erste Seite

PARADOX Startseite

Uwe von Loh



by Uwe von Loh (translated by Meike Asbach)


Make a distinction by drawing up a boundary.

Mark off one side of the boundary and call it the marked-off state.

Call the process of crossing the boundary into the marked-off state observation. (1)

Call any subsequent crossing of the boundary reflection. (2)

Recognise the fact that the value of the marked-off state has to be possible in the same place as the unmarked state, by looking at the infinite sequence of observation and reflection. (3) Call all of that which can be described as medium for the transfer of a value from one side of a distinction to another a medium of reflection.

Solve the paradoxical cooperation of two non-equivalent states by using a medium of reflection, in order to transport states from one side of the boundary to the other.(4)

The value of the marked-off state can by all means appear in the same place as the unmarked state, since the state on one side of the boundary can get across to the other side and back through the medium of reflection. Let the use of such a medium take time. The mentioned paradoxical states will now occur chronologically, one after the other.

Call the constant change between observation and reflection, aided by a medium of reflection, a description.


Now let design take on the form of description. In other words, let design be the name for the process of oscillation between observing and reflecting, during which a medium of reflection is used in order to bring that which is being reflected to be observed again, and that which is being observed, to be reflected. Let design be called description.


What are the consequences of this admittedly rather strict definition?

We can first of all interpret it in such a way, that design can be thought of as an autopoietic system (5). Its elements, or better, its elementary events are the movements between observation and reflection. These movements relate to one another in such a way, that they have to presuppose each other. A movement in one direction (observation) is the requirement for the subsequent event, i.e movement in the other direction (reflection). The system itself can thus time and again evoke its own elementary events. A third requirement for autopoietic systems, operational unity, is secured by the boundary defined at the outset. Per definitionem, the system cannot operate outside of its boundaries. It continuously produces and uses the description of itself (6), by stringing together observation and reflection. To interpret design as an autopoietic system as outlined above has consequences:

Design is often associated with a certain usefulness. It is to produce the economic success of a business, to serve the satisfaction of needs, to bring about an improvement or to solve a problem. All of these can be accepted as ojectives of design.

But if these objectives are understood as a system in the way outlined above, they convey nothing about the functioning of design. The attainment of an objective would spell the end of the system. This would mean that the mechanism of description would stop producing subsequent events, and our system would at least no longer be autopoietic. Conversely, we would have to provide reasons for why the system could persist once its objectives have been attained. (7)

In general, design is associated with a certain creative achievement, and there have always been voices critical of such claims. People would talk of creativity in general or specifically. For some, being creative meant to create something new , something of particular excellence. Others maintained, that creativity depends on the creator seeing his product as new. (8) Creativity could be in accordance with rules or break with existing ones. What a lot of these theories have in common, is that they define art or architecture with reference to the phenomenon of creativity. The fact that other human and even animal activities could also be portrayed as creative with reference to the definitions outlined above, should leave us in two minds about such theories. The role of creativity in certain fields of activity such as design, art or architecture is always seen in a context of social values, and it is not a characteristic particular to these fields. Only here creativity is more highly regarded or found to be more important than in other areas. But the fact that creativity is judged differently in other domaines, is not connected with the question of whether it can be observed or not. The banal instruction to define design as description, initially allows us to postpone making a distinction of creativity when we are dealing with the functional processes of design, or rather, it allows us to deal with this distinction as with all other observations: we can pick it out and turn it into a central theme,namely design.

Another hypothesis is called into question due to our precondition.This precondition puts forward that design is communication. What is certain, is that design is only rendered possible through the existence of a large number of systems in its surrounding environment. This environment consitutes the boundary of the system design not only in a spatial sense. In this manner, the social system which is the economy enables a designer ( who in turn constitutes a psychological, social and biological system) to pursue his work (design) to the extent which he (a psychological and social system) deigns useful (social system?). It should also be clear, that distinctions always presuppose communication, in order to attribute values (9), at least, if one takes values to stand for generalised expected expectations whose stability is contingent "upon recursively assuming assumption and a testing of that semantic with which this respectively works or does not work."(10) For design, communication is therefore finished once the first distinction has been made. This enables us to define design as an independent system, for it is a social system. Correspondingly, its elements are not communications. Social systems serve as delimiting environment for design, and this also applies to the semantics and values inherent in these systems.

Things look very differen if we interpret our medium of reflection as a social system. It is indeed the case that communications are linked up here and that we can observe a fully functional social system a la Luhmann. Since our medium is continuously crossing the border, one could even talk of a stringing together of distinctions. Our main differentiation would be observation / reflection. So design can be seen as communication after all ? The answer here is positive, if we agree on a nonlinguistic understanding of the term communication. The above definition does however permit other interpretations; among these, the one seeing the medium of reflection as psychological system would also be of interest. Systems are when we observe them.

We can see that, taking Spencer-Brown's calculus of form as a starting point, it it possible to build up a considerable apparatus of theory, which suitably lends itself to the depiction of a whole variety of different aspects of the descriptive design concept. If design and description are equivalent, then our definition encompasses many more domaines than what used to be associated with the term design. This terminological expansion has the advantage that any design theory which makes use of it will be able to prove its relevance for areas thus far considered uninteresting in this context. Within sociology, psychology, semiotics, information technology, media studies or technology, to name but a few, such a term can be employed for the close examination of the functional aspects of descriptions.

This means that the usefulness of the term design is not limited to the field of design, and that its inflationary use in all areas is more than justified from this point of view.


(1) See Spencer-Brown, Laws of form, p.37, paragraph 1, and his formulation of the "arbitrary term". It is in deed the case that any term may be the content of the distinction, that we may make arbitrary distinctions within the term (differentiaon with the aim of elimination ) or that we may expand the boundary to include other terms. Each time this is done, a new cycle of observation-reflection becomes possible, which is similar to all others. Even if other distinctions are required in order to make a distinction, these can again be treated in the same way as the distinctions preceding or succeeding them. The only important thing is that the old boundaries are not repeatedly crossed, but that new ones are drawn up each time. On the other hand, nothing prevents us from acknowledging the fact that the observed term undergoes changes in the course of being observed.

As soon as we start to call the crossing of the boundary "observation", we have started to interpret Spencer-Brown's calculus. In other words, we bring its elements into line with that " which is to be its interpretation". (Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form, p. 97, paragraph 4 ff.)

(2) If one declares the crossing of a boundary to be observation, then any subsequent crossing of the same boundary is also observation. Instead of referring to this as reflection, one could therefore also call it the observation of observation. Topologically, reflection is perhaps to be understood as a returning ping-pong ball. It goes over the net once when you hit it and a second time, from the other side when your opponent returns it. For our purposes, the matter becomes interesting when the number of crossings of one and the same border is divisible by two. Careful, this metaphor should not be used beyond this point!

(3) See the figure of the infinite echelon in Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form, p.47 ff. For our purposes, this figure can be interpreted in such a way, that the observation of the contents of a reflection is possible without crossing the boundary twice, for the value tunnels through the boundary. Only here can we talk of an observation of a second kind, since what is decisive for the categorisation is not the amount of times which the boundary between observation and reflection has been crossed, but the number of possible values a distinction can have.

(4) So how does a medium of reflection work? Our definition is very simple in this respect. A medium of reflection mediates the value of a distinction to the other side of the boundary. The way to do this shall here be called medium of reflection; Spencer-Brown here often refers to a tunnel. When we talk of a medium of reflection, we are then referring to the possibility which values have to get from one side of the boundary to the other. In this respect, the medium differs from the memory or storage function which is inherent to the process of change due to its temporal aspect. ( Looked at by itself, a medium of reflection can as a matter of course contain these functions, but these are then not characteristic of a medium of reflection as such, but the result of its/an observation of a second kind, which in turn uses such a medium.) Independent from our definition, the term medium of reflection has to be interpreted if it is to be used. On this level of interpretation, we could again be dealing with a memory, a counter or a combination of both. What is decisive when we are dealing with such interpretations, is that a medium of reflection is understood as a possibility to exchange the two states into a single distinction. It is through this aspect and its stability that is distinguishes itself from the concept of sense (in terms of systems theory). If sense is understood to consist of an excess of references to other possibilities of action and experience, i.e. the possibility to make further distinctions, then it is impossible to reduce our medium of reflection to sense, for neither does it refer to further distinctions, apart from itself, nor is it "unstable at the base" (Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 99), but can be interpreted as stable or unstable, as required. In such an interpreted form, our medium of reflection can be used as a rule for processing sensory information or as generalised medium of communication, a fact which is also to justify my mentioning it in this context.

(5) Autopoietic systems are "networks of production of components that recursively, through their own interactions, generate and realize the network that produces them and constitute, in the space in which they exist, the boundaries of the network as components that participate in the realization of the network" . (Maturana 1981, p.21)

(6) For the necessity of such self-descriptions see Luhmann, Social Systems, p.25.

(7) See Luhmann's comments on communication as an autopoietic system: " Communication has no purpose, no intrinsic entelechie. It either takes place or it does not- that is all there is to say about it. In this respect, the theory does not follow from an Aristotelean ductus, but rather from Spinoza's style of theory. It goes without saying, that it is possible to make out purpose-oriented episodes within communication systems, provided that autopoiesis works. Just the same as our consciousness is able to set itself objectives episodically, without this setting of objectives being the objective of the system. Any other understanding would have to provide reasons for why the system persists once its objectives have been attained; otherwise one would have to be far from original and say: death is the point of life." (Luhmann, What is communication?,p. 52)

(8) Also see the field of linguistics and particularly the discussion between Chomsky and H.Parret about creativity in linguistic usage in Chomsky's book Theses on the theory of generative grammar, p. 102f. Note the definition of creativity with reference to the new and the other way round, as well as the "progressive" aftertaste to the new in this constellation.

(9) "There can be no distinction without motive/motif ?, and there can be no motive?, if contents are not seen to have different values." (Spencer-Brown, Lwas of form, p.1)

(10) See Luhmann, What is communication ? p.57.




Chomsky, N. Thesen zur Theorie der generativen Grammatik. Mit einem Interview von Herman Parret. 2.Auflage, Weinheim: Beltz Athenäum Verlag, 1995.

Jonas, W. Design-System-Theorie, Überlegungen zu einem systemtheoretischen Modell von Design-Theorie. Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1994

Luhmann, N. Was ist Kommunikation? S.41-63 in Gente, Paris, Weinmann (Hrg.) Niklas Luhmann Short Cuts. 2.Auflage, Frankfurt am Main, Zweitausendeins, 2001

Luhmann, N. Soziale Systeme: Grundriss einer allgemeinenTheorie. 7.Auflage, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999

Maturana, H. Autopoiesis. S.21-30 in Zeleny, M. (Hrg.) Autopoiesis: A Theory of Living Organization. New York, North Holland, 1981

Spencer-Brown, G. Gesetze der Form. 2.Auflage, Lübeck: Bohmeier Verlag, 1999



About the author

Uwe von Loh was born in Arnstadt in 1968. Childhood and youth were spent in Falkensee, Arnstadt, Warsaw, Erfurt (where he did the Abitur), Zittau (military service), Dresden (where he read solid state electronics), Halle and London (degree in industrial design.) He has been studying for a PhD in Weimar since 1999. As secondary occupation, he has also worked as a freelance designer in a number of towns since 1998, he has been employed as an information architect and conceptual artist, as well as managing his own furniture distribution business. He has a daughter and is currently interested in Japanese wood composites and house building.