Everybody is a layman
This semester I have been investigating Biology and Design with students at the Design department at the University of Science in Munich. We want to understand what is going on. So we talked to a biologist who examines genetic markers in brain tumour cells. We talked to physicists who build artificial living cells (yes, building life from scratch!). We talked to a Bio Artist. We talked to many people trying to find someone who gives us the big picture. Someone who knows about where genetic engineering is going, what the biggest ethical questions (and maybe answers) in Biotech are, where we are heading in potential Biotech futures and — being a designer myself — what part Design can play in those futures.
But nobody knows the big picture.
In our age of distributed labour everybody stands on the pillar of personal expert knowledge in some particular field and as soon as one moves a centimetre beyond this small area one is just as clueless as the next guy.
We are all clueless most of the time. We are all laymen.
But then again, my friend Florian reminded me that everybody is also an expert. Even the dumbest, most confused person you will meet today is really good at something. We need to be good at something in order to survive, physically and mentally.
We are all good at something. We are all experts.
As a communication designer my task often used to be to communicate some expert knowledge to “the people out there” in a way that — hopefully — many people would understand.
For instance when designing an exhibition on some science topic one would mediate between “the experts” (up here) and the “layman audience” (down there). The designer’s task then was to structure the knowledge, make it simple and put some entertainment sugar on top.
I now understand that this paradigm is wrong — utterly wrong.
To be fair: of course this “works”. People will have fun and enjoy the illusion of learning something new. But that is entertainment, not communication.
If we are all experts and laymen standing on pillars then there is no point in talking down to a fictional layman audience. It would be crazy.
Instead we might design connections between the pillars.
Those connections might even serve as new places, a structure on which our minds can wander, visit other viewpoints, meet other minds.
Good communication creates bridges between expert knowledge.
So instead of designing an exhibition which lectures a fictional curious layman audience, we might create spaces that show peaks of expert knowledge and focus on how people can connect them with their own expert knowledge. Thus we might end up designing a space for wandering between the pillars and making connections — where people interact and exchange ideas instead of just sucking up “expert knowledge”.
What could such a space look like, smell like, sound like, feel like?