The Governing Principle behind Design: Part I: Unifying Methodologies, Disciplines and Cultures through the Physical Principle of Least Action

By Chris Thaxton, Wendy Winn, Jay Fenwick, Terry McClannon and Margot Olson.

Published by The Design Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This is part 1 of a three-part series on the application of the physical principle of least action to design. The principle of least action – fundamental to theoretical physics – was originally developed to describe and unify mechanical systems and later laid the foundation for modern theoretical formalisms such as optics and quantum mechanics. The principle of least action states that, of all possible paths along which a dynamical system may move from one point to another within a specified time interval, the actual path followed is that which minimizes action, where action is the product of energy and time. Any system that is designed for a target audience is optimized only if the “action” employed by the user(s) to interact with the designed system is minimized. In addition, a successful design must, over the lifetime of the design, anticipate any external agents that may act on the system and any internal constraints that may arise. When designing subsystems embedded within a larger-scale system, the optimum system design is one that minimizes action for the entire system, even if the action level of some subsystems is higher than it would be if designed to stand alone. This article employs a function-centric approach to describing design and designed systems in order to define terminology and critical relationships, translated from physics and mathematics, in support of the theory development. Part 2 of this series will address universal design within the framework of the least action principle. Part 3 generalizes the theory to the design process by addressing form- and function-designs with equal importance and by including value, assigned by those interacting with design, in determining the success of the design. Taken together, parts 1, 2 and 3 should be viewed as both necessary and sufficient to describe the application of the physical principle of least action to design.

Keywords: Least Action Principle, Principle of Least Action, Design Process, Design Theory, Universal Design, Design Principles

Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Volume 3, Issue 6, pp.325-348. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.523MB).

Dr. Chris Thaxton

Assistant Professor of Computational Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA

Chris Thaxton (B.S.E.E., M.S., Ph.D.) is an Assistant Professor of Computational Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Appalachian State University. His research areas include numerical modeling of granular flows and boundary layers, mountain stream scalar field evolution, and watershed-scale morphology processes. He teaches advanced coursework in theoretical mechanics, electromagnetism, and computational methods, which has helped to lay the foundation for the application of physics concepts to design.

Dr. Wendy Winn

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Professional Writing, Department of English, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA

Wendy Winn (B.A. M.A. Ph.D.) is Assistant Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at Appalachian State University. Her major research interests include visual communication theory, information design, rhetoric of science, and rhetorical theory. Currently, she is focusing on a theoretical framework for understanding how universal design operates in visual contexts.

Dr. Jay Fenwick

Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA

Dr. James Fenwick (B.S. M.S. Ph.D.) is Associate Professor of Computer Science at Appalachian State University. His NSF funded research in computer science education involves collaborative software engineering projects using web services to join student teams at multiple universities. The ClockIt system of software development monitors to discover and improve the programming practices of novice software developers. He is currently involved in interdisciplinary efforts including the application of universal design to computer science.

Dr. Terry McClannon

Information Technology Manager and Adjunct Professor, Reich College of Education, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA

Terry McClannon (B.S., M.A., Ed.S., Ed.D) is the Information Technology Manager for the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University. He is an adjunct instruction for the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies in the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University. His research focus is on the use of Universal Design for Learning principles in the development of engaging instructional activities. He is also interested in the use of virtual learning environments to support instruction.

Dr. Margot Olson

Professor, Faculty of Interior Design, Department of Technology, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA

Margot Olson (B.S. M.S. M.S. Ph.D.) is Professor of Interior Design in the College of Fine and Applied Arts at Appalachian State University. Her research deals with aging-in-place within the built environment, psychological effects of classroom design, and sustainable practices in interior design. Currently, she is working on documentation of applications of accessible design for aging-in-place in residenital interior design.

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