Design and Science

Can design advance science, and can science advance design?


Director, MIT Media Lab


PubPub Community Manager


Iterative Forms
George Murray
While I read this piece, my attention kept flitting back to a memory from my training at a small subsidiary of Chung Eun Kim's Taekwondo Academy. One of the high-ranking students taught me the first series of movements I was to learn, and she informed me, "the most basic forms are the most important." As a white belt jealously watching the graceful acrobatics of advanced forms, I would never have believed that my simple routine; look left, turn left and block, step forward and punch, repeat, was the kernel from which grew a cycle of iterative improvements. Iterative improvements that improved their iterator. Though these words are a restatement of your ideas under the guise of metaphor, I imagine the emerging interconnection of design and science as something like a form. - Observe reality.- Understand the systems of components at play. Acknowledge the downstream effects of your involvement. - Deploy for calculated impact. - Improve and repeat. Perhaps with minor modifications, it would seem a practice that an individual or an institution can participate in.
Can design be considered as an unconventional action oriented scientific attitude?
JoseAntonio Vanderhorst-Silverio
This is a space about what google resulted from my action oriented scientific attitude search. All 7 hits that I can see are mine. That emerged from applications based on my interpretation of the Spanish original version of the book Pragmatism and Management Inquiry: Insights from the Thought of Charles S. Peirce by Juan Fontrodona:In that link we can read that: “Good managers do not simply get things done-they do the right things. They are ethical. Through an examination of the work of Charles S. Peirce, the American philosopher who coined the term pragmatism in 1872, Fontrodona emerges with important clarifications, as well as an innovative view of human action and the practice of management. Pragmatism, often misunderstood as a triumph of pure effectiveness, is actually a process by which people, through action, reveal and develop themselves using virtue and value. In Part I, Fontrodona considers human action not only from the viewpoint of its effectiveness, but also from its purposefulness. In Part II, the study turns to Peirce's thought about the nature of science, which shows us that while management is eminently practical, it is also based on a scientific approach. Part III presents three principles for human action drawn from the three normative sciences: creativity based on logic; community based on ethics; and character based on aesthetics. Finally, Fontrodona questions the presence of these principles in the commonly accepted, current models of management.”
non-elephant animals?
Jo Bailey
A potentially stupid question, but this has been bugging me and I can’t quite get my head around it. When I first read the sentence about non-elephant animals, it somehow transliterated in my mind as non-animal elephants, which sort of made sense; antidisciplinary = crazy out there shit between the cracks. Then I reread it and though, huh? Surely non-elephant animals are the bulk of the zoological world (i.e. not particularly inbetweeny, or extraordinary, or revolutionary). So I had a bit of a dig. The original quote is: "Using a term like nonlinear science is like referring to the bulk of zoology as the study of non-elephant animals" which still went over my head. The best layman’s explanation I found came from the March 1987 edition of Popular Science and read:‘Linear behavior is one in which a given input produces a directly proportionate output: Push twice as hard on an object and you accelerate it twice as much. But very few phenomena in the real world are linear. In fact, it is peculiar to call everything else nonlinear. As the late mathematician Stanislaw Ulam once said, “This is like referring to the class of animals that are not elephants as non-elephants”‘.So in other words, correct me if I’m wrong, but Ulam’s point was ‘nonlinear behaviour’ (or science) isn’t that appropriate as a term if it means ‘everything outside a very specific phenomena’. I’m interested to know, how does the analogy work for antidisciplinary research (if it doesn’t for nonlinear science)? Or was the point that antidisciplinary research is more akin to nonlinear science: it’s a complex and chaotic combination of factors? Probably a naive question, but perhaps there’s a simple answer to a missed point on my part :-)
Wille-Meike Brand
Discussion on May 23, 2016
joanna boehnert
Design theory needs to distinguish between life-sustaining and life-destroying entanglements. The natural and the artificial are distinct from one another as one is the context of the other. This coalescing of the natural and the artificial is not a benign claim.
Discussion on Apr 15, 2016
Raman Agrawalla
Antidisciplinary seems to be more profound than other concepts, including 'transdidciplinary'; i feel. Dr. Raman Agrawalla
Discussion on Mar 22, 2016
Alex Cheek
Joi, do you have a way of describing what it would mean to advance design? Not being a scientist, science seems to have a telos of expansion of knowledge towards the elusive theory of everything. Design lacks that clear trajectory, and without it, advancement is trickier to define. Herb Simon's definition of design, is my best way into that question, ( Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. From this perspective, advancing design could be about better devised "courses of action," more "preferred situations," or both! The rest of the quote, from the same opening paragraph of The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial, unpacks this definition and takes us deeper: Design so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from sciences. Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design. With this in mind, we might think of advancing design as advancing "the professions" to develop better "courses of action," leading to more "preferred situations." This feels suitably antidisciplinary and participatory. As a service designer in a financial services organisation, this feels very familiar as I am constantly encouraging professionals like actuaries, lawyers, investment experts and bankers to consider the whole situation they are influencing and to strive to change them for the better.
Discussion on Mar 20, 2016
Adam Fulford
"As participant designers, we focus on changing ourselves and the way we do things in order to change the world." I've found that Kanji characters, as used in Japan, are helpful for organising thought in this area. The only time available for action is "now". One thing we do "now" can be illustrated using three simple characters: tree (木), eye (目) and heart (心). A tree is anything observable. The mind's eye scrutinises the tree for evidence of value. The heart responds to a perception of value in the observed object. An urge (想) is created. This is the "being" layer of behaviour. Movement in the direction of perceived value creates a path (道: "head in motion"). Generally, we want to get where we're going quickly and effortlessly. That would be "good". Tools and guidance can help. So, using the "being" mechanism, we also seek out "good" tools (道具: path items) and guidance (道徳: path merits; morality). This is the "doing" layer of behaviour. Note that "good" is defined solely in terms of the urge we are trying to satisfy. One quintessential human tool, and the quintessential medium for guidance, is language. In the process of language acquisition, in special circumstances in which shared attention is a crucial precondition, the heart moves in the direction of sound (音) to create meaning (意: sound + heart). Then the heart moves in the direction of meaning to create memory (憶: meaning + heart). This is the "knowing" layer of behaviour. Note that no guidance is possible without reference to shared memory. The three layers of behaviour influence each other and the heart is often a downright nuisance, but this framework may serve as a "good tool" for those striving to design a "better" world, one in which (in terms of "being") we seek "good guidance" by harnessing the power of "a mind for the other", an idea that is deeply ingrained in traditional Japanese culture. In fact, the more skilfully we apply "a mind for the other", the closer we will get to an objective perception of value, the better will be our selection of objectives, tools and guidance, and the smoother will be our movement towards a "better" future. If you perceive any value at all in the "tree" outlined above, you may find yourself moving in the direction of viewing a recent PechaKucha presentation that I made, where one of the objectively "bad" features was the loudness of my voice:
Discussion on Mar 16, 2016
Franz Bruckhoff
The concept of antidisciplinary space is fascinating. It allows us to think the unthinkable and achieve the impossible. I often think of it as the process of "collecting and connecting the dots", which involves walking and exploring the white space.
Discussion on Mar 14, 2016
Paul T. Kidd
This is similar to how I perceived the way disciplinary knowledge is organised with vast open and unexplored prairies lying between the disciplinary settlements. Back in the mid 80s I wanted to pursue my academic career by exploring these ‘spaces between spaces’ as I now call them. This was not possible so I left academia and pursued the matter through other means, only then, I encountered a cognitive bias that goes along the lines "free people (academics) think, slaves (people who are not academics) work." Only it seems very much to me that the free people have stopped thinking because they have become institutionalised, while the slaves are now doing the thinking. I believe we are in a situation like the one Arthur Koestler describes in his book The Sleepwalkers - a divide, between an older science represented by Aristotelian scholasticism and a new science which became known as the science of The Enlightenment. Only now the divide is between the old science of The Enlightenment and a new science that has yet to be defined. A key point however is that this new science will not be shaped only by Western/European thinking, which is still deeply influenced by Abrahamic thought, but by a universal culture that will also encompass the Taoist world of China and other cultures of the East. So it is good to see that a venue has been established for having conversations and discussing the transformation of the old science into something new. I do not however expect to see the ‘olden ones’ putting up the while flag very soon!
Discussion on Mar 11, 2016
Beth Anderson
I am delighted to find this journal, and in particular, this article! We have been creating 3D animations to illuminate the complexities of biological systems for the better part of two decades, but for a long time, it was an uphill road. I found a wonderful book - "Fields of Influence - Conjunctions of Artists and Scientists 1815-1860" a collection of essays on the early cross pollination between art and science when the Royal Society and the Royal Academy shared space in Somerset House in London, and the bifurcation that began when the Royal Academy moved out in 1837. And though there's a lot of noise in the world about peoples' distrust of science, I also get the feeling that more are beginning to see the value in the cross pollination of ideas from unexpected sources. - Beth Anderson
Discussion on Mar 11, 2016
What a beautiful way to attract creative, progressive thinkers. I really wish I could use a word other than creative here (I thought about iconoclastic but that seemed to confrontational). That said, Antidisciplinarian has just a great subversive ring to it!
Discussion on Mar 11, 2016
Bill Welense
Discussion on Mar 11, 2016
Bill Welense
Antidisciplinary is a word that my mind has been searching for for quite some time. It's like that moment when something is on the tip fo your toungue, your mind knows the answer, but can't think of the word.
Discussion on Mar 11, 2016
Gabriel Figueiredo
Have you seen Flaviano Celaschi's diagram? It's (literally) design-centric, but it has a different take on the deal between "Design vs Science" and "Design as a Suitcase Word" you talk about. You can download his paper "Design as a Mediator Between Areas of Knowledge" here:
Discussion on Mar 10, 2016
Richard Dwinell and Joichi Ito
Hey didn't Gandhi say that "Be the change you wish to see in the world." I hope that I didn't miss all the important forms and functions of this article (the possibility is high) but when re-reading the beginning and end ( or maybe opposite sides of a cycle) of the article, I felt first (or mostly) set within a nonlinear system of explaination. Hearing tales of the entangled designers staking claim to the flat open white of non-elephant .....complexities. I would imagine, the shoulders of giants usually have wide tracks of open spaces (for others to stand on). I see in the article the principle target of "design" being the orchestration and/or re-think of process and /or systems, inclusive of expression (thankfully). Our rate of change is always changing. The directions of change is increasingly changing. The age of data is nonlinear. We act on the data. Our actions create more data - continuously preceptive focus or design gives us .......(return to top)
I've been thinking a lot about Gandhi and hadn't through to tie him into this article. I've been thinking about him more in the context of disobedience - a key force of change. I googled around and found the original Gandhi quote: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”
Discussion on Mar 10, 2016
john hessler
This is a great idea...truly a need for this kind of journal. In my own work on the history of computing science and design are never far apart.
Discussion on Mar 01, 2016
Nikos Houssos
Discussion on Feb 29, 2016
Mike Stringer
I think this is a key point! Designing complex adaptive systems will likely involve designing rules or algorithms for participants rather than directly designing outcomes. While still in their infancy, many of the concepts from "generative design" (e.g. Generative Design or Dynamic Identities) and "generative science" (e.g. Generative Social Science) will be pertinent for designers of complex adaptive systems.
Discussion on Feb 25, 2016
Boris Anthony
I find this development fascinating as my own research over the last 5 years has indicated that what we call design is in the midst of another evolution. In the last ~200 years, it has gone from craft to discipline and is now starting to become a science in itself… the next stage being philosophy (pointed to by the ethical dilemmas people like Cameron Tonkinwise raises). Of course, design retains its craft and discipline tools, methods, processes and models, but is learning to engage research, experimentation, and collaboration, outside the bounds of mere commercial activity, "for the good of humanity"… here to echo Stewart's evocation of Buckminster Fuller. I look forward to see where JoDS goes and hope to get a chance to engage with your team, @Joi.
Discussion on Feb 24, 2016
Timothy Scholl
Oxman's cycle is an interesting starting point, being a 2D representation. I feel like you touch on the limitations of thinking about Design and Science in this way, and wonder about the connection between Scientific Method and Design Process and how they might show us another way to represent the relationship between the two. What are the ideas present within those disciplines that are unique?How can those traits be best used to augment the other discipline, and vice versa?
Discussion on Feb 11, 2016
Raymond Pirouz and Peter Hourdequin
It's a great idea and one that can succeed so long as 'prestige' is associated with the journal, no matter how experimental. No academic I know will admit this but they are 'consumers' of knowledge for whom 'institutional brand' is an extremely poweful signal that can immediately validate or discredit an initiative such as you suggest. Can your idea succeed if originating from a lowly state university? No. You are in a unique position to push the envelope so I say 'go to town'. As it relates to 'evolving design' however, because -- as you suggest -- it has become one of those suitcase words (no thanks to the unfortunate Design Thinking meme) I belive strongly that we need to start at the beginning by understanding it in the context of where we are now (rather than where we may have been a decade or two ago in terms of our understanding of the discipline as such). In that spirit, might I offer a definition I've crafted over some years as a contribution of sorts, even if it only wets the appetite:
I am an academic of sorts: a language teacher in a university setting. I do research that is mostly focused on understanding and improving practice. This once would have meant a focus on either teaching or learning practice, or both, but for me it now means focusing on the nature of my context, the physical and virtual activity spaces that exist as affordances for learning in my institutional setting and beyond. For me, though many of the big-name journals in our field contribute useful theoretical insights, they rarely narrate how these are implemented in locally (culturally, historically) situated contexts. By virtue of their architecture and target audience (global academia) they are not capable of doing this. We have local (special interest group) journals, but most of these define their scope in terms set by the theoreticians who write in the prestigious journals. Doing this narrows the terms that can be used to describe local practice to those acceptable by a given "special interest group" (for example, "task-based language teaching." But what is needed is a space for intelligent conversations around practices in similar contexts, not practices within the lines of theoretical/conceptual frameworks defined elsewhere. I have thus taken the idea of producing an iteration of this type of journal to a few colleagues and have received responses similar to Raymond's: its fine for MIT because they have prestige, but would this be recognized as legitimate by our institutions? To me though, this is an unnecessarily passive position. It assigns agency to external forces that only exist if we let them. The argument I try to make is that if we can gather a community of committed collaborators-- irrespective of their institution's prestige--and design a space for the kind of discussions that are meaningful for us as academic practitioners, that space will have legitimacy. It may help to get some 'big names' on board to lend the space (journal) legitimacy (and draw a larger audience) in the eyes of our institutions, but if the scope of the space is well-conceived and articulated in line with local needs, I tend to think that there are many prestigious academics out there who would lend such projects the gravity of their names. The challenge is convincing local academics to take this step towards collaboration and community rather than continuing their painstaking efforts to get published in journals that exist in an imagined intellectual "center" (while believing they are writing from a periphery). It is about convincing people to believe that the language we speak to each other about our local teaching and research practices can have legitimacy if we choose to give that legitimacy to each other.
Discussion on Feb 09, 2016
Stewart Brand and Eric Maize
A format design comment: Gray type on a white background is a pain to read. Legibility counts.
+1, especially gray type in a super light-weight font...
Discussion on Feb 09, 2016
Stewart Brand and Andrew Menzer
"Design Science” was an obsession of Buckminster Fuller’. He sometimes called it “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science.” A primer of his views is here:
I think the science and design meet where engineering and economics combine. Industry has always been the most efficient means of diffusing advanced technologies across a specific population, especially as costs to produce said technologies go down. Moore's Law, the Internet and cheap mobile hardware are a perfect example of this phenomenon. The effects these (and other) innovations have on our world – namely their ability to empower individuals – drive new creative endeavours (art) and intellectual discourses (philosophy and political movements) that dictate the cultural zeitgesit of contemporary society. This dynamic feedback loop is what second-order cybernetics was primarily concerned with
Discussion on Jan 24, 2016
Danny Hillis and Joichi Ito
Survived or thrived?
Made suggested edit.
Discussion on Jan 24, 2016
Danny Hillis and Stewart Brand
This is what I have been calling The Entanglement, that is, the entaglement of nature and technology so that the distintion becomes increasingly meaningless.
Agreed. I ended my WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE book with the line: “What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable. We live one life.”
Discussion on Jan 24, 2016
Danny Hillis and Joichi Ito
Represent or present?
Fixed this.
Discussion on Jan 24, 2016
Danny Hillis
In fact, Cycbernetis became a discipline. It produced some good aswers to broad questions, but then it became about those answers, rather than about the orginal questions.
Discussion on Jan 24, 2016
Danny Hillis, Joichi Ito, and Adam Fulford
is or was?
Made suggested edit.
Hi Danny -- in which sentence?
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Discussion on Jan 20, 2016
Michael Dila
Your intent to create a platform for antidisciplinary thinking and exploration is exciting: particularly in its suggestion of problems that sit in the places "between"; obscured by or invisible to existing disciplinary optics. It seems to me that setting the proper norms for interaction will be crucial to the success of your ambitions. Peer review, whatever its merits, tends toward narrowness (as you say), and the stance and tone of a lecture. Curating antidisciplinary conversations, I think, will be the editorial task set by the kind of journal you envision. This example of a conversation about digital books strikes me a useful and intructive one:
Discussion on Jan 18, 2016
Dan Lockton and Joichi Ito
Do you think much of the strength of this antidisciplinarity comes from this complex mosaic? i.e. the variety of being able to deal with the world in different ways, and the recognition that these are ways of knowing which each have their advantages at different scales and in different contexts? Making connections between the disciplines and ways of thinking, and understanding, shifting into and using each other's perspectives can be adaptive, but trying to wrap them together too tightly might end up removing the very thing which makes the approach successful in the first place.
That's an interesting and good point. I think we still need the disciplines and their rigor. I think language defines and helps us think, but it also limits us. I think that being able to move between the sciences as well as sometime "go meta" and move beyond the constraints of their languages is important too. Probably an AND not and OR.
Thanks Joi. Yes, definitely AND. I think even having an organisation like the Media Lab that explicitly recognises the value of depth and breadth, and has an explicit aim of enabling "going meta", is very valuable. There aren't many places that do this, or are able to attract/support the right mix of people.
Discussion on Jan 18, 2016
Tim Brown and Joichi Ito
The growth of AI and data networks might liberate designers and scientists to be more ‘anti-disciplinary’ because the machines can take care of the many forms of expertise we need to tackle problems at the complex systems level. I’m guessing this is obvious to you but my sense that both in science and design the current trend is toward ever greater specialization of the individual in order to compete with the efficiency of the machine. Thank goodness the Media Lab stands for the opposite.
I think the role of AI in research is very interesting. Hiroaki Kitano and others are trying to design AI systems to manage and possibly even come up with questions for research. English language publishing is a "lossy" way of conveying the complexity and detail of many experiments including the data, the code that was run, the exact orientation of the molecules, etc. The sheer volume of research results is also trans-human-reable. An interesting part of the design of AI systems is the interface between the human systems and the machine systems. I think "Human in the Loop" machine learning is an extremely important area of work that we'd like to focus on at the Media Lab and I do think the role of AI in tackling problems at the complex systems level is key.
Discussion on Jan 18, 2016
Tim Brown
I like the idea of the anti-disciplinary journal and I wonder in what forms this might come to life? A journal of beginnings perhaps, not just endings, where expert crowd funding is used to encourage and sustain the most interesting experiments. Maybe future academic prowess is built not on citations but on connected experiments or flows of funding to the most interesting ideas.
Discussion on Jan 18, 2016
Tim Brown
I suppose this is obvious, but experimentation (in the methodological sense) is shared by both design and science as a principle tool for discovery. Is this true for engineering and art?
Discussion on Jan 18, 2016
Tim Brown and Jeff Sussna
I don’t pretend to understand all of your references to cybernetic systems but agree with the premise about complex adaptive systems and the changing role of the designer from planner to participant. There is more to talk about regarding the progression of scientists toward design and designers toward science. That is what I love about the Media Lab you create the conditions where both can happen. Designers can, if they choose ,participate in the science and scientists can use the mechanisms of design to pursue their explorations.
Ranulph Glanville probably did the best job of connecting cybernetics and design. Shortly before his death in 2014 he gave a wonderful talk called "How Design and Cybernetics Reflect Each Other" In this talk he explains the concept of circularity as being at the heart of cybernetics. IMHO circularity is central to designing, at least as we need to do it in our current society.
Discussion on Jan 12, 2016
Paola Antonelli, Michael Dila, Francesco Bertelli, Boris Anthony, and Iain Perkin
Regarding design, its role in devising adaptive systems, and efficiency: This becomes really huge, but for some--myself included--an effort towards formal elegance is necessary for a planning exercise to be considered design. That formal elegance could be impalpable, as for instance in the design of a scent, but it needs to be acknowledged as a tension within the process. The outcome of that effort can be a failure, but the effort needs to be there. I other words, I consider the Interstate Highway System a design project, while the Keystone Pipeline is not, even though they are both systems -- Paola Antonelli
I am not sure precisely what you mean by formal elegance. It sounds like an epistemological aesthetic for maths or something. In any case, it seems like you are trying to make an important distinction between projects like the Interstate system and the Keystone pipeline and I'd like to undersatnd what it is.
Best comment.
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