Marbuck and design

Richard Marbuck’s “Embracing Wicked Problems: The Turn to Design in Composition Studies” looks at the turn to student production as design, design as a heuristic for composing. He describes design as an ethical activity that involves constant decision-making in situations that, ultimately, are not solvable. “Wicked design problems are problems of deciding what is better when the situation is ambiguous at best” (W399). Along the way, Marbuck notes that part of the wickedness of design has to do with affective, visceral, and interpretive reactions to design–reactions that cannot be controlled. He explains, “reactions can be elicited and guided, but they remain largely beyond both the conscious awareness of the composer and the rational control available through any design process” (W400).

Since I’m in the process of reading the essay (online) right now, I’m going to jot down lines of import as I go and then do some commenting later–normally, I would write on the text itself…I’ll stop whining about that…

“Design is rhetoric because rhetoric is a study of the most wicked of all problems: making responsible use of the persuasive power inherent in all artifacts” (W402).

“Because artifacts have consequences on our actions, the wicked problem of design is more than simply the problem of conceptualizing invention; it is the problem of claims artifacts make on our attention” (W403).

“My preference here is to understand design as disposition toward manipulating tools and producing artifacts that themselves bring into perception issues of human needs and values” (W404).

“In its richest sense design thinking is a nonreductive approach to wicked problems of inventing purposeful artifacts when intentions, circumstances, and outcomes are all ambiguous at best because the designer is immersed in a world of artifacts” (W403).

Marbuck refers to the process paradigm as finished and failed, a perception that I don’t think everyone shares (especially judging by dominant teaching practices). In any case, for him, design addresses more persistent, pressing problems around composing than process models ever could. It does so because design thrives on ambiguity–on the inability to know for sure how “artifacts” mean and circulate. Design theory permits aesthetic and affective elements into the mix too, neither of which had a major presence in process models of composing. If we read M’s argument as that which goes beyond a difference in vocabulary–i.e., not just changing from process to design–then I think we get to some new insights about composing and about rhetorical agency (that term is everywhere in these pages!).

One last note: kept thinking of Berthoff and chaos as I read this essay. Seems to me that there are some parallels between how M talks about design and how B talks about chaos. A main difference, though, is that M’s emphasis is on how design brings to the surface questions of ethical responsibility and judgment in always contingent situations (which, for him, goes beyond questions/problems of composing). Also, he views artifacts–including documents–as efforts to make ourselves knowable to others.

I’ll definitely use this essay in the composing class, when I next teach it. Challenges and reframes text production and delivery in ways that deepen our understanding of both.


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