the basic PARADOX

- foundations for a groundless discipline




From platonic geometries to organised complexity

Design is a network of chunks of ideas and activity patterns in the interface region between the contextual and the artefactual (my definition following Herbert SIMON, see (1)). In this region these elements are floating, combining and re-combining, separating again, establishing temporarily stable patterns and thus permanently aiming at creating the fit between the contextual and the artefactual. In this process strange attractors are produced: fashions, styles, ideologies, "paradigms", "schools", etc.

Only if we accept this as the meta-level of theory building in design and leave the crystalline constructs of ideas, will we be able to overcome the fruitless struggles for the "true" theory of design. We will be able to appreciate the many small theories and methods and chunks of ideas as a growing archive, as a toolbox; also as a ruin scenery whose remnants we can recycle again and again and re-establish into fits in the interface. What will remain from the glorious palaces of ideas with their claim for eternal validity are flexible camps, networks of ideas.

Is this frightening? Only if we experience complexity and contingency as threatening and are still looking for the true and the Good and the Beautiful. And are these rigid certainties not one big yawn?

No foundations: Design as the groundless ground of design

One consequence from this view is groundlessness. Networks do not have foundations; let's make this explicit, too. Bruno LATOUR (see. (2)) describes the field of the hybrid as the hidden place of fact production in the sciences. The hybrid is the location of the rapid propagation of the so-called quasi-objects, mixtures of the material and the human, social and cultural.

Design has always been acting in this field of the hybrid. The parallelism of fact production in the sciences and artefact production in design is striking. Design objects are quasi-objects par excellence.

What makes the fundamental difference between design and the sciences, however, is the following purification process in the sciences, which cuts all links to the context, to the social and biographical conditions. Which fades out the hybrid swamp of production in order to re-construct the relations to the eternal rules and axiomatic foundations of the sciences. The sciences have this swamp as a kind of buffer, as non-transparent basis, as the actual ground. Its facts are designed and produced in the laboratory, but this laboratory does not become visible. The soiling is covered up, cut off, declared as irrelevant. Only the shining surface of the purified, universal truths becomes visible ... though, even in the sciences, more and more hybrid artefacts are gaining significance. The hole in the ozone layer, the Internet, even cars are incomprehensible as purely techno-scientific phenomena.

The sciences construct the universal, the global, the decontextualised, and the eternal. Design creates the exemplary, the local, the contextual, and the temporal.

Design abstains necessarily, and mostly quite uninhibited, from the purification work and remains in the hybrid. But, as mentioned already: this swamp of the hybrid has no ground. We are our own groundless ground. What remain are flexible patterns, imbedded in feedback-processes, appearing temporarily stable, with more or less inviting entry-points.

We are part of the swamp from which we have to pull ourselves if we want to have foundations. The Münchhausen trilemma" with its uncomfortable choice between infinite regress, circularity or dogmatic stipulations is the usual condition in design. We are the alchemists in the pre-modern laboratory, and underneath that is nothing except perhaps some so-called anthropological constants, which, themselves, become more and more variable, i.e. designed.

Perhaps we should stop complaining about the non-scientific character of design. We are different from the others. Our discipline is the basis of every productive, outward-oriented human activity, even the basis of scientific fact production.


Designing is the basis of the human involvement with its artificial environment. Both design thinking and designing set up the fertile hybrid swamp, where the new is created through the association and synthesis of the incompatible which will succeed and survive or otherwise disappear again.

Designing is the basis. And a basis has no basis. Design is its own basis. A paradox situation is showing up. Design remains in the locality of the hybrid.

Nevertheless: Everybody is talking of the foundations of design. Be it regarding its acceptance in the academic context, regarding the professional basis, or regarding educational practice. Are these foundations existing? How do they look like?


We ask for contributions regarding these questions, from different perspectives: philosophical, epistemological, scientific, theoretical, professional, practical, technical, didactic, ... and in various attitudes: provocative, radical, extremist, polemic, polarising, timeless, universal, serious, stylish, futuristic, programmatic, ...

For inspiration see for example Wolfgang Jonas:

(1) On the Foundations of a "Science of the Artificial"

(2) The paradox endeavour to design a foundation for a groundless field