Rhizome as a toolkit for fluid design

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:

Now that I have painted you a picture about  the new-found openness of design and which is reflected in and comes out of the change in how people deal with design in a fluid manner and what place design takes: not a place, but the in-between space,  I like to explore a new perspective of dealing with this new nature of design.

From trees to rhizomes

I hope it is clear by now that our old models of thinking about design, which try to fit in design in small and clear boxes, is not going to cut it in nowadays reality. We’re used to think of design in a representational model of thought, which is often represented by a tree. Tree models are hierarchical, linear and dichotomizing. Each element of a tree has one clear function and place in a specific order, which leaves no possibilities for cross-connections. The tree is thus predicated upon principles of identity, resemblance, analogy and opposition.

treeBut design actually functions more like this:


Design behaves itself more like the roots under the tree, which crawl all over each other in a non-systematic way and are interconnected in unexpectant manners. Asymetric rootsystems like these are called rhizomes.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari use rhizomes to capture the fluid practices of life.

Rhizome is a biological term used to describe an acentric root system like couch grass. A rhizome is a system, or anti-system, without a centre or any central organizing motif in which the individual nodal points are connected to one another in a non-hierarchical manner. A rhizome thus fosters connections between heterogeneous points. The rhizomatic model is therefore a way to view things differently because not only is its approach bottom-up instead of top-down, but more importantly: it moves away from thinking in one fixed identity, to something which is constantly in becoming. ‘This a theory based on movement.


When in 2013 the camera of Dave Hakkens phone broke and  there was no means to fix it, he started thinking about how consumer electronics could be designed in such a way that would make them easier to repair, easy to upgrade. Why is it the case that you have to throw away your whole phone if just one part of it breaks down? By finding a solution to this answer he hoped to make consumer electronics longer lasting by ending planned obsolescence, at the same time as reducing electronic waste. So he designed the idea of the modular phone which exists out of different loose parts which could be replaced separately: Phonebloks. This way he hoped not only to extent the life of the mobile phone by making the replacement of broken parts or parts that are a technological upgrade more easy, but also to create a more intensive emotional connection with your phone, by making it more suitable for everybodies individual needs and wants. My mum could compose a phone with which she just can make a calls and that has an extra big keyboard for texting, my friend who is into making photographs can upgrade her cameralens and I can add a block of extra storage so my phone can serve me to work from where I want.

It’s a great idea I think personally, but what’s even more interesting than the idea itself is how Phonebloks came into being and the place it takes in the design field. When Dave thought of Phonebloks he knew he couldn’t make it himself. But he just didn’t want to let the whole idea go. So he created a little video and put it on youtube. Within the first 24 hour, that video hit more than 1 million views and got a massive press coverage. A month later, there was a campaign launched via Thunderclap, with which over 979,253 supporters send out the message on social media that they support Phonebloks, reaching over 380,000,000 people. With all that attention Dave got offered a job at Google, which was creating a similar product: The Ara, but he turned that down. Instead he now works as a consultant together with Google at the Ara project, but has also partnerships with for instead Sennheiser, a German company that creates headphones, to make first steps in creating a modular solution for all kinds of products: from computers to fridges. And he has set up an online community in which he challenges and calls upon ideas from general public to help with the development of Phonebloks.


The first characteristic of a rhizome is connectivity, often grouped together with heterogeneity. Deleuze and Guattari define this as: ‘any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything and must be […] A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power and circumstances’. What is important here is that the rhizome not only implies a contact, or interdependence, but also a ‘movement between different milieus and registers, between areas that are usually thought of as distinct and discrete’. Where design objects usually are a collaboration between designer, manufacturers, producers and consumers, all parties with very different backgrounds, values and interests, the new element in open design is that these parties are moving from the backstage to the spotlight. The connections are suddenly out in the open.

Phonebloks community

Phonebloks assembles all the different parties working on and interested in a mobile phone and makes them visible to each other. Moreover, it aims to serve as a hub where the parties could meet, talk and  listen to each other. It falls into the trend which the jury of the Dutch Design Awards 2014 interpreted as ‘the role of the designer shifts from ‘formgiver’ to ‘content maker’ to content manager’. Sure, they’re working on a concrete product of the modular phone, but not as designer, but as community manager, consultant, connector.

The way Phonebloks does this can be describes as the second characteristic of the rhizome: heterogeneity. This considers the other end of the relationship or connection that is often overlooked: the relationship with the outside. A rhizomatic design practice might then be best understood ‘as the production and utilisation of alternative or “counter” networks “outside” those of the dominant. Perhaps not all connections of a rhizome will be as equally relevant, or as strategically useful, but it is inevitable and necessary that they get the chance to be made, because it can help develop the rhizome, or design, to another level or in another movement. The connectivity that is leading in open design will not produce harmonious communities, but a constant discussion on what (good) design is and should be.

Phonebloks constantly adopts the role of the outsider: it works together with the biggest parties in developing the technology but at the same time has an a crowdsourcing of ideas from the public and are constantly reporting from behind the scenes.  In placing not only the connections of a product, in this case the mobile phone, at the forefront they are not only creating the possibilities of opening up a conversation, but by adopting the position of the outsider they make sure the heterogenous voices and interests are being fostered and can help each other grow instead of turning into tensions.


Did you know that a normal mobile phone exists out of more than 30 metals, including gold and tin, which a being produced in third world countries under poor working conditions and  of which production results in enormous environmental damage?

So in 2013 Bas van Abel, who is actually not even an designer, but worked as research director at the Waag Society, a Dutch research centre about art, science and technology, decided to start a quest for a more fair phone: the Fair Phone. His research to uncover the production process of a mobile phone, and his proposal for a more fair phone sparked a lot of media attention. The most important thing discussed in the media was the fact if this new phone was really fair and if it really served well as a phone. While these questions might be understandable, it misses the point of the Fair Phone which can be uncovered by using a third characteristic of the rhizome: multiplicity.

Multiplicity, which is the third characteristic of a rhizome, is described as following: ‘It is only when the multiple is effectively created as a substantive, “multiplicity” that is ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object, natural or spiritual reality, image and world [..] A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions’. A multiplicity must be understood without reference to an organizing or classifying referent and has no end, nor beginning or original point.

By considering the Fair Phone as a multiplicity it becomes clear why it’s only one part of the question if it is really 100% fair and if it functions well as a phone. Because it next to the actual product of the Fair Phone, it functions also as a platform, an ongoing process.


When Bas van Abel started the Fair Phone, he started it as a campaign to create awareness about the non-transparent way most production chains work. In his words: ‘If you can’t open it, you can’t own it’. He even had serious doubts about taking a phone as center of his campaign because he the last thing he wanted to do was selling more phones. And, now the phone is actually in production (this year they’re bringing out the second version) Fair Phone still considers itself not as a product but as a philosophy: ‘We strive for economic change and we use technology to accomplish this. Any technology. In 5 years we are still a platform for this philosophy. It’s not about the future of the Fair Phone but about the future of the new type of thinking. And it’s not about creating the most honest phone. ‘Fair is something which can be interpreted differently in different contexts.’ It’s about opening up the supply chain.

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