Openness as paradigm shift in society

This blog is part of the keynote talk ‘Inside out/outside in: design as open’ I gave at the Spaces of Learning conference, April 18th in Toronto about how the nature of nowadays design has become fundamentally ‘open’ in nature and what impact this has about we deal with design. 

This talk is divided in 4 seperate blog posts:

Openness as philosophical position to deal with liquid society

John Thackara wrote ‘Openness is more than a commercial and cultural issue, it’s a matter of survival’. His statement indicates that openness is more than some economic model or way in which a culture deals with its surroundings: it is a state of mind which is vital for dealing with current circumstances.

Those current circumstances are all about change. Transformation and change are keywords in postmodern society. This change is reflected in all aspects of life: work conditions, family structures, living conditions, relationships, social boundaries and  identity. Contemporary society is characterized by a weakening of collective regulatory institutions like the church or the family, and the greater autonomy of the individual against the group. Philosopher Rosi Braidotti thus states that ‘unless one likes complexity, one cannot feel at home in the twenty-first century. The immensely popular theory about ‘anti-fragility’ of philosopher Nicolas Taleb is even about how to thrive on the chaos and fluidity that marks our existence.

Dasein as design

Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls this phenomenon ‘liquid modernity’. This ‘liquefaction’ of social conditions in postmodern society has enormous influence on the way people construct identity. Since the disappearance through of institutions and ideologies which were dominant in shaping identity, identities can no longer be understood as a given. Identity has thus become something that is a fragmented, flexible structure, without a solid core. Identity as such has become something that has to be constructed and the possibilities for such a construction are now in the hands of the individual. And how do we act out our identity? Through consumption. Through the acquiring of cultural capital in design products one creates an identity, and thus a sense of belonging.

The German sociologist Norbert Elias therefore suggests that although in Western society we are accustomed to the vision of a self as a closed territory, a homo clausus, that contemporary identity is constructed in relationships with others, whether they are subjects or (design) objects. We are not autonomous closed subjects anymore, but we are a being-in-the-world. Henk Oosterling argues: ‘Our dasein has become design’.

Henk Oosterling argues: ‘Our dasein has become design’ (Oosterling, 2010, 123). We are not autonomous closed subjects anymore, but we are a being-in-the-world, as Heidegger puts it, from whom this vision of dasein originates. Heidegger created a new terminology to distance himself from the traditional notion of the subject, which images oneself as separate from the world and in doing so creates three categories: Ego, Being and Non-being. In eliminating the third category and merging it with Being, Heidegger changes the existential question ‘who am I?’ to ‘How is my Being in relationship with the world?’Of course while it is nothing new that the creating of identity is associated with design, the development of open design with the increasing need for changeability in identity construction ensures an interesting shift in how we experience identity. Identity has changed from an internal authentic, transcendental thing to an external product that has to be designed. There is a shift from the ‘intra’ (the inwardness, consciousness and autonomy) to the ‘inter’ or, in Henk Oosterlings words, from ‘esse’ to ‘inter-esse’.

Design as performance

Not only our dasein has become a performance, something which needs be acted out, but also design itself has become a performance. The  Dutch design philosopher Henk Oosterling and American design curator Andrew Blauvelt describe this as a shift ‘from form, via content to context, or from syntax via semantics to pragmatics’. From: ‘How does it look?’ via ‘What does it mean to me?’ to ‘How does it work between us?’

Design as form

Both Oosterling and Blauvelt distinguish three phases in the brief history of modern design. The first phase, born in the early twentieth century, was ‘a search for a language of form, a visual syntax that could be learned and thus disseminated rationally and potentially universally’. Designers gave directions on how to make things that were good for the masses, and the belief was that the masses needed to be educated. Blauvelt humorously states that this phase is characterized by ‘a lot of “isms” like Suprematism, Futurism, Constructivism or de Stijl’. Movements that ‘had a formal design language which was believed to be able to transcend cultural and social differences’

Dieter Rams - Braun

Dieter Rams – Braun

Design as context

The second phase both Blauvelt and Oosterling situate between the 1960s and 1990s. In this period, there was an emancipation of the masses. Reindustrialization led to market segmentation, so the masses had more choice in their consumption patterns. As a result, designers started to follow their preferences: design became user-centred. Central in this phase is therefore the focus on design’s ‘meaning-making potential, it’s symbolic value, its semantic dimension and narrative potential’. By linking itself to the visual language of mass media, ‘design became a story’..The emphasis was therefore not as much on creating new forms, as on adding content. Design products became a status object, as they contained symbolic capital and did not per se have to be functional anymore. Although the design products created in this period generated much discussion on true meaning, Blauvelt stresses that ‘in the end though, meaning was still a “gift” presented by designers-as-authors to their audiences’ . In this phase design is clearly still a top-down process.

Alessi tea kettle– Michael Graves

Alessi tea kettle– Michael Graves

Design as context

Design’s third phase appeared in the mid-1990s. Where design was long thought of as a representation – a sign that belongs to a hierarchical and logical order to form semantic constructions and express relations through which it maintained a place in the world and people would interact with it – this image no longer matches the new type of design that emerged in the mid-1990s. Tightly linked to the immense speed of evolving digital technologies, it is in this phase that ‘interactivity, as an exchange between designers and users became an issue’. Design here thus transforms into something that is process-oriented, open-ended and ultimately participatory. This  new phase is preoccupied with design’s effects – extending beyond the design object and even its connotations and cultural symbolism. It is a change in design paradigm which Blauvelt very strikingly describes as ‘ripples on a pond, from the formal logic of the designed object, to the symbolic or cultural logic of the meanings such forms evoke, and finally to the programmatic logic of both design’s production and the sites of its consumption – the messy reality of its ultimate context’.

Where can we find design? In relations, in the ‘in-between’

So, the role of design has changed from product to performance, something that needs to be acted out. And for that reason, design has become something that goes beyond the traditional notions of the object or the subject. The fixed identity of a design object has become dismantled to a design process; the fixed identity of the consumer has become fluid too and can therefore also be described as a process. So, if design is not a product or a tool and it is not something which can be clearly linked to a fixed subject  anymore, then where can we find design?

Not in an ‘in’ but an ‘in-between’, in the space between individuals. To understand this point one needs to make a move from Western-oriented philosophy and culture to the East. In the West space is considered as a void between subjects and objects, as empty. Eastern societies like Japan have a very different concept of space, or as they call it: Ma. Ma is considered as a dynamic space in which interactions between subjects and objects take shape. To the Japanese, Ma is the complex network of relationships between people and objects and so is a ‘continuous flow, alive with interactions’. The Canadian philosopher Derrick de Kerckhove used the concept of Ma  to describe the future of design:’New technologies should become the object of design, rather than being at the source of design. Design will find more rewarding fields in exploring and creating patterns of interfacing than in the production of objects’.


By placing design in the space between people you could say that design has become relational.  Design, because of its functional intentions, has always had a relational dimension. There was always a relationship between the design object and its user in the effects it generated.

Blauvelt thus states in his manifesto for relational design that it is moving away from the idealized concept of use toward the complex reality of behaviour: ‘Relational design aims for usability, but not in the sense of some predescribed functionality (the modernistic form follows function) nor a functionality as symbolised in consumer rituals in product semantics. Rather, design has moved to the realm of actual behaviour, misuse and unintended consequences – form follows failure’ From Blauvelt’s statement it can be deduced that not only the relationship with the audience undergoes a real transformation in a relational approach to art or design, the nature of the relationship is also very different from the idealized linear, logical and predictable version through which designing as representation happened. As Blauvelt states: ‘what is different about this phase of design is the primary role that has been given to areas that once seemed beyond the purview of design’s form and content equation’

Design as quantums

Paola Antonelli, the famous design and architecture curator of the MoMa museum in New York underwrites this new dynamic vision of design with her talk at the South by South West festival last March. Design today, Antonelli said, is about asking new questions and framing new problems, instead of the problem-solving of designers of past generations.’Design used to be about solving problems, today designers carefully observe and discover underlying problems and patterns in society. Designers are exploring the opportunity in crossovers, for example as Antonelli presented: crossovers between design, technology and science.

This is a fundamental change in design. Antonelli branded it as design and society in general are in the midst of a transformation from the static to the dynamic. She stated that design to moving to a quantum culture, which which she means that design is finding place in the space ‘in between’. And that ‘in between’ is ‘quirky and unpredictable, ambivalent and ambiguous, ultimately combining completely different components to yield something beautiful and new.’What’s important to us in design today is that multiple realities can happen at the same time”.

Design ultimately now can be found in wicked problems, states the Dutch research project Social design for Wicked Problems. As wicked problems they describe problems with many external factors and stakeholders, with no obvious owners of the problems and where new factors and stakeholders constantly come into play. Thus, these problems cannot be solved bit by bit as traditional problems. The problem of obesity is for example a wicked problem, with health being connected to a social and cultural background, diet to income and education to parenting.

Wicked problem

So, Antonelli believes that design today should be flexible and responsive. Design must embrace ambivalence and ambiguity rather than simply following instructions. She compares design to the extreme urban gymantics sport of parkour, in which you use existing space and objects in new ways: ‘Design should use what is at hand in different ways.’

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