Assignment 4: Literature Critique

Selected Literature

  • The Structure of Ill-Structured Problems by Herbert A. Simon
  • A New Approach to Innovative Design: An Introduction to C-K Theory by Armand Hatchuel & Benoit Weil
  • Conceptual Blockbusting: A pleasurable guide to better problem solving by James L. Adams
  • 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization by Vijay Kumar
  • Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A guide to 21st century learning space design by JISC
  • Designing for adaptation: the school as socio-spatial assemblage by Kim Dovey and Kenn Fisher



Popular learning pedagogies today lean towards constructivism (Hua Liu & Matthews, 2005), a distinct shift from more traditional behaviorist and cognitivist pedagogies (Dovey & Fisher, 2014). This constructivism applies to both how teachers and other education professionals facilitate learning in their environments, as well as how learning spaces are being designed. For instance, current popular design theories and practices seem to agree that designed spaces (for learning or otherwise) should be innovative in nature. However, a key discord between existing literature on design is that there does not seem to be a universal consensus on the specifics of innovative design. Dovey and Fisher remark quite aptly, “it is significant that there is no sense of convergence on any ideal architecture for the new pedagogies as there is for the old.” (Dovey & Fisher, 2014.)

In the literature selected above, two authors stand out on opposite ends of the design theory spectrum; Herbert Simon and Armand Hatchuel. Simon views design as a problem (or series of problems both ill-structured and well-structured) to be solved while Hatchuel depicts design as a project.

Simon’s design theory involves bounded rationality (meaning that decision making is limited by an individual’s existing knowledge or memory, time constraints and the cognitive limitations of the mind), as well as satisficing—seeking a satisfactory, or “good enough” solution as opposed to an/the optimal one (Simon, 1973). Simon says, “The whole design, then, begins to acquire structure by being decomposed into various problems of component design, and by evoking, as the design progresses, all kinds of requirements to be applied in testing the design of its components. During any given short period of time, the architect will find himself working on a problem which, perhaps beginning in an ill structured state, soon converts itself through evocation from memory into a well structured problem.” (Pople, 1982; Simon, 1973; Webster, 2010.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Hatchuel’s design theory (C-K theory) is both a design theory and a theory of design reasoning. According to Hatchuel and Weil, design includes problem solving but should not be reduced to just solving a problem; Design theory is an open-ended process, and a project. Problem solving alone does not leave room for innovation (Dorst & Overveld; Hatchuel & Weil, 2003). In keeping with C-K theory, a brief is designed as a concept, through the introduction of a formal distinction between concept and knowledge spaces, followed by a characterization of the space between concept (C) and knowledge (K) (Bassiti & Ajhoun, 2013).

Two authors whose design practices aren’t directly related to learning spaces but seem to be influenced by Simon and Hatchuel respectively are John L. Adams (author of Conceptual Blockbusting: A pleasurable guide to better problem solving) and Vijay Kumar (author of 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization).

Adams is of the mindset that design “problems” exist, however the problems need to be properly isolated in order to be solved and consequently for innovation to occur. (Adams, 1976.) Adams’ logic is as follows:

Problem statements are often liberally laced with answers. The answers may be well thought out or poorly conceived. They may be right or wrong. A problem statement to an architect such as ‘put a latch on that door between the kitchen and the dining room so that the door can be opened extremely easily’ implies that the answer to kitchen/dining room access is a door, rather than no door, a redefinition of space or a redefinition of the food preparation/eating function.” (p. 15)

Kumar 2012 does not write explicitly from a problem-solving standpoint. Kumar starts by saying that less that 4 percent of the innovation projects undertaken by businesses are proven successful. The remaining 96 percent of the projects fail (Kumar, 2012). Kumar then goes on to describe four key principles for successful innovation: Build innovations around experience; think of innovations as systems; cultivate an innovation culture; and adopt a disciplined innovation process (Kumar, 2012). Kumar’s design methods rely heavily on process and experience, turning design from an art into a science, reminiscent (to this author) of Hatchuel & Weil and the C-K theory.

Kumar’s 101 design methods aside, there is incredible discord in the selected literature about methods for applying design thinking to spaces for learning. Two pieces of literature that delve deeper into design methods specific to learning spaces are Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A guide to 21st century learning space design by JISC, and Designing for adaptation: the school as socio-spatial assemblage by Kim Dovey and Kenn Fisher. A close reading of the literature shows that implementation is often tricky in designing spaces specifically for learning. There are myriad standards and specifications to be met on academic (EngageNY, 2011), bureaucratic and architectural levels (School Construction Authority, 2011).

As an example, if teachers are tied up with the design of learning spaces (arguably as they should be), it becomes harder for them to focus on immediate academic necessities. In addition, it is difficult to ensure buy-in from all levels of stakeholders including upper management, and teachers. Regular dialog among management and staff as the design ideas are in the ideation and implementation phases are suggested methods to facilitate cooperation across the board (Bhutiani & Danaher, 2013), but that seems an oversimplified answer to a complex question.

According to a JISC eSpaces Study at the University of Birmingham, “Organisations all face pressure to deliver higher standards of education, to greater numbers of students, with tight financial restrictions, but still need to provide facilities that will attract students in a competitive market.” (JISC, 2006.) Organizations do need to achieve all of the above in order to stay competitive, but with no universal learning design theory, and vastly differing theories and practices abounding, what is a learning institution to do?

It should be noted that none of the selected authors address the idea of the potential difficulty in expecting students to adapt to new, innovative learning environments if the designers of said learning environments aren’t practicing what they preach. Teachers and educational professionals should not necessarily champion an open, flexible way of learning to facilitate all kinds of students, and a new way of thinking that is tied into the very design of a learning space, if they’re holding on to standards or constraints in part for fear of bureaucratic repercussions.


Design theory discord aside, a trendy concept in designing spaces for learning is the idea of an open classroom or learning space (JISC, 2006; Dovey & Fisher, 2014). Open learning spaces are flexible, often previously underutilized spaces that are redesigned to attract a variety of learners. Conceived to foster an environment of both individuality as well as collaboration (JISC, 2006), these spaces usually seem to favor the latter.

The Syracuse Center of Excellence in downtown Syracuse, NY is a prime example of what this concept looks like in practice. According to their website, the Syracuse Center of Excellence is an innovation hub created to spur economic development in the Upstate New York region. The organization engages with individuals at hundreds of regional companies and institutions in an attempt to address challenges in clean and renewable energy, indoor environmental quality (IEQ), and water resources. (SyracuseCoE, 2014.)

SyracuseCoE Headquarters is a LEED Platinum certified smart building that is touted as being a “testbed for innovation” (SyracuseCoE, 2011). Other notable design features include a Total Indoor Environmental Quality [TIEQ] Lab, a green roof, a geothermal system, lighting and control systems, natural and personal ventilation systems, advanced building heat recovery and reuse systems, air quality monitoring of outside air and controls for improving air indoors, an urban ecosystem observatory tower, rain water capture and reuse and much more.

SyracuseCoE has used a variety of design methods from the selected literature in the design of their building, including an open floor plan with no separate offices for upper management, and a rotating desk plan where desks are not designated to specific individuals. Instead, employees sit where they prefer, whether at a desk, in the lobby, on the green roof, etc. In addition, a lot of the office and lab space remains empty for most of the year and is designed to facilitate the needs of partners, students and individuals affiliated with the organization that need a place for learning, experimentation and exploration (SyracuseCoE, 2014).

While all of this open space sounds not only innovative for an organization, but also ideal for all parties involved, Dovey and Fisher claim, “The most open of plans are often not the most adaptable because they constrain choice.” (Dovey & Fisher, 2014) Due to the open nature of the SyracuseCoE headquarters, sound carries and makes for a rather cacophonous atmosphere, often times negating the benefits of creating an open office. There are also very few places to retreat for individuals who do not feel that open offices or environments are conducive to their style of learning. The fact that the entire office is open, does in fact, as Dovey and Fisher claim, constrain choice.

Minimal changes could improve the accessibility of open learning environments for all learning styles. For instance, the University of Strathclyde made open plans work for students in its computer workstation area by creating a barrier within the open space. The university incorporated a presentation area into its open space design that gave students a place to peer review their work and ideas. “The realisation of the design takes place in the rapid prototyping room – a separate room but with a transparent partition to provide sound insulation but still allow activities there to be integrated into other stages of the process.” (JISC, 2006.)

In addition to constraints and boundaries within an open space plan, JISC denotes alternative space design options to facilitate various types of learning styles including flexible furniture, wider doorways, audiovisual cues and changes in furniture layout which can help learners navigate around a building and “adjust their behaviour according to the purpose of the space” (JISC, 2006).

Is the open classroom/learning space idea an ill-structured solution to an ill-structured problem? Is it the solution to a well-structured problem? Or is it a temporary pit stop on the designing spaces for learning journey toward meeting the ever-evolving needs of learners well into the future? Dovey and Fisher say that the more convertible and fluid the learning space is designed to be, the more complex said space ultimately becomes as “different spaces are added to the cluster in a variety of spatial relationships (separation, openability, interpenetration).” (Dovey & Fisher, 2014.) In light of this, it is proposed that there be a blend of separation, openability and interpretation in designing spaces for learning as a whole; a marriage of standards and flexibility; a collaboration between all levels of stakeholders.  The overlap of separate spaces described by Dovey and Fisher seems to yield the best results, as exhibited by the University of Strathclyde example above.


The theme that runs like a spine throughout the literature analyzed in this paper is the fact that innovation is integral to designing spaces. Although the literature differs on methods of implementation, innovation in design does not seem possible without room for trial and error, creativity and flexibility all the while maintaining a sense of boundaries and constraints. Innovative design also needs to be measurably successful in order to bypass organizational push back and facilitate buy-in from all stakeholders.

In the literature selected for this critique, and in using practical, real life examples such as the University of Strathclyde and the Syracuse Center of Excellence, design theory currently seems more akin to C-K theory as proposed by Hatchuel and Weil, than bounded rationality as proposed by Simon.  The literature and real life examples that were influenced by C-K theory allowed for a degree of innovation that literature involving design practice influenced by Simon is lacking. Much of the literature, most notably Dovey and Fisher’s Designing for adaptation: the school as socio-spatial assemblage, read like a design brief.

Understandably, there are gaps in the above outline and analysis due to the sample size of the literature critiqued. The literature predominantly discusses substantive design changes, which are not always the answer. A design project or problem does not always require monumental structural changes, for instance, “evolution” is sometimes touted as an alternative to “revolution” (Blueprint for Innovation, 2013). Reminiscent of Adams’ focus on the isolation of a problem, if a design project or problem is properly isolated, there may be no need to make huge structural changes in order to effectively design spaces for learning.

The distinction between revolution and evolution is key, especially when organizational considerations (budget justification, limited budget, lack of support from key internal and external stakeholders) are involved. Evolution is a much easier sell than revolution, and revolution can and will happen incrementally in the form of evolution over time. Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A guide to 21st century learning space design says it best:

We cannot anticipate future technological or pedagogic developments, but can ensure that designs will accommodate change. Investment in higher specification mobile rather than fixed technologies, wireless as well as wired networks, even bespoke furniture, may be justified when the space can support a range of purposes, and be relatively easily reconfigured. It is also probable that institutions will aim increasingly for fewer but better quality teaching spaces, with increased space per seat: large group or dispersed group teaching is already being supported by video streaming and video conferencing. Cameras in teaching spaces can offer that flexibility. (JISC, 2006).

What does innovative design theory look like in the future? How about design practice? Which pedagogy, if any, will one day steal the popularity of constructivism in the classroom? While the answers to these questions cannot be known, it is suggested that designers of learning spaces be fluid and design flexibly, existing in the present without abandoning design theories and practices of old that might just require redefinition in order to support the current learning environment. This outlook will allow students of generations both present and future, to continue learning as pedagogies, standards and practices fickly, and inevitably change.


Adams, J. (1976). Conceptual blockbusting: A pleasurable guide to better problem solving. New York: W. W Norton & Company, Inc.

Ajhoun, R., & Bassiti, L. (2013). International Journal of Innovation, Management and Technology, 4(6), 551. doi:10.7763/IJIMT.2013.V4.460

Bhutiani, A., & Danaher, A. (2013). Blueprint for innovation. FTI Journal, September 1, 2014.

Dorst, K., & Overveld, K. (2009). Typologies of design practice. In A. Meijers (Ed.), The handbook philosophy of technology and engineering sciences (9th ed., pp. 455). Amsterdam: North Holland.

Dovey, K., & Fisher, K. (2014).
Designing for adaptation: The school as socio-spatial assemblage. The Journal of Architecture, 19(1), 43-63. doi:10.1080/13602365.2014.882376

Hua Liu, C., & Matthews, R. (2005).
Vygotsky’s philosophy: Constructivism and its criticisms examined.
Adelaide University). International Education Journal, 6(3), 386-399.

JISC e-Learning Programme. (2006). Designing spaces for effective learning: A guide to 21st century learning space design. Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council.

Kumar, V. (2012). 101 design methods : A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization (1st ed.). Hoboken: Wiley.

New york state P-12 common core learning standards. (2012). Retrieved from

Pople, H. E., Jr. “Heuristic Methods for Imposing Structure on Ill-Structured Problems: The Structuring of Medical Diagnostics.”  Chapter 5 in Szolovits, P. (Ed.) Artificial Intelligence in Medicine. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.  1982.

School construction authority design standards. (2011). Retrieved from

Simon, H. (1973). The structure of ill structured problems. Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Company.

Syracuse center of excellence: Headquarters building. (2011). Retrieved from

Syracuse center of excellence: Home page. (2014). Retrieved from

Webster, C. (2010, July 15).
Herbert Simon’s well- vs. ill-structured problems, adaptive case management, and clinical groupware. Retrieved from

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