I try to find back some inspiration and rhythm for writing during this summer break, as I’m reaching the end of a trip to southern France with my spouse and kids. Before the trip, I had several things in mind that I left aside and had time to digest while visiting some historical and traditional Mediterranean cities & villages, under unprecedented (but certainly not the last) heat waves, even for a region used to high temperatures during summer. Anyways, the kids are in the swimming pool and here I am writing these lines.
Design & Philosophy
As said, I had several things in mind and in action before the trip. First, we were (and still are) discussing the marriage between design and philosophy with the Design & Critical Thinking community through a series of online group discussions. As we developed so far, design and philosophy relate in many ways but have been somehow dissociated from one another. Something we didn’t really do with the community is understanding why.
One reason that comes to mind is the necessary (although not limited) utility of design has been pushed to its paroxysm to serve other motives (industrialisation, urbanisation, digitalisation, etc.), slowly eroding the obviousness of certain connections with certain fields (philosophy, arts) and reinforcing those of others (business, engineering, tech), following the natural mutation of the design disciplines. I’m sure it happened several times and to different degrees, each time with unforeseeable fractal effects. Nonetheless, the connections are still here for those willing to unbury & revive them.
What’s interesting to me is that all the possible connections are there (and most likely always been) but their disposition and what they allow totally dependent on our ever-evolving contexts. What philosophy can do to design (and vice-versa) today is not what was, and is certainly not a linear progression from what has been. In other words, it’s not a dead body we are trying to reanimate.
Furthermore, doing so helps us move beyond the “design ethics” dead-end that design seems stuck in for a while now. First, and it is important to say, philosophy is not only about ethics, and when it is, surely not the kind of ethics we have been reduced to discussing in design. And second, I argue that deontological principles are of little-to-no use when dealing with novel situations, and ethical frameworks that prerequisite an “explicitation” of everything (that is: goals, intents, outcomes, social contract, first-second-third order consequences) by necessity or virtue in order to act are misleading & unhelpful at best and harmful for design at worse (yes, you hear me well). Uncertainty & ambiguity cannot be tamed through plain ignorance or even more control, but rather through balance and acknowledgement of the limits of what we are truly in control of. Design is as much in doing as it is in thinking; there is no paradox nor “essential dualism” here, but rather praxis.
Similarly, I’d argue that thinking and discussing the praxis of design is an act of philosophy in itself. Beyond the crude (and rather uninteresting) superficialities discussed in the field (i.e. so-called “trend”), it is a regenerative process of collective understanding and sharing, of re-enactment and re-appropriation, a process of renewed meaning-creation. Regenerative because it allows a local increase of diversity (minds, thoughts, practices, contexts, etc.), something needed in some spaces saturated and (sometimes) suffocating under the same, limited, reduced-yet-overly-generalised and thus unavoidable ideas, tools, and topics.
Perhaps, design is to philosophy what experimental philosophy is to traditional philosophy? Empirical in nature, gravitating around action?
Anyways, the focus of our next discussion will be on “decision-making” and “enacting the world” as designers, and the relationship between the context, the objects (physical, virtual, social) we design, and our actions. So please, join us:
I first encountered both concepts (with a special focus on Francisco J. Varela's related work on organisms’ autonomy) back in 2015, without really understanding at that time how a shift this is from traditional cognitive sciences. It basically challenges the idea that the brain is the central and unique place of cognition, but rather posits that cognition emerges from the interaction between an organism and its environment, in a co-evolutionary, mutually reciprocal relationship. The affordance of the environment enables certain actions that the organism (i.e. humans) perceive and can act upon, thus changing the environment in return.