DESIGN AS NETWORK OF IDENTITIES
By Artemis Yagou
In this paper, I will discuss some properties of the design field that underpin its validity as a general model of praxis, as a possible organizing concept for life itself. More specifically, I will argue that certain properties of design may support contemporary ways of living based on plurality and the concept of multiple identities.
In his call for this book project, Jonas presents himself in the paradoxical endeavour to design foundations for a groundless field, to discover the foundations for design. In my contribution to the project, I will begin by temporarily reversing the question and ask instead "What can be founded on design itself?" According to Simon, "everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones."(15) Given this definition, design may be considered as the original constructive human activity.(6) Many researchers have applied this idea to specific contexts, such as the professional and the educational. In their study of professional attitudes, Boutin and Davis speak about designers as specialists of a creative generalist approach, which enables design to become a new and attractive professional model. (2) Furthermore, design is considered to be appropriate as a model for education in general.(17) Buchanan proposes design as a liberal art of contemporary culture, as it "provides a powerful connective link with many bodies of knowledge" as well as "integrates knowledge from many other disciplines and makes that knowledge effective in practical life".(3) Another supporter of the idea claims that "design is at an intellectual crossroads where anthropology meets communication studies, art meets marketing, and cognitive psychology meets business. It is in the position to become an integrative educational field, a liberal art for the next century."(16)
Beyond such applications, design's properties are conducive to a more generalized approach. But what are the relevant properties of design? Simon describes design as a kind of mental window-shopping, and emphasizes the explorative potential of design, with its possibilities to develop projections and strategies for dealing with uncertainty (quoted in (7)). Considering life as the ultimate uncertainty, design appears to be more than a professional or educational asset. This is a world of extreme complexity and anxiety -it has always been like that- where individuals are in search for effective strategies to deal with complex, fast changing, unpredictable futures. Simon's concise description suggests the applicability of design in dealing with real life problems, where uncertainty is a key element.
Dilnot claims that design praxis, which is orientated essentially to possibility, puts into being a different way of comprehending the world. "In design, we begin to see the processes whereby the limits of the Actual are continually formed and re-formed."(4) He then goes on to quote Bauman about design being akin to culture, which "admits a multiplicity of realities" and about the importance of the task "to escape from the straightjacket of the empirically existing and narrow range of the predictions-into the total range of the socially possible".(4) Following this, we may imagine ourselves diving deep into experience and re-emerging to the surface more open-minded, more able to make connections, to relate and be related actively and intensely. This of course implies rejection of ultimate answers or solutions of eternal validity. Thus, we could be designing our own mesh of identities, a continuously evolving and developing network of personas in which we present ourselves to others. We abolish the suffocating utopia of a specific, stable, definitive self that we carry along as our life proceeds. We are continuously redesigning our own selves, to sustain multiple identities reflecting our different ways of being within different communities at different times. Life therefore becomes a design problem, fuelled by the "permanent necessity of self-representation and (re-)construction of one's identity".(8) The mesh is continuously evolving, expanding one's own potential and linking all the elements in a meaningful whole.
The metaphor of the party host, who "remembers everyone and graciously facilitates the very conversations that guests hope to engage in"(12), is a compelling concept for the needs of the communication society and might also prove useful in the context discussed here. By stretching the party host metaphor to its limits, we might imagine each one of us as a host, establishing and cultivating links between ourselves and other people in various circumstances. This implies a dialogue between our various personas with those of others, as well as among our own multiple identities. Furthermore, it entails not only different identities, as we ourselves perceive them, but also different interpretations of our identities by others, leading to a "second-order understanding"(12) of what our identities "mean". Thus, people may continuously re-design their own understanding of themselves and of others within distributed, interactive networks of communication. Such a process defies the currently popular and powerful fragmentation of life into lifestyles or of knowledge into disciplines. This is particularly important, as "many of us have been unhappy about the fragmentation of our society into two cultures. Some of us even think there are not just two cultures but a large number of cultures."(15) Setting up a network of identities may contribute to fighting the prevailing departmentalization of actions and people, and reduce isolation on a personal level.
The structure I have described is developing in a continuous process, without predetermined or ultimate goal. The structure is created and sustained by the existence of an unlimited number of pointers, providing connections to the past, present and future of discarded, existing and yet-to-be-revealed identities. These pointers might be events, ideas, feelings, memories, illusions, hopes, and fears, all building up an heterogeneous repertory of innumerable entry points to the process of designing our own lives. They might also be "archives of things, objects, styles, protagonists and theories", "case-studies", "design anecdotes", "testimonies to temporary fits between artifacts and contexts", which contribute to the creation of our personal "construction kit".(7) Here lies the significance of "unlearning".(10) Jones stresses the importance of "means of unlearning, publicly, with changing, not fixed self-images" (quoted in (9)). The process involves life-long learning of how to unlearn, especially how to unlearn each other and our stereotypes and misconceptions about each other, so that we can look again with fresh vision and, hopefully, begin to see. Unexpected readings and new interpretations are essential ingredients of this process, which involves a strong element of surprise. Surprise presupposes originality, which is desirable in academic research and might as well be in life situations, as it usually produces intellectual or emotional reward. Admittedly, the process described entails hard work and has no end. It also generates more complexity and places higher demands, all the more threatening to narrow minds and fearful souls. Furthermore, it implies educating each other to the process of making fresh starts in thinking, mutual understanding and communication. There seems to be an opportunity and a promising foundation for building solid communities.
In this sense, design as a way to generate a plethora of objects becomes a misunderstanding. The process of design as a network of identities is compatible with the claims that design doesn't deal with the geometry of objects but with meaning as an integrating medium in complex systems. Therefore, the design product is no longer tangible, but a process of intervention into social systems.(14) If design is "foremost conceptual and creative of future conditions",(13) then it becomes possible to "imagine our lives".(1) The kinds of imagination needed here are "anti-gadget".(1) Design is no longer related to material manifestations but it becomes a way of life, a socially embedded process of discovery.(1) Furthermore, it is no longer limited to professionals.(11) We become the designers of our own lives, taking over the job of what was done in the past "by poets, and intellectuals, and propagandists. And by social movements."(1) We participate in shaping our own future, a task assigned to "poets, science-fiction writers, and dreamers."(11) Couldn't we all, anyone of us, assume these roles in our lives? Couldn't we thus become "our own groundless ground"?(5)
Returning to the original quest for design foundations, where does all this leave the discipline of design? Does it point to the direction of a non-discipline? Is attempting to adapt design to the existing disciplinary structures wrong, futile, or simply not yet successful? Does design have to "resist being disciplined"?(11) Does design reflect a different conception of the world, an alternative paradigm that remains to be properly articulated? The example of design as network of identities suggests that design is embedded into life itself. It is reasonable to claim that perhaps design doesn't need to look for its foundations, as they do exist in everyday praxis and experience. In order to achieve the realization of design as networks of personas, it is necessary for design to open up, to ignore disciplinary barriers and borrowed paradigms. The suggested differentiation of design as "future studies", "management of meaning", "strategic design", "product design", "service design", etc.,(8) might be regarded as a manifestation of the concept of multiple identities, as an array of different personas of the design discipline itself. Design as network of identities, with its professional, academic, and educational implications, is an open bet for the near future, a promising path for the creation of complex, evolving, and rewarding communities.
Links functional on 31/8/2001
1. Agre, Philip, Notes on the new design space, http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/design-space.html.
2. Boutin, Anne Marie, and Davis, Liz. New professional attitudes: Leadership through design?", On design leadership, University of Industrial Arts Helsinki, UIAH, 1992, 45-54.
3. Buchanan, Richard, Education and professional practice in design, Design Issues, vol 14, no 2, Summer 1998, 63-66.
4. Dilnot, Clive, The Science of Uncertainty: The potential contribution of design to knowledge, Doctoral Education in Design 1998, Proceedings of the Ohio Conference, 65-97.
5. Jonas, Wolfgang (2001), The basic paradox (project exposé), e-mail communication, 4/5/01.
6. Jonas, Wolfgang (2000a), The paradox endeavour to design a foundation for a groundless field, http://home.snafu.de/jonasw/JONAS4-54.html.
7. Jonas, Wolfgang (2000b), Design: the swampy foundation of our conception of man, nature and the natural sciences (draft paper, personal communication).
8. Jonas, Wolfgang, Hohmann Peter, and Reimspieß, Peter (1999), Education meets business - the scenario concept as a link between "two cultures", in Proceedings of Design Cultures, the European Academy of Design, Sheffield, UK, 30 March - 1 April 1999.
9. Jonas, Wolfgang (1997), Viable structures and generative tools-an approach towards "designing designing", http://www.svid.se/ead/ead-Jonas.htm.
10. Jonas, Wolfgang (1994), Design, ethics and systems thinking-Reflections on design in the 90s, in: Design-Pleasure or responsibility?, Tahkokallio, P. and Vihma, S., University of Industrial Arts Helsinki UIAH, 1994, 42-53.
11. Krippendorff, Klaus (2000), Propositions of human-centeredness: A philosophy for design, in: Foundations for the future-Doctoral education in design, Conference Proceedings, 8-12 July, La Clusaz, France, Staffordshire University Press, 55-63.
12. Krippendorff, Klaus (1997), Human-centeredness: A paradigm shift invoked by the emerging cyberspaces, http://www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/krippendorff/CENTEREDNESS.html
13. Krippendorff, Klaus (1994), Redesigning design: An invitation to a responsible future, in: Design-Pleasure or responsibility?, Tahkokallio, P. and Vihma, S., University of Industrial Arts Helsinki UIAH, 1994, 138-162.
14. Krippendorff, Klaus (1992), Transcending semiotics, in: Objects and images, Vihma, S. (ed.), University of Industrial Arts Helsinki UIAH, 24-47.
15. Simon, Herbert, The sciences of the artificial, MIT Press, 1996.
16. Swannson, Gunnar, Is design important?, Re-inventing design education in the university, (pre-conference paper), http://design.curtin.edu/DesEd2000/preconference04.html.
17. Yagou, Artemis, Design: An educational tool for the turn of the millennium, in: Design, Industry and Turkey, Proceedings of international design symposium, Ankara, Turkey, 10-12 October, 1994, 209-216.
Artemis Yagou was born in 1965 in Athens, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She studied Electrical Engineering and Industrial Design in Athens and London, and obtained a PhD from the Department of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens. She has been employed in the private sector and in education. Currently, she teaches design at the University of Thessaly, Department of Architecture, city of Volos, as well as at akto, a private art and design college based in Athens.