Design in a complex world: Expanding the Concept of Design

From ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’; D.C. Wahl 2006

The Goal of all life is to live in agreement with Nature. Zeno of Elea 490–430 BC. (in Schneider, 1995,p.xxiv)

Since the late 1960s, the concept of design has undergone a rapid expansion, both in academic discourse and in industry. While the specific meaning of the word design within more narrowly defined particular contexts has not been lost, the design concept on the whole has become more and more encompassing. Expanding far beyond beautification and form giving, or the technical conception and creation of artefacts, processes and organizations, design is increasingly being recognized as a fundamental influence in most human activities. Professor David Orr pertinently illustrates the challenges associated with the expanding awareness of the significance of design:

As Homo sapiens’s entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the qualifying round. It doesn’t fit. It won’t last. The scale is wrong. And even its apologists admit that it is not very pretty. The design failures of industrially/technologically driven societies are manifest in the loss of diversity of all kinds, destabilization of the earth’s biogeochemical cycles, pollution, soil erosion, ugliness, poverty, injustice, social decay, and economic instability (Orr, 1994, p.104).

The Nobel laureate Herbert Simon proposed in his seminal book The Science of the Artificial, first published in 1969, that “the proper study of [hu]mankind is the science of design, not only as a professional component of a technical education but as a core discipline for every liberally educated person” (Simon, 1996, p.138).

Simon saw design as special kind of science that is informed by the natural sciences and deals with the artefacts and processes created by humans. He made the important distinction that while the natural sciences “are concerned with how things are,”(Simon, 1996, p.114) and try to make nature more intelligible, “design solutions are sequences of actions that lead to possible worlds satisfying specific constraints” (Simon, 1996, p.124).

Design is based on human intentions and goals and therefore “concerned with how things ought to be” (Simon, 1996, p.114). It is this visionary and creative character of design, which gives design its central role in envisioning and creating a healthier and more sustainable future.

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

While some form of general distinction between the natural sciences and the practice of design is certainly useful, it is important to recognize that at the core of the scientific way of working are a set of basic assumptions and a methodology of abstracting general rules from natural processes.

The focus of our sciences and the way they operate is in itself a human design. The abstract maps, based on elemental components and natural laws, that science constructs to explain the workings of the natural world are already abstractions and reductions of the true complexity of the fundamentally interconnected process in which we participate. Scientific maps and methodologies are also a form of human design.

Once we are aware of this, we can agree with Ranulph Glanville’s drastically expanded concept of design asserting that science is a special branch of design and not design a special branch of science. Glanville proposes that in its widest sense design underlies all human actions (in Jonas, 2001).

Mandelbrot Fractal as a symbol for designs pervasive reach into all aspects of human activity (source); this image is not in the PhD thesis this excerpt is taken from.

Stepping even further upstream, and acknowledging the epistemological assumptions and habits that influence our perception of the world, we become aware of how different worldviews — in themselves a form of meta-design — affect how we design our world, and that not all worldviews are socially or ecologically sustainable. The epistemological and ontological foundations of our way of making sense of, and assigning meaning to, the reality in which we participate are the root of human experience and design.

Based on the etymological origin of the word design, which is to designate meaning, context and identity, Klaus Krippendorf proposed: “design is making sense of things” (Krippendorf, 1995, p.156). While the process in which we participate is real, through changes in consciousness, cognition, and language, we are also engaged in creating our experience of reality in diverse ways. Human beings can choose to remain unaware of their fundamentally co-creative involvement in reality, or they can become mindful and responsible in full awareness of the power of design.

In a world driven by individual and national economic interests, the lack of meaning is becoming increasingly apparent and driving more and more people to ask deeper questions in a search for new meaning.

One effective way to bring back meaning into people’s daily life is a concerted effort to educate each other about the great benefits and higher quality of life — despite drastically reduced material consumption — that would be associated with the collective effort to re-design humanity’s participation in natural process along sustainable principles.

The collective co-creation of a sustainable human civilization can engage individuals and their communities in locally meaningful and globally responsible activities that improve both human and planetary health.

Richard Buchanan suggested that: “Design has become an art of deliberation essential for making in all phases of human activity” (Buchanan, 1995, p.46). Buchanan also emphasizes that design is at the root of all science as it “applies to the making of theories which attempt to explain the natural operations of the world.” He suggests design thinking guides the making of “policies and institutions, which may guide practical action”(Buchanan, 1995, p.46).

As such, design for a sustainable future can be humanity’s informed response to the changing circumstances in the complex dynamic system that unites nature and culture. Design can help to create the political, social and economic institutions that are relevant and appropriate to these changing and interconnected circumstances. Issues like climate change, poverty, resource depletion, and global environmental degradation can only be tackled through such a concerted response. Richard Buchanan writes:

There is no area of contemporary life where design — the plan, project or working hypothesis which constitutes the “intention” in intentional operations — is not a significant factor in shaping human experience. Design even extends into the core of traditional scientific activities, where it is employed to cultivate the subject matters that are the focus of scientific curiosity (Buchanan, 1995, p.6).

Richard Buchanan and Victor Margolin have pointed out that most attempts to conceptualise design have so far either paid attention to “the methodology of product planning or the characteristics of the products themselves.” As a result of this “design has been considered too narrowly and the central role it plays in social life, both as an activity in which everyone engages and as one that results in products that are inextricably intertwined with human action, has been neglected” (Buchanan & Margolin, 1995, pp. xvii). They therefore suggest that there is an urgent need to rethink the “problem of design ethics” both in a social and in an ecological context (Buchanan & Margolin, 1995, p. xxv).

Once we accept that the artificial and political world around us is to some extent the product of human design, and to a large extent a product of the resulting side effects and the often unintentional and unconscious meta-design of relying on outmoded organizing ideas and limited worldviews, we become aware of design’s potential as a creative and destructive force. We need to, and have the right to, question the values and intentions behind all design. As Victor Margolin points out:

Conceiving design broadly enough to include buildings and corporate identity programs, spoons and towns, computer software and health care delivery systems, adds a new and needed dimension to our reflection on it as a social practice. Thinking of all these products as designed makes us more aware that they are conceived, discussed, and planned, before they are made. As the result of human decisions, they can always be questioned (Margolin, 1995, p.122).

If we question the basic assumptions, attitudes and values that underlie a particular design we enter the realm of ethics. The call for an ecological ethics to guide human action was first voiced in modern Western culture by the conservationist Aldo Leopold (Leopold, 1966); and Ian McHarg was the first to formulate the call for an ecological ethics in design during the 1960s (see McHarg, 1963).

McHarg tried hard to make people realize that “the attitude of man to environment, which permeates the Western Tradition, is a fantasy. It has no correspondence with reality, no survival value, and is the best guarantee of extinction” (McHarg, 1970). This conviction led him to advocate a design approach based on humanity’s co-evolution with natural process, which he formulated in his seminal book Design with Nature (McHarg, 1969).

Other pioneers at exploring the crucially important ethical dimension of design have been Victor Papanek (see Papanek, 1971 & 1995) and John Todd and Nancy Jack-Todd (see Todd, 1976, and Todd & Jack-Todd, 1980). Chapter three will discuss the crucial role of an ecologically literate and ethical approach to design in more detail.

Clearly, design — its far-reaching effects and the associated responsibility and potential for catalysing change — has been underestimated for a long time by both design professionals andthegeneralpublic.

In Remakings — Ecology, Design, Philosophy, Tony Fry has argued that “faced with a fundamental danger to life the transformation of industrial culture is the only available means of salvation.” Fry posed the question: “How can industrial culture be re- made?” and answered this question: “by design, so long as design itself is re-designed” (Fry, 1994, p.9). This doctoral dissertation dares to offer a contribution to this re-design of design.

While designing with ecological concern is increasingly being presented as ecodesign the argument that will unfold here will show ecodesign to be more than this, which is to say it is, and has to be, more than a supplement to the structures of existing design practice. Rather it aspires to be a structure of questioning structure. The form of the activity stands on a shifting ground, a process which can transform what structures and that which is structures. Ecodesign is so presented, and projected, with the potential of creating a new direction of design — it thus asserts the need for the re-design of design (design is taken here as the act of designing by the designer, as well as the designed object, image, system or process) (Fry, 1994, pp.11–12).

Whether we call it ecodesign, ecological design, salutogenic, or natural design — all of which will be discussed in this thesis — the underlying intention behind all these approaches is to re-design design and with it humanity’s presence in the world. [Today, 11 years later, I would call this approach regenerative design, see Designing Regenerative Cultures, Triarchy Press, 2016.]

Design as a concept has expanded drastically over the last 40 years and is now being recognized as a fundamental component in all human activity. Both in the design industry as well as in academic design institutions the expansion of the concept of design is still being formulated into a new coherence.

What is desperately needed is an attempt to re-contextualise design from a more integrative and holistic perspective. This is one of the aims of the work presented here. Tony Fry writes:

Design is a feature of the function of mind, one that defines the presence of thinking in the consequences of prefigurative thought. Equally, and more particularly, design, across all material and immaterial practice, is the giving of direction of process and form, as well as the directional product. While design became a professional practice with the rise of the industrial culture, more fundamentally, as elemental to mind, it is and always has been, one of the designations of what it is to be human. In this frame, everyone is a designer (Fry, 1994, p.113).

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

Big data visually represented (Luca Pappalardo)