Functional Descriptions in Engineering

AIEDAM Special Issue, Summer 2013, Vol.27, No.3

Edited by: Pieter Vermaas & Claudia Eckert

In design methodology there are a number of approaches for describing products functionally. In all of these approaches the concept of function is advanced as a fundamental one to engineering, and all these approaches have proved their viability by achieving important results. The current state in engineering concerning functional descriptions is therefore characterised by the co-existence of various approaches among design methodologists to defining function, and by an ongoing confusion among practitioners about how to apply functional descriptions. This state seems not to be an intermediate phase that will be replaced quickly by one in which more clarity is achieved; but rather it seems to be one that is relatively stable, with historical roots and with various advantages to engineering.

This fact that multiple approaches towards functional description are possible and are successful, is itself already notable enough to call for analysis and explanation. It also has led within design methodology to a sort of agreement to disagree, and not to discuss the pros and cons of particular approaches. Moreover it raises questions of how to manage the co-existence of these approaches towards function in engineering. Finally it has led to an ongoing confusion about the use of this concept among practitioners.

With this special issue we aim to explore this current state of co-existing approaches towards functional descriptions in engineering, and collect a basis for discussing and assessing it within the engineering design community at large. Rather than authors advocating their personal views in isolation, we want to encourage a dialogue between different views on function. Design methodology research prospers with this co-existence, so it may eventually be the way the discipline is, raising more meta-methodological questions about how the functional descriptions that are generated by the different approaches should be related, in communication between design teams for example, about how to archive functional structures of past design, and about how functional descriptions should be taught at schools and universities, and applied in research and industry.

The special issue starts with three position papers that approach the topic of co-existing functional descriptions from a methodological, historical and practitioners perspective. These position papers will be made available for authors who wish to contribute to the special issue. We welcome papers in which this current state is assessed and in which visions are developed about the possibilities and impossibilities for functional descriptions in the near future of engineering. The position papers describe and interpret the current co-existence of different approaches towards functions, and we welcome response papers that develop this description and interpretation, or provide for alternatives. Individual approaches towards functions are expected to be discussed in response papers, yet we welcome papers in which some distance is maintained from individual approaches in favour of a focus on the more general challenge to engineering: i.e., how it should proceed with using and promoting functional descriptions.


Contributions will be not more than 8 pages long in the AI EDAM format. A paper with only text and a length of 6500 words may fit that maximum; to include elements like tables and figures, the word count should be adjusted accordingly.

The position papers:

  • From a methodological perspective: Pieter Vermaas
  • From a historically perspective: Ashok Goel et al.
  • From a practitioner's perspective: Claudia Eckert et al.

These papers will be made available in the summer of 2011, at a meeting during the ICED conference, Copenhagen, Denmark, and can then be obtained when expressing interest to contribute with the guest editors.

Review, feedback and discussion:

Authors are invited to submit names of suitable reviewers, such that discussions aimed at developing the paper may be integrated in the review phase.

In addition authors are invited to a workshop to be held in the summer of 2012 (venue will be announced in due time). At this workshop draft papers can be presented and discussed.

All submissions will be anonymously reviewed by at least three reviewers. The selection for publication will be made on the basis of these reviews.

Information about the format and style required for AIEDAM papers can be found here.

Note that all enquiries and submissions for special issues go to the Guest Editors, and not to the Editor in Chief.

Important dates (updated on 1/12/2012):
August 15-19 2011:Kickoff meeting at ICED 2011 conference
October 1 2011:Deadline for authors to express interest in contributing
March 1 2012:Deadline for authors to submit first full drafts of papers
May 20 2012:Reviews due
June 1 2012:Notification and reviews due to authors
September 1 2012:Deadline for authors to submit revised drafts of their papers
November 1 2012:Notification and reviews due to authors
December 1 2012:deadline for authors to submit final drafts of their papers
Summer 2013:Publication as AI EDAM Vol.27, No.3
Guest editors:

Dr. Pieter Vermaas
Department of Philosophy
Delft University of Technology
The Netherlands
Email: p.e.vermaas @

Dr. Claudia Eckert
The Design Group
The Open University
United Kingdom
Email: c.m.eckert @