erste Seite

PARADOX Startseite


The paradox endeavour to design a foundation for a groundless field

Wolfgang Jonas, Hochschule für Kunst und Design Halle, Germany, 12/2000


´There is no purer myth than the notion of a science which has been purged of all myth.´

Michel Serres


Undergraduate education is about basics. This requires reflection of the basic (scientific?) principles of design. The paper argues that the hybrid swampy region of artefacts and social phenomena is the fertile soil for knowledge creation. The process of scientific fact production is a design process, the essence of which is then purified and transferred to the shining surface of the sciences / humanities. Design (theory) is located in the hybrid. There is no stable disciplinary core but a fluid network of "chunks of ideas", re-established in communicative feedback at the interface between the contextual and the artefactual. Design is permanently re-creating its own ground; design is its own ground. If design is a groundless field, there cannot be eternal basics but rather arbitrary entry-points. Therefore "fundamental" issues comprise meta-subjects as: analytical and systemic thinking, associative power, synthetic, generative and evaluative competencies, communicative skills.


The difficulty of locating design - everywhere or nowhere ?

Design is often stigmatised for supposedly being non-scientific. A consequence is a pronounced dualist attitude which, depending on "Zeitgeist" or professional preference, tends either towards models based on the natural sciences or the humanities. The weakness of such a manner of proceeding is the rash relinquishing of disciplinary autonomy and the all too keen adoption of an unfamiliar self-conception, which, even within the ranks of science, no longer remains unchallenged.

Contemporary theory designs present us with geometrical and structural imagery, but without naming their contingency: ARCHER´s triangle of humanities (words) - sciences (numbers) - design (artefacts); DILNOT´s (1999) triangle of aesthetics - technology - ethics with design in a reconciling function; HAAVISTO´s Yin-Yan model; FRIEDMAN´s (1999) pentagon of social sciences - technology - art - natural sciences - humanities, or his (2000) hexagon. From this emerges the phenomenon of oscillation between disciplinary fantasies of omnipotence and impotence: is design an agent of reconciliation, a gapfiller, or is it simply trying to find its humble niche?

This essay sketches a model which could promote disciplinary autonomy, without claiming a status epistemologically equivalent to those of the humanities and natural sciences. It starts from the idea of designing as the original constructive human activity.


Autonomous theory is meta-theory - of limited practical utility?

Any design theory should be capable of describing its own coming into existence and changes, which means dealing with self-reference and paradox. Theory-building equals model-building; model-building equals design. Therefore, according to GLANVILLE, science becomes a specific field of design. This can hardly be backed up with evidence; here the question surrounds common roots and procedures of science and design.

SIMON describes artificial phenomena as systems which are adjusted to the environment in which they exist, through the purposes which they serve therein. His "sciences of the artificial" claim a legitimate place among the sciences and the humanities:

´Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent - not with how things are but with how they might be - in short, with design.´.

The criticism of SIMON´s theory does not consider the different levels: there is meta-theory (concerned with observing the observation of design, level 3), theory / methodology (the observation of design, level 2), and making (level 1). His meta-theory is vague, at times metaphorical, and yet convincing. Concerning theory / methodology (level 2), his arguments are rationalistic, due to his belief in formal procedures of problem-solving.

Most design theories have observed design from "half- without", staying on level 2. They adopt attractive partial theories from fashionable fields and then claim to describe the whole, the most prominent example being that of semiotics. But how can semiotics (on level 3) explain its own emergence as a design theory, its transformation and its possible disappearance?


Design as interface discipline - between things and contexts

BONSIEPE locates the interface in the triangle user - action - artefact, whereby the artefact is to reconcile the diverging demands. SIMON conceives the artefact as interface between inner and outer environments, and he pinpoints three aspects of artificial things: purpose / aim, composition / nature of the artefact (inside), surroundings in which it is to function (outside). Design follows the functional aims, which connect the inner and outer system, whereby a multiplicity of equivalent means of establishing a fit arises. JONAS (1994, 1999) describes design as the interface discipline between artefacts and contexts, inner and outer system. The boundary inside / outside is not fixed, but rather defined through the designing authority´s competence to intervene. All that which can be manipulated constitutes the inside.

Regarding an autonomous model of design, we should remember SIMON´s reflections on the processuality and the "infinite" nature of design, and on the dilemma of planning despite uncertain future contexts. And one should stress his value orientation (163):

´The idea of final goals is inconsistent with our limited ability to foretell or determine the future. The real result of our actions is to establish initial conditions for the next succeeding stage of action. What we call "final" goals are in fact criteria for choosing the initial conditions that we will leave to our successors. ... How do we want to leave the world for the next generation? What are good initial conditions for them? One desideratum would be a world offering as many alternatives as possible to future decision makers, avoiding irreversible commitments that they cannot undo.´

What does the production process of design theory look like, that is capable of recreating this co-evolutionary fit, time and again?


The separation of nature and society - and what about things?

The subject of design, the projection of what could be, which is conveyed through artefacts, does not occur in the sciences: the natural sciences deal with nature itself and its laws, humanities with people and their intricate relationships, semiotics with language and discourse, detached from material and social references. The sought-after meta-theory is not reducible to one of these fields, neither does it arise out of their integration, or out of an insertion of design into a supposedly fixed constellation of established fields.

Initially there is the eternal order of nature and the chaos of the human world. Following the example of the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91) and the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), LATOUR describes the mobilisation and separation of previously distinguished yet highly interlinked fields, resulting in the natural sciences and the humanities. Boyle´s invention of the laboratory and the scientific community as factory for producing facts concerning nature adds to the transcendence of naturalised nature the immanence (feasibility) of socialised nature. Hobbes´ invention of Leviathan as representative of the unpredictable mass of citizens, seduced by their passions, adds to the immanence of the social the transcendence of a scientifically substantiated eternal order. Thus the first two paradoxical constitutional guarantees of modernity arise:

1. Even when we construct nature, it is as if we did not.

2. Even when we do not construct society, it is as if we did.

This scheme of transcendence and immanence applied to Nature + Society (+God) provides the efficiency of science through clearly defined critical positions and hermetic scientific buildings. Examples of this asymmetrical pattern of argumentation are the explanation of the True through its correspondance with the reality of nature, and of the False through the constraints of social categories and interests, or the critique of the feasibility of nature from the position of the transcendence of the social.

Now the recognition dawns that both nature and society need to be explained, there is determinism and artificiality in either of them. According to LATOUR, the agents of this symmetrification are things ("quasi-objects").


Things elucidate the relationship nature & society - the space of the hybrid

The linear (horizontal) relation of the poles nature - society remains incomprehensible. This suggests the descent into the "underground" of knowledge production. Here one can trace how an object with a claim on truth comes into existence on the brilliant surface of the sciences. Historical, biographical contexts, conditions of publication, rhetoric / discourse, etc., all have an influence, but for purposes of presentation they are neatly separated. The addition of the (vertical) axis mediation - purification opens up the space of the hybrid.

Beneath the surface we have the practice of mediation, above the practice of purification. Distillation processes transfer the quasi-object from exemplary, local materiality to the universal essence of global, generalized knowledge. On the surface there are "cold" objects, closed "black-boxes", stable components of knowledge (normal science), without connectivity other than the defined I/0-relations of the black-box. Beneath the surface we have the "hot", fertile socio-technological "swamp", unstable mixtures, including re-opened black-boxes, with innumerable possibilities of (re-) connection into networks. This connectivity is the precondition for the propagation of quasi- objects and, through the purification procedure, for further "progress" on the surface.

The overfoaming productivity of modern society contrasts with the tranquil practice of pre-modern ("primitive") societies with their prohibitions and taboos, where natural, human, and divine things are mixed inseparably, and where each change has unpredictable effects almost everywhere. This leads to the third guarantee of the modern constitution (LATOUR):

3. Nature and society must remain absolutely separate; the work of purification must therefore remain separate from the mediation work.


The laboratory as location of the hybrid - quasi-objects as mediators

The hidden field of the hybrid is the locality of the quasi-objects and their relations. Firstly, quasi-objects are scientific hypotheses / theories in the process of becoming, still inseparably linked with machines, people, social practices and communication in the laboratory. Interconnections of quasi-objects arise, forms come into existence, stabilise and (possibly) reach the surface purified and decontextualised, changing from local events to global facts.

So-called laboratory constructivism introduces the genealogical perspective, the transition from a descriptive ("what") to a production ("how") logic. KNORR CETINA examines the laboratory as "fact-factory of modern science". Not just social facts, but also "hard" scientific facts are conceived as constructs. The social is not a source of friction or soiling, but constitutive of the process of gaining knowledge:

´Those scientific discoveries which are labelled "true" and "real" are not results of the un-and discovering of given structures and are therefore not causes on which the technological culture is based, but much rather consequences of scientific research processes. Facts are not simply available, they have to be established. It is only in the process of scientific works that they are produced as "independent" and "natural" facts.´.

But quasi-objects are not just transit phenomena. In the course of modernisation we experience an explosive propagation of increasingly autonomous quasi-objects: the emotionally charged fetiches with which we surround us, the object-related social practices which we cultivate as behavioural norms, objectified signs and symbols which we use as communication devices. And there are the "monsters" of the Industrial Revolution, the unheard of networks of natural, social, communicative aspects: the Internet, the Cyborgs, the "Ozonloch". Our helplessness faced with these stem from the one-sided perspective which modernity provides. They no longer fit into any one of the handed down categories. The required "3rd culture" (SNOW) can obviously not limit itself to the communication between natural sciences and humanities, neither can it be reduced to the taking over of the humanities by the sciences, but rather must it concern itself with the production process of the hybrid (HARAWAY).


Design (theory) operates in the hybrid - design-objects are quasi-objects

Scientific discovery is designed in the laboratory by means of highly complex artefacts; society is a construct of artefacts and communication. The hybrid is the space where objects / artefacts have their legitimate place. Design opens up the black-boxes which it takes over from the sciences, often consciously disregarding the rules of their use. Design mixes up the pure, the times and genres, creates new hybrids and demonstrates no interest in purification.

DILNOT (1998) calls design the process ´whereby the limits of the actual are continually formed and reformed´, the process of configuring incommensurable factors / demands and of the synthesis / reconciliation of these factors in propositions concerning artefacts. In this sense one can say: design objects are quasi-objects! They are functional units, but have not been purified of their contexts, conditions of origin and interconnectedness.

Nevertheless design does provide a kind of "pseudo-purification": stars, styles, "schools", cult objects, theories, methods, ... purified of all traces of manufacture, ownership and context. "Small theories" pretend similarity with scientific truths. Inherently present in this is the danger of ideologization, the creation of myths and fossilisation with the consequence of regular, radical changes, which are often showily described as "paradigm shifts".

We are however just dealing with exemplary quasi-objects, forming an archive which differs fundamentally from scientific knowledge: it is a collection with no axioms or refined conventions. Infringement against the rules is even imperative. Design knows no progress, only change. Theories throughout the ages, methods, case studies: these are all testimonies to temporary fits of artefacts and contexts. What remains useful is the growing layer of the sediments of "design anecdotes" (ROXBURGH, BRENNER).


Zooming in on the hybrid - the self-similarity of design models

A disquieting situation? WEAVER, in "Science and Complexity", introduces the term "organised complexity". He distinguishes problems of simplicity (processes of classic physics with few, mostly reversible variables) and of disorganized complexity (statistical processes with a large number of frequently irreversible variables) and he stresses the need for a scientific aid for problems which arise out of the indivisible network of incommensurable "hard" and "soft" factors of social, economical and political nature:

´There is a middle region in between where problems show the essential features of organization - problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole.´.

JONAS (1999) describes design (theory) as a dynamic network of "chunks of ideas", with self-similarity of design models on the different levels of the process:

- The article itself consists of chapters which may be connected in whichever way suits the intended message.

- Design problems consist of largely contingent, purpose-oriented networks of variables.

- Design meta-theory is a largely contingent network of theoretical elements, ideologies, preferences.

The meta-theoretical difference system / environment is re-introduced into the system as leading differentiator. Design-problems are treated as system / environment fits throughout. This is a design decision! The concept of organised complexity provides the essential tools for:

(1) Systemic modeling. There are numerous legitimate problem definitions. The boundary inside / outside (the location of design) is a function of design´s competence to intervene. Apparently fixed "real problems" thereby become designed projects.

(2)Projective thinking. The prediction of situations ("solutions") is impossible. Designing is a process of imaginative exploration, negotiating questions such as: ´How do we want to live?´. The concept of teleology is re-entering the sciences (ROSENBLUETH, WIENER). Design is necessarily value-oriented.


Design is everywhere - but not everything

Design cannot be substantiated scientifically. Making does not aim at generalised knowledge, but at the functioning of the made. Design has no paradigmatic core, but is a "groundless discipline". Consequences of such a view are further outlined by JONAS (1999): there is no such thing as "progress", at best an optimum fit; there are no Archimedean points for criticism; and so forth. All this is not a flaw, but the very strength and characteristic nature of design.

A meta-model of science and design has been sketched. Both have a common fluid base: the hybrid. The network morphology provides legitimate feedbacks and self-references in the development of theories, renders the dynamics of theories in design describable with changing attractors (static, cyclical, chaotic). The quasi-objects / artefacts are the agents of knowledge production. This permits us to recognise the sciences as extreme positions in the mediation process.

This is also what constitutes the contradiction with GLANVILLE who claims that science is a limited special case of design. The envisaged viewpoint enables design, free from the "purification compulsion", to abandon the exaggerated reverence for the sciences and to develop its own standards, which do indeed use the sciences. Knowledge acquisition always happens through the disrespectful transgression of scientific rules, through the exploitative appropriation of scientific ideas and their immersion into the hybrid. Design has to be unscientific in order to qualify as design. In this sense it is not modern, because it does not, or rather cannot, participate in the division of spheres.


And the consequences for design education?

Undergraduate education is about design basics. Talking of basics requires reflection regarding the fundamental principles, the basis, of the field. The present approach, presenting a description of this swampy ground, is about design (FRAYLING), contemplating the discipline from a distance. Research for design provides the "small theories" which design employs as aids. Research through / within design is that which happens in the swamp.

If design is a groundless field, consisting of shifting chunks of ideas, there cannot be basics but rather entry-points. Neither a programmatic orientation to, e.g., "history, theory and criticism" (MARGOLIN) nor canonical subject lists (FRIEDMAN 2000) are the panacea. They only ever serve as the ladders which we leave behind us once we break through onto new ground. What we really need, it seems, are non-specific properties: analytical thinking, associative / connective power, synthetic and generative abilities, evaluative competencies, communicative skills of visual & verbal type, etc. This requires a learning environment of: plurality and obstinacy of teachers (reflecting incommensurability), transparency of processes (exposing inconsistencies), alchemical eagerness to experiment (generating connections), anarchical scepticism regarding "eternal truths", etc.

The location of the hybrid is neither the theoretician´s desk, nor the studio or the workshop, but the laboratory (the place of mixing / mediation of theory / practice / methodology), a place which might have to be newly resuscitated. It seems a question of something like painstakingly reconstructing "wild thinking" (LÉVY-STRAUSS).



Archer, Bruce "Design as a Discipline" in Design Studies Vol 1 No 1 1979 pp17-24

Bonsiepe, Gui Interface. Design neu begreifen Bollmann, Mannheim 1996

Dilnot, Clive (1998) "The Science of Uncertainty: The Potential Contribution of Design to Knowledge" in Proceedings of Doctoral Education in Design, Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 1998 pp 65-97

Dilnot, Clive (1999) "How should we conceptualize design such that research into it ou through it can be ´useful & critical´?" in HEL99 pp 1-17

Frayling, Christopher "Research in Art and Design" in Royal College of Art Research Paper #1 1993/4

Friedman, Ken "Theory in Design" in HEL99

Friedman, Ken "Design knowledge: context, content and continuity" in Proceedings of Doctoral Education in Design: Foundations for the Future, La Clusaz, France, July 2000 pp 5-16

Glanville, Ranulph "Why Design Research?" in Design: Science: Method Westbury House, Guildford 1980

Haavisto, Virpi "From Still-Life to Real-Life. Towards Real-Life Critical Questioning in Design Research with Holistic and Humanistic Approach" in HEL99

Haraway, Donna Die Neuerfindung der Natur. Primaten, Cyborgs und Frauen Campus, Frankfurt/M. 1995

HEL 99 useful and critical - the position of research in design International Conference, UIAH Helsinki, Sept. 1999

Jonas, Wolfgang (1994) Design - System - Theorie. Überlegungen zu einem systemtheoretischen Modell von Design-Theorie Die Blaue Eule, Essen 1994

Jonas, Wolfgang (1999) "On the Foundations of a ´Science of the Artificial´" in HEL99

Knorr Cetina, Karin Die Fabrikation von Erkenntnis Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M. 1991 (engl. Original 1981)

Latour, Bruno Wir sind nie modern gewesen. Versuch einer symmetrischen Anthropologie Fischer, Frankfurt/M. 1998 (frz. Original 1991)

Lévy-Strauss, Claude Das Wilde Denken Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M. 1968 (frz. Original 1962)

Margolin, Victor "History, Theory, and Criticism in Doctoral Design Education" in Proceedings of Doctoral Education in Design, Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 1998 pp 197-206

Rosenblueth, Arturo; Wiener, Norbert; Bigelow, Julian "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology" in Philosophy of Science Vol. 10 January 1943 No. 1 pp 18-24

Roxburgh, Mark; Brenner, Craig "The News from Nowhere" in HEL 99

Serres, Michel quoted from Latour:126

Simon, Herbert A. The Sciences of the Artificial MIT Press, Cambridge, Ma., 3rd ed. 1996

Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2nd ed. 1963

Weaver, Warren "Science and Complexity" in American Scientist 36 1948 pp 536-544



Biographical note

Born 1953, study of naval architecture 1971-76, Technical University of Berlin, research on computer-aided optimization of streamlined shapes, PhD in 1983. 1984-87 consulting engineer for companies of the automobile industry and the German standardization institute (DIN). Since 1988 teaching (CAD, industrial design) and research (design and systems theory) at the University of Arts Berlin and at the University of Wuppertal. 1994 lecturing qualification (Habilitation) in design theory. Since 1994 professor for "process design" at the College of Art and Design Halle. Special interest in design "meta-theory", systemic methodology and scenario techniques.