but rather in a network-like mess of interconnections. An artefact can contain elements from each, and in doing so, it does not per definition make it useless in one category and useful in another. Its constituent parts may come from (“hard”) science (such as engineering, data, material science), but the exploration of “what can be” of the novel and new, can – and perhaps even possibly have to – draw on all three categories.

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Interconnectedness of art, science and design? @benteh


(This is a slightly doctored draft excerpt from my up-and-coming master thesis, unless I delete this section. It is of course out of context. I have removed the footnotes and inline citations, but sources below).


Frayling, C. (1993). Research in art and design. Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1(1), 1–5.
Stolterman, E. (2008). The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research. International Journal of Design, 2(1), 55–65.
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21. – Scientific, Nature and Medical Illustration. (n.d.). Retrieved 1 February 2015, from

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