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Abstract In Architecture Schools, Design Studio modules are conceived as the core learning activity, in which students must generate and develop a design proposal. In this context, there is an implicit notion that lecturers and students share a common idea of what the Design Activity is. However, this may not be true as divergent, and sometimes, contradictory ideas of design seem to coexist within the framework of architectural courses. Moreover, such contradictions can lead to lack of coherence among learning activities modules, limiting modules integration and, consequently, hampering the development of key competences, as collaborative skills, by the students. Thus, this paper aims to discuss how different ideas of design coexist in an Architecture School, and how to resolve such contradictions promoting better integration among distinct modules. The findings are based on a literature review on the topics of Design theory, Architecture Education and Collaborative design, as well as on the researchers’ own experience in teaching. Examples of the adoption of Problem-based learning (PBL) in the Architectural Educational context have been explored to overcome gaps over the idea of design in the curriculum. In conclusion, it is suggested that Architecture Schools need to be able to engage in activities of collective reflection on the operational level. First, existing silos need to be questioned in relation to the overall structure of the course. Such reflection should reveal contradictions in the ideas of design among the modules’ leaders. Consequently, wrong assumptions embedded on the existing structures need to be broken down, and new structures and supportive initiatives should emerge with a sense of collaborative practices focused on the co-construction of knowledge.

Keywords Architecture Education, Design Theory, Contradictions, Design Studios, Collaboration



In general, there is an assumption in Architecture Education that design is commonly understood in the same way by individual members in Architecture Schools, including students and academics. However, such assumption could be arguably wrong. For example,

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Proceeding of the 5th International Conference S.ARCH-2018 22-24 May 2018, Venice, Italy

taking into consideration previous research on design theories [1][2], it has been suggested that diverse paradigms of design coexist in the context of design research and practices [3][4], which emerge as different interpretations of what constitutes design activities. Consequently, such diversity of design conceptualisations will influence the emergence of different approaches in the way lecturers structure design modules. In general, the over specialisation and the development of independent domains of design theory within Schools of Architecture have led to different understandings of the design activity [5]. The flexibility of design as a discipline allows for different philosophical interpretations about its practice, and this can lead to different understandings about its nature [6]. Moreover, such diverse interpretations can generate a lack of coherence and ontological contradictions on teaching and learning procedures, affecting the students’ experience. Therefore, this paper addresses two research questions: what is the impact of the coexistence of diverse concepts of design (underlying theories of design) within the context of Architecture Education? And what needs to change to resolve these contradictions? These questions triggered an inquiry into the current state of Design Theory in the literature, in terms of suggested approaches to define design activity and how they reflect specific strategies in architecture design education. The purpose is to highlight limitations and possible incompatibilities between conceptualisation and design teaching practices. The discussion and findings are based on a literature review in the field of Architectural Design Education and Design theory. This work has been developed as part of an ongoing PhD on Collaborative Design.


Contradictions in Architectural Design Studios

In Western Society, Architectural Education has been dominated by ‘studio teaching’ [7]. The design studio practice became common in architectural education after the Bauhaus experiments of 1930s in Germany and their further influence on architectural institutions across the world [8]. The common understanding is that in a design studio situation, “students are given a design problem that allows them to direct their own learning through the search of potential solutions. During this process, teachers or experienced practitioners guide the students by questioning their design proposals during face-to-face tutorials and reviews…” [9]. According to [10], the essential characteristics of Design Studios in Architectural Education are: (1) Student work is organised primarily into semester-length projects, responding to a complex and open-ended assignment; (2) Students’ design solutions undergo multiple and rapid iterations; (3) Critique is frequent, and occurs in both formal and informal ways, from faculty, peers, and visiting experts; (4) Heterogeneous issues – ranging from structural integrity to the social impact of the design – are considered, often in the same conversation; (5) Students study precedents (past designs) and are encouraged to think about the big picture (6) Faculty help students to impose appropriate constraints on their design process in order to navigate a complex and open-ended problem and find a satisfactory design solution. In this case, judicious and timely intervention can help a student focus or, when too focused, open up their thinking to explore new possibilities; and (7) The appropriate use of a variety of design media over the course of the project significantly supports and improves students’ insight and designs.

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However, even with the central role of design studios, there is still an inherent fragmentation of the curriculum of architectural education, involving the other modules around the design studio [7]. [7] suggest that, usually there is an overall lack of integration in teaching, involving individual subjects with little connection among them. In order to overcome such fragmentation of the traditional curriculum, [2] argued for further exploration on the integrative value of design studio approaches to reconceive architectural education. Following this, researchers have explored the potential adaptation of ProblemBased Learning (PBL) as a pedagogical framework in architecture schools. PBL was firstly developed at McMaster University in Canada in the 1960s, as a full-scale didactic approach to revise the traditional medical education curriculum [7]. At the time, medical education had been criticised for its over specialization, leading to a curriculum filled with details and fragmented knowledge, which was seen as disconnected with actual medical practice [7]. Thus, in that context, PBL was proposed as a holistic approach, focused on themes representing problems from medical practice, becoming the salient educational agenda, in which students are expected to define their own learning goals and pursue actively the accumulation of knowledge and skills [7]. In Architecture, it has been argued that PBL, as an established educational theory, embodies the best features of traditional pedagogical approaches in design, but most importantly, it allows them to be applied within a single theoretical framework, integrating the whole curriculum [7][11]. In principle, PBL is similar to project work, case studies and studio teaching approaches [11], what changes is the dissolution of the traditional lecturing structure within boundaries between disciplines and subjects, which become incoherent with the studentdriven learning process [7]. Collective learning is stimulated and enhanced through small group works around emergent ‘study areas’, in which students define their own objectives and experience a range of interpersonal dynamics [7]. The majority of work exploring the implementation of PBL in architecture education has been limited to present the adoption of new curriculum structure based on an adaptation of the PBL pedagogical approach [12]. Such reports describe how radical changes were implemented in the organisational structure of schools to change the curriculum [12]. However, besides its similarities and potential to enhance architectural education improving integration around design studios, researchers have reported limitations related to emergent contradictions in the adoption of PBL in architectural education. One of the main limitations is a lack of understanding by faculty members related to the philosophy of PBL [7]. In this case, fundamental changes in curriculum, led faculty members who previously enjoyed considerable status and independence, within the disciplinary context, to be engaged in broader and unfamiliar fields of teaching [7]. Moreover, in PBL, faculty members become facilitators rather than a lecturer, which requires them to engage in reactive activities instead of pre-emptive ones [11]. The problem is that, traditionally, the architectural curriculum has been regarded as implicit by faculty members. Thus, pedagogic strategies (i.e. learning objective, processes and assessment techniques) are regularly not discussed with students [11]. This aligns with previous criticism over design studio practices considering that experienced designers are not always the best educators, because most of the time the pedagogical approach of these tutors is based on an implicit understanding of how they themselves design (Dooren, Boshuizen & Merrienboer, 2013) apud [9]. S.ARCH-2018 nn.nnn.3

Proceeding of the 5th International Conference S.ARCH-2018 22-24 May 2018, Venice, Italy

We draw attention to a key aspect of pedagogic strategies i.e. the concept of the design activity, which is usually considered as problem-solving activity. For example, it is common to consider design problems, as the set of a written project brief that should drive the student activity to integrate the various study areas and the content of the curriculum [12]. In this approach, students should engage in solving ill-structured problems “before they receive all the relevant information necessary to solve it” [11]. The inherent contradiction of such concept of design, is that “the problem exceeds the student’s current knowledge foundation” [11]. In this case, the relevance of the word problem is key, because in fact what is presented to the students is a “situation”, requiring their active engagement to construct “a problem”. Tutors, who adopt this approach may not be concerned with how different students may interpret differently the “information gathered”. As consequence, students will face confusion around different interpretations of educational strategies manifested through project activities and assessment methods, that were set based on different expectations of faculty members. Another key aspect of project-based learning, which has been incompatible with the concept of design as problem-solving, is the collaborative nature of learning in the structure of design studios [11], involving students and tutors. [13] report on the interactions between student and tutor, demonstrating how design involves co-construction of their idea (concept) of design: “She (the student) wants him to appreciate her design; he doesn’t think she is designing at all. The two of them miscommunicate both about the nature of designing and about the nature of their own interaction. Here, the predicament of learning to design has become a learning bind.” “In order to dissolve such a bind, Northover (The tutor) would have to get interested in what she meant by what she said and did, and she would need to explore a new set of meanings for his words. But in the behavioural world they have constructed for one another, such mutual exploration is highly unlikely.” … unless Northover (the tutor) begins to behave in such a way as to help convert this situation (win/lose game) into a process of reciprocal translation. But such a change… would signal that he had begun to reflect-in-action on his own practice as a studio master. Indeed, I believe that good design teachers do sometimes become reflective practitioners of studio education, learning how to negotiate a “ladder of reflection” that can include as one of its objects even the behavioural worlds of student/teacher interaction.” [13, p. 19]. Therefore, it can be argued that divergence and lack of inconsistency about the nature of design may hamper design studio activities, even within an integrated curriculum, as it is the case in PBL. In order to resolve this, is necessary to revisit, explore and expose the origins of such contradictions around concepts of design and their impact on design situations in educational settings.


Design Theories: Deterministic vs. Dialectical approach 3.1 The Determinist approach to Design

The majority of Design Theory is based on the fundamental assumption that the nature of Design is a rational activity of problem solving. One of the foundations of this perspective is proposed in the work of Herbert Simon, “The Science of the Artificial” (1969) [1]. According to [1], the essence of design activity is to devise courses of action aiming to change existing

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situations into preferred ones. Following this rational, designing is something that everyone does [14], and does not always has to be linked to abilities, as the wish to design is therefore inherent in human beings [15]. In that sense, [1] suggest that design, as an intellectual activity, is present in many human activities ranging from prescribing remedies for a sick patient, to the definition of a social policy. For [1], while Natural Sciences are concerned with how things are, design concentrates on how things should be by the means of devising artefacts (objects) to attain goals. Such perspective is drawn from the idea that design starts with a problem [1][15][16]. For example, [15] suggest that designers are usually faced with very poorly defined problems. Hence, designers deal with two difficulties, one to understand the problem and the other to find a solution [15]. The main assumption of such conceptualization is that design situations can be determined in terms of problems and solutions. [17] suggested that the word problem fitted the purpose of objectivity embedded on a positivist way of defining Design. This because, during the first half of the last century, Thorndike’s (1931) apud [17] definition of problems, as something that emerges when an organism wants something but the actions necessary to obtain it are not immediately obvious, have influenced Design theorists [17]. [18] suggests that there are two types of problem. The well-defined problems, in which ends, or goals can be directly prescribed, so to obtain the solution it only requires the provision of appropriate means. The other type of problems, which best represent design situations, were described as Ill-defined problems, in which both ends and means of a solution cannot be known at the start of the activity. Consequently, design involves defining a problem [18]. [17] also suggested that ‘Design as a Problem-Solving activity’, which was influenced by a Behaviourist Positivism, led to the development of models of design, based on the determination of specific states, or phases. Embedded on these models is the assumption that it is possible to describe Design by breaking down the activity in phases [17], e.g. defining the problem. Here, design problems are usually defined by someone else, like the client for example [15]. Consequently, a sense of rational determinism emerged, in which the whole design activity could be clearly and explicitly described in a process model, as the ideal artefact, indicating the parameters and the relevant data to be gathered [17]. This ontological position emerged as the Information Processing Theory of Problem Solving [18], which later influenced the work of Simon describing Design as particular kind of science [1]. Such theories suggested that an adequate explanation of observed human behaviour can be afforded by a “program”, or in other words, a process model of primitive information processes that accounts for the cognition associated with an action [17]. Thus, design can be interpreted as a sequence of distinct and identifiable activities which occur in some predictable and identifiably logical order [19]. Prescriptive models have been used to persuade or encourage designers to adopt systematic procedures as a particular design methodology [15]. In fact, many scientists and practitioners continue to find the idea of a linear model attractive, as it represents the only way for a logical understanding of designing, allowing its replicability [6]. Mostly, these models have been suggesting a basic structure to the design process as analysis – synthesis – evaluation, in which analysis refers to performance specifications logically derived from the design problem, synthesis as the generation of design solutions, and evaluation as a rational decision-making on the choice of the best alternative solution [15].

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3.2 Critique to Determinist Approach and its implications on Architecture Education The idea that design activities occur in order, or even the suggestion that they could be identified as separate events can be questioned [20][19]. In contrast with the determinist view of Design, emerged an argument for a subjective and interpretivist view, in which design is seen as a dialectical activity. In fact, [21] and [22] explored the nature of Design Problems as it is proposed by Simon [1]. In Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Rittel and Webber (1973) [22], questioned the nature of social interactions in design and planning activities, and the prevalent idea of problem solving. They suggested that design problems are so ill-defined that they should be called Wicked Problems, because they are problems without the possibility of becoming fully defined. Their work can be interpreted as an original criticism towards the positivist and reductionist approach, referred as Descartes “heritage”, and the use analytical thinking. In essence, the fundamental nature of design problems regards the relationship between determinancy and indeterminancy [6]. According to [6], while linear models of designing suggests definite conditions of determinate problems, the idea of wicked-problems is constructed in a fundamental indeterminancy related to design situations, in reference to the social reality of designing. [1] and other followers of the determinist perspective, suggest that designers should rely on procedures and decision-making protocols that respect such principle of determinancy, trying to establish and follow common rationales that surround the objects of design (i.e. problem and solution) [6], However, following the indeterminacy principle, [4] argue that the methodological description of design activities as “design problem” is very problematic or even meaningless to say if we cannot define it or crystalize it in empirical descriptions. In their paper, “Cooperation and Individualism in Design”, Coyne and Snodgrass (1993) [24] develop a comprehensive critic on the historical Cartesian tradition, manifested through the deterministic perspective on design, and presented an argument for an alternative Hermeneutic account of Design. The authors argue that the deterministic perspective assert the primacy of the individual subject as the way we understand the world, which consequently, produce strong bias towards individualism. Another consequence of such determinist approach is the fact that design is perceived as an activity separated from making, which also had the effect not only of isolating designers, but it made them the centre of attention [19]. These are ideas that have strongly influenced Design Theory around teaching and practice in Western Society and established an overall prejudice against group activities [24]. Consequently, Design activity is widely recognised as the creative activity of individuals holding a special kind of thinking, and the lack of success is easily attributed to personality clashes [24].

3.3 The Dialectical Perspective Alternatively, design can be seen as exploratory activity, that is emergent, in a way that the relevant features to evaluate the solution emerge embedded in alternative solution concepts [14]. Consequently, it can be suggested that during design the problem and solution emerge together [19]. Moreover, Design is also opportunistic, because all that is considered relevant information cannot be predicted and established in advance of designing [14]. S.ARCH-2018 nn.nnn.6

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Furthermore, the subjective and perceptual aspects of the activity suggest that Design can be considered rhetorical, in a way that designers will interpret the brief not as a specification for a solution, but as a partial map of an unknown territory, which leads to the development of a design proposal, as the construction of a particular type of argument [14]. Such argument emerges as a reflective dialogue between internal and external representations [14] that designers conceive. Consequently, designers usually find themselves in a field of positions with competing arguments, in which various issues are interconnected in intricate ways [20]. In this case, designers debate about issues with themselves and/or with others, then competing positions emerge, in which pros and cons are established, till ultimately, they make the decision to favour one position [20]. This means that interpretations and reflections in a design situation are ambiguous, and arguments are at the same time the means of exploration and discovery as well as the subject to criticism [14]. In this sense, the designers’ understanding of the situation changes with their conception of alternative plans to change the situation [20]. It can be said that this reveals an epistemic freedom of designing, in which there is no logical or epistemological constraint prescribing the necessary steps to accomplish its purpose [20]. Moreover, the course of designing will be highly influenced by the designers’ world view. What designers know, believe, fears, desires will affect his reasoning all the time. Consequently, unless they are persuaded or convinced by someone else of his own perception, they will commit themselves to positions that match their beliefs, convictions, preferences and values [20]. This idea can be further correlated with the concept of interpretative frames [2], world objects [25]; common assumptions [26], and common ground [27]. Design takes place in a social context, in which plan-making aims at the distribution of advantages and disadvantages among a certain group of individuals with often contradictory interest and ideas [20]. So, in order to establish this course of actions, designers will use models engaging in a process of argumentation unlike the traditional view of problem solving based on pure analytical thinking [28]. In these activities, different points of view are brought together, and the individuals will usually experience breakdowns, in terms of pieces of lacking knowledge or misunderstandings about the consequences of their assumptions [28]. More importantly, participants of collaborative activities should be able to reflect about these breakdowns [28] In order to engage in such ‘plan-making’ designers will use models (artefacts) as means of derivative perception and manipulation [20]. The Dialectical perspective of Design suggest that such models assist the construction of the dialogue between reflective criticism, ‘seeing that’, and the analogical reasoning and interpretation of these models, ‘seeing as’ [29]. In that sense, the modelling activity (producing and engaging with artefacts of design) help designers to perceive unintended consequences of design explorations on how to change the situation [2]. He [2], called this the reflective conversation with the situation. Consequently, such perceptions are dynamic, in a way that the understanding of what should be accomplished, and how it could be accomplished is continuously shifting [20]. In this case, speech can be considered as one of the most flexible media to support imagination and argumentation [20], of such dynamic interaction towards the construction of collective perceptions in design. [6] suggest that seeing design as argumentation and deliberation depends in overcoming the limitations of mere verbal and symbolic arguments, in terms of traditional ideas of a distinction between theory and practice. The Dialectical perspective contributes in raising a new awareness of how argument is the central theme in Design that cuts across the many S.ARCH-2018 nn.nnn.7

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technical methodologies employed across different design fields [6]. Furthermore, positioning design as a situated action evolving through discourse like actions (i.e. conversations – dialectic), [4] offers an alternative way to describe design as the resolution of paradoxes between discourses in a design situation. Therefore, if design situations belong to the domain of social actions and interactions that should be investigated in terms of hermeneutic structures rather than determined logical processes (steps) [30], eventual misconceptions on the nature of knowledge and understanding in social interactions should be resolved, in order to fully operate within social systems. In that sense, as [2] proposes a concept of Collaborative Design, as a fundamental critic to the notion of ‘bounded rationality’ proposed by [1], that was embedded, in the Information Processing Theory of Problem Solving proposed by [18][1], as the prevalent model of professional training in architecture. [2] suggest that in the context of collaboration, designers will interact with different perspectives and systems of inquiry, realised in terms of different ways of framing problems, thus producing diverse design judgments. According to him, reflection and awareness of those conflicts of appreciation, may lead designers to understand the intractability of their dilemmas and to suggest an alternative design decision. Moreover, the resolution or dissolution of conflicting views emerging in these purposeful interactions should be treated as negotiation of organisational dilemmas [2]. In this sense, [23][31][26][4] suggest that [2] model of self-reflexive awareness on design situation could offers an appropriate concept of design, as an epistemology of practice, fitting the dialectic nature of design situations, replacing the logic-based models that have driven traditional design research, and traditional design educational models. However, this requires challenging the still dominant deterministic concept of design [24] which influence the majority of faculty members in architectural education. Moreover, the dialectical approach would allow overcome these conceptual barriers [24] by means of reflective conversations about the nature of design activity.



Traditionally, Architectural Education has relied on the Design Studio model as a central strategy integrating the whole curriculum around practical design activity. However, the efficacy of Design Studio practice has faced issues, due to the historical evolution of educational programmes for professional training based on the concept of design, as problemsolving. Following this approach, faculty members implicitly believe in the possibility of decomposing the activity in distinct stages of operation, and in the inherent replicability of procedures for similar “design problems”. Such traditional conceptualization of design has created a strong bias towards individualism. Hampering the integration of activities and knowledge across modules. In this context, referring to previous adoption of PBL in Architectural Education as way to overcome this fragmentation of curriculum through project-based activities around Design Studios, we suggest that the existence of different concepts of design have been hampering integration. While the restructuring of the curriculum potentially creates integrative environments around emergent themes, the engagement and philosophical change required by faculty members have found resistance in their traditional concept of design, and its manifestation in module structures and their approaches and expectations towards students’ work. S.ARCH-2018 nn.nnn.8

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Moreover, we propose that project-based activities, for example Design Studios, as selforganised situated learning practices, should inherently develop conversations around individual and collective concepts of design (i.e. collaborative design). In this case, the concept of design, as reflective conversation with the situation, proposed by Schön, provide an alternative theoretical framework based on the dialectical nature of these interactions. Further research should explore tools and mechanisms to expose such contradictions within the Architectural curriculum, as way to support faculty members and students’ reflections about their underlying concepts of design.

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Simon, H. The Science of the Artificial MIT Press, Cambridge, USA. 1969.


Schön, D. A. The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books. Vol. 1., 1983.


Dorst, K. Describing design: a comparison of paradigms. Technische Universiteit Delft. 1997.


Dorst, K. Design problems and design paradoxes. Design issues,22(3) (2006), 4-17.


Norman, D. The Problem with Design Education. Interview by David Talbot at MIT Technology review (2011). (23/03/2018).


Buchanan, R. Wicked problems in design thinking. In V. Margolin and R. Buchanan (eds) The idea of design, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1995, pp3-30.


De Graaf, E., & Cowdroy, R. Theory and practice of educational innovation through the introduction of problem-based learning in architecture. International Journal of Engineering Education, 13 (1997), 166-174.


Gül, L. F., Williams, A., & Gu, N. Constructivist learning theory in virtual design studios. Computational Design Methods and Technologies: Applications in CAD, CAM and CAE Education, (2012), 139-162.


Rodriguez, C., Hudson, R., & Niblock, C. Collaborative learning in architectural education: Benefits of combining conventional studio, virtual design studio and live projects. British Journal of Educational Technology. (2016) Pp. 1-17.

[10] Kuhn, S. Learning from the architecture studio: Implications for project-based pedagogy. International Journal of Engineering Education, 17(4/5), (2001), 349-352. [11] Smith, K. H. Problem-based learning in architecture and medicine: comparing pedagogical models in beginning professional education. In 21st National Conference on the Beginning Design Student, University of Texas at San Antonio. (2005) (pp. 24-26). [12] Bridges, A. Problem based learning in architectural education. In: Proceedings of CIB 24th W78 Conference, Maribor, (2007). S.ARCH-2018 nn.nnn.9

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[13] Schön, D. A. The architectural studio as an exemplar of education for reflection-inaction. Journal of Architectural Education, 38(1), (1984), 2-9. [14] Cross, N. Natural intelligence in design (1). Design studies, 20(1), (1999), 25-39. [15] Cross, N., & Roy, R. Engineering design methods (Vol. 4). New York: Wiley. 1989. [16] Suh, N. P. The principles of design (No. 6). Oxford University Press on Demand, 1990. [17] Rowe, P. G. (1987). Design Thinking MIT Press. Cambridge, MA, USA, 1987. [18] Newell, A & Simon, H. The Logic Theory Machine: A complex information processing system. IRE Transactions on Information Theory. IT-2, 3, (1956), 61-79. [19] Lawson, B. Oracles, draughtsmen, and agents: the nature of knowledge and creativity in design and the role of IT. Automation in construction, 14(3), (2005), 383-391. [20] Rittel, H. W. The reasoning of designers. Montreal: IGP, (1987). [21] Churchman, C. W. Wicked problems. Management Science 14(4), (1967), B141-42 [22] Rittel, H. and Webber, M. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences Vol 4, (1973) pp. 155-169. [23] Snodgrass, A., & Coyne, R. Models, metaphors and the hermeneutics of designing. Design Issues, 9(1), (1992), 56-74. [24] Coyne, R., & Snodgrass, A. Cooperation and individualism in design. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 20(2), (1993) 163-174. [25] Bucciarelli (1994). Designing engineers. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 1994. [26] Lloyd, P., & Busby, J. (2001). Softening up the facts: engineers in design meetings. Design issues, 17(3), 67-82. [27] Koskela, L. Where rhetoric and lean meet. In: Proc. 23rd Ann. Conf. of the Int’l. Group for Lean Construction, Perth, Australia, (2005), 527-535. [28] Rittel, H. Second-generation design methods. Developments in design methodology, (1984), 317-327. [29] Goldschmidt, G. The dialectics of sketching. Creativity research journal, 4(2), (1991) 123143. [30] Snodgrass, A., & Coyne, R. Is designing hermeneutical?. Architectural Theory Review, 2(1), (1997), 65-97. [31] Dorst, K., & Dijkhuis, J. Comparing paradigms for describing design activity. Design Studies, 16(2), (1995), 261-274.

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