A Behavioral Definition of Design — Notes on Self-Design

Our goal here is to develop a framework that can encompass both the design of things and the design of beings. In order to do so, we need a working definition of design. For this purpose let us consider an unlikely source, Karl Marx’s Capital:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.

For Marx, the ability to imagine denotes a fundamental difference between man and animal: both fabricate more or less complex objects and structures, but only humans imagine, or more precisely prefigure, these structures before fabricating them. Here we understand design as prefiguration (therefore not the final output, which might differ) and the designer as the one who prefigures. The designer doesn’t need to be a human being since several machines, for instance, are capable of prefiguration. This coincides with Oxford Dictionary‘s definition of design, which is “the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing of something before it is made”. Imagination is the initial stage of a plan and uses the mind as a canvas, as an inscription device. Prefiguration can go from the stage of a mere mental image to the stage of a calculated and documented plan.

Now we extend this definition by adding a behavioral component, so we say that design is the prefiguration of how things and beings behave. A chair behaves by bending a bit but not breaking when a person sits on it, while this person behaves by sitting in the specific way suggested by the shape of the chair. Speaking of behavior means emphasizing both the conduct of a being (from Merriam-Webster: “The children were rewarded for good behavior.”) and the way in which a thing functions or operates (“They tested the behavior of various metals under heat and pressure”). From this perspective, what Don Norman calls affordance and can be defined as “an object’s properties that show the possible actions users can take with it” is nothing more than explicitly suggested (or imposed) behavior. Now that we have our behavioral definition of design, we can also define what designers do: designers design behavior. And what is design if not itself a behavior or, again in the words of Merriam-Webster, “anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation”?

Traditionally, the operational keyword of design has been function. However, that of behavior is a more fitting category when it comes to describing both things and beings, roughly distinguished by their degree of agency and autonomy. Furthermore, the modernist precept according to which form should follow function is simplified by our behavioral definition: form is a static expression of behavior. In any case, the distinction between function and behavior deserves a more detailed analysis.


Originally published at ENTREPRECARIAT.