30 Dec 2010
If one were forced to designate the particular moment in design, or name the emerging paradigm, it would probably be ‘ontological’— a response to the ‘age of transition’ and the emergence of a new context. Ontological design is not a new set of ideas or practices but its time has come. Without being too melodramatic, it is probably the most important design philosophy today.
Ontological design surfaced in 1986 with the publication of Flores and Winograd’s ‘Understanding Computers and Cognition’. Since then various theorists and practitioners have developed the idea, most notably Anne-Marie Willis and Tony Fry. Philosophically, much of the DNA can be traced back to Heidegger and Gadamer, but Latour and OOO bring a new dimension to the debate.
Although not formally acknowledged, ontological design is evident in the burgeoning fields of metadesign, critical practice and some aspects of service and interaction design. Even graphic design is waking up (but typically, it doesn’t quite know why)!
My understanding of ontological design has been slowly fermenting over the last two years, primarily through experiences and conversations with people in and around the Goldsmiths design department. John Wood’s M21 metadesign workshop was profoundly significant. Equally teaching on Mike and Duncan’s Critical Practice MA has radically altered how I understand design. Something is emerging out of Goldsmiths and it is going to be interesting to see how ‘meta’ and ‘ontological’ design continue to change and evolve through the twin processes of dialogue and practice.
We design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us (6). This is a very good summation of ontological design. There is a feedback loop (hermeneutic circle) and the things we make determine both designer and user. Design is not a linear one-way birthing process, it does not occur in a vacuum. When one calls forth a world, be it a font or phone, that thing has already been shaped (pre-determined) by a cacophony of voices, most of them non-human, most of them covert and unseen. The designer is one player in a sea of actors. Equally, that thing, once released into the wild, to a lesser or greater extent will begin a design process— it will act back and start to shape our own and other beings. Things design the designing of the design of things that design (7).
There is a ‘flat ontology’, one that throws the designer into relief, It understands design as a non-hierarchical network of relationships that extends way beyond the human subject and that our artifacts, products and processes also design us. In this model, knowledge is linked to doing and performance. We gain understanding, residing with the entities we corral and by being attentive to their networks. It is through a process of interaction that we become inscribed by our things and gain understanding. Equally, the things we make start to accrue knowledge and design becomes the ‘embedding of intention’. In a subtle distinction, a knife can be seen to dictate cutting rather than allow the user to cut— it gains far greater significance and agency. Of course, this has implications for the current apocalypse and what has been termed ‘structural unsustainability’. It explains our chronic inertia and how design is intimately linked to the current crisis. Refreshingly— ontological design also offers a possible way out of oblivion.
Amongst designers elements of ontological design have always been intuitively understood, particularly the idea that ‘doing is knowing’. There has always been an intimate relationship between makers and their materials. However the implications of networked entities and the ‘designing of design’ needs to be foregrounded and made explicit.
I’m particularly interested in how an ontological turn alters the practice of communication design. How can we design in the now without curtailing the future? Ontological design incorporates relational-thinking; close attention to the clusters, networks and connections that form our practice. Design (if it ever was) is no longer just about the artifact, it’s about the network that brings it forth and the network it inaugurates once released— hence the term ‘meta’ (beyond). The isolated design object no longer occupies the privileged center of attention. Instead, it is the fossil-fueled networks that come into view, the apparatus that sustains the artifact and it supports. Such ‘macroscopic’ or exploded vision is tantamount to eco-surveillance, it needs to be internalized and habitualized; a change in the being of the practitioner (8) needs to take place. Under this new regime, highly destructive: services, systems, processes and objects become untenable.
Here, macroscopic vision and discipline promiscuity become pre-requisites for an ‘ecosophical’ design project. They form a foundation for an approach based on low-impact intervention and minimal destruction of the biosphere. Although flawed and in need of critique, ontological design provides a strong foundation on which to build a 21st century design practice.