Design as a


Act of Combination

Written by John Wood for the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice
Dog_snout_anatomy.jpg Coelacanth-bgiu.png
A dog strikes up an unlikely conversation with a virtual Coelacanth


abductive reasoning, adaptive creativity, bisociation, combinatorial innovation, disruptive creativity, innovation, languaging, sympoiesis, synergy


This is the first of two articles that aim to explore co-authorship in the light of ecological systems. The assumption behind the articles is that designers could play a greater part in reducing the ecocidal impact of human behaviour to safe levels. But, as most designers are trained as specialists for catalysing economic growth, their methods are part of the old paradigm that needs changing. Our research therefore sought to re-design design as a comprehensive, joined-up framework for practice that focuses on the relations between things, rather than on individual products or services. What we call metadesign is intended to help designers, and others, to re-think the habits, assumptions and discourses that seem 'normal', or are invisible, to those in the existing paradigm. Its repertoire therefore includes methods for 're-languaging the familiar belief system in order to encourage positive change. Ultimately, metadesigners would be expected to create novel synergies that build into a 'synergies-of-synergies'. Re-languaging certain key terms will be vital to the quest for synergy. For example, in the corporate vocabulary the term 'creative innovation' is used to mean an egocentric 'disrupting' of the success of others (c.f. MacLeod, 2009; Phillips, 2011). Metadesigners might wish to re-define its purpose as a process that helps organisations to find more synergistic ways to coexist, within their habitat.


If we are to meet the challenges of climate change and biodiversity depletion effectively (see Wood, 2011) we will require a more fundamental, comprehensive and joined-up approach to the way people service food, clothing, shelter, mobility and communication. In reflecting upon this agenda since 2005, our researchers have run many workshops and assembled interdisciplinary teams including designers, writers, artists, community stakeholders and academic researchers. Where, for example, the current design paradigm assumes a focus on individual products, services, agents, and targets, we believe that a more radical, combinatorial approach can create synergies that would reduce the need for new resources. In some of our workshops we invited designers to imagine combinations of existing things, rather than creating discrete new ones. However, we found that synergies are difficult to manage because they exist at all levels and easily 'hide', or become entangled. For example, unless the ‘synergy-seekers’ have cultivated synergistic relations within their teams, the synergies they co-create may go undetected.

The self-reflexive nature of metadesigning

While designers may be resourceful and imaginative enough to help governments achieve a paradigm change effectively, most are trained as specialists who will be employed to encourage the faster throughput of energy and raw materials. As their methodologies and assumptions are, therefore, part of the offending paradigm this means redirecting, or re-languaging, what we know as 'design practice'. To this end we developed a more comprehensive framework of engagement that we call 'metadesign'. But, perhaps because it is so unfamiliar, we found that the need to cultivate synergies seems more difficult than the design of discrete products or services. Synergies tend to emerge in unexpected ways. They stretch and traverse existing boundaries of language and invite new relations between people, actions and things. Without the ability to 're-language' these things in a playful and creative spirit, it would be impossible to make a voluntary escape from the old paradigm.

The egoistic discourse behind capitalism

Our research has taught us that working with 'design synergies' requires heterogeneous teams, rather than individuals. This, in turn, led us to question some of the fundamental assumptions and beliefs that make behavioural change so difficult to achieve. One of these is the emphasis given to individual leaders and celebrities, rather than to the power of the collective. It is ironic that, within the social networking culture (as exemplified by Facebook and reality TV shows), the skills of personal self-presentation continue to be seen as pivotal to 'social' wellbeing. This not only reflects the mechanisms by which economic growth (e.g. Christensen & Raynor, 2003) is manipulated but is, also, part of a trajectory of Western thought that can be found in the thoughts of Socrates and Aristotle. In more recent times it has been sustained by ideologies within economics (e.g. Adam Smith, 1776) and science (e.g. Richard Dawkins, 1976). These posit a stridently Social Darwinian perspective in which economies and ecosystems are defined in terms of autonomous ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. As a result, the relationship between 'wisdom' and 'creativity' is often depicted in egoistic, one-dimensional terms. Today, the concepts of 'celebrity' and 'genius' are not too far from each other.

The 'creative' as sociopath

After the Enlightenment, the notion of 'genius' became valorised as a supremely original, intelligent and single-minded character who, virtually unaided, could force a salutory break with tradition. George Bernard Shaw satirised this idea in his play 'Man & Superman' of 1903, writing that "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself". The implication of Shaw's provocative assertion was that "...all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Nonetheless, many of the metaphors and discursive tools we use to describe today's more pluralistic era of crowd-sourcing, co-creativity, social enterprise and Open Source innovation, are still rather atomistic, and 'top-down'. This is problematic for those of us who aspire to a more 'joined-up' world. If society aspires to a safer, saner paradigm, it might need to rethink some fundamental terms, such as 'wisdom'. Currently, this word is used mainly to describe individual intelligence, wit, or knowledge. However, ecosystems seem to demonstrate that all important changes are complex, collective and emergent. This means that they remain ineffable until after they have occurred.

The 'growth-centred' paradigm

How can designers ‘re-language’ the familiar practices that sustain the current paradigm? In the last decade or two, while the terms 'design thinking' and 'creativity' have become better understood, they have been re-shaped, in accordance with the political and economic assumptions that shape our lives in the twenty-first century. Public interest in creativity and innovation has widened since the beginning of the century and coincides with a growing respect for the 'creative professions' (c.f. Howkins, 2002; Florida, 2002). Unfortunately, this appears to reflect the view that sustaining economic growth (e.g. Leitch, 2006; Leadbetter, 2004) is more pressing than repairing the ecological damage. Politicians and corporate managers are learning to regard 'creativity' as a catalyst for urban development (Landry, 2000) or as a way to ‘drive future economic growth’ (Burnham, 2008), for securing market domination or 'competitive advantage' (c.f. Cox & Dayan, 2005). This may soon become a counterproductive mission, as the relentless quest for higher GDP is significantly reducing the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ (c.f. Wackernagel & Rees, 1996).

Disruptive models of creativity

If the current paradigm is reducing our ability to survive, as a species, it will important to challenge the perceived purpose of the term 'creative innovation'. Instead of applying it to the disparate invention of individual gadgets for private, short-term advantage we might use it to help us adapt to our changing habitat. The idea that creativity is more 'disruptive' than ‘adaptive’ may seem to be relatively recent. However, if we look at patterns of de-forestation and pollution over the last hundred thousand years, humans appear to have lived by trashing their environment and moving on to the next place (Ponting, 1991). Unfortunately, while we need learn from indigenous communities who unobtrusively sustain themselves at a subsistence level, we may be more likely to envy and copy the most destructive societies (download Wood, 2007). Thus, while the highly influential 'American Dream' is a claim to commonwealth, it nevertheless implies that success derives from assertive individualism, competition and growth, rather than from more shared, symbiotic means (c.f. Lovelock, 1979; Margulis, 1998).

From Heroism to Prometheanism

For reasons of brevity, this article will omit references to pre-Enlightenment thinkers. However, within the history of ideas, the work of empiricist, John Locke (1632-1704), makes an important starting point, as his ideas informed the American Constitution. In 1689, he had the revolutionary insight that “the (individual) mind can furnish the understanding with ideas”. His immediate successors, David Hume (1711-1776) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) focused more explicitly on the role of the individual in achieving innovation. Schopenhauer was especially fascinated by the idea of the ‘genius’ as a self-styled, unfathomable and eccentric man. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) took this idea to its logical conclusion by challenging God and Nature, asserting that any individual with a strong enough 'will to power', and a readiness to reject societal ideals and moral codes, could create a bold New Order. Thus, Nietzsche's model of the 'creative' appears to be a superhuman being ('Ein Übermensch') that stands above Nature (Nietzsche, 1880).

Combinatorial intelligence

To be fair, some of thinkers of the Enlightenment were interested in a more combinatorial approach. In 1710, challenging the lonely solipsism of Descartes, Bishop Berkeley asserted that 'to be is to be perceived' and, in 1730, Richard Cantillon coined the term 'entrepreneur', characterising him, or her, as an "intermediary between capital and labour" (Cunningham & Lischeron, 1991). Both of these ideas are interesting for the way they envision the standpoint of the observer. Today, the idea of 'enterprise' has become associated more with financial acumen than with its deeper meaning. Taken more literally, it could be understood as 'cooperating creatively with several partners at once, in order to synergise their resources'. It is unfortunate that the mass media tend to focus the public's attention on individual entrepreneurs, rather than upon the relational aspects of their success. No doubt it is easier to create stories, myths and brands (e.g. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google or Wikipedia) that put a spotlight on the founders, presidents and CEOs, especially if they are autocratic or eccentric. Mapping the subtle complexities within teams is more difficult, especially when the modern reader's attention span may be shrinking.

Parallels between creativity and reproduction

In looking for synergies we were led to explore processes that synchronise pairs, or sets, of strategic changes in parallel. According to Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) all creative thinking is a combinatorial process. This idea underpins his term ‘bisociation’ (Koestler, 1967) which, he claims, are a superset of all other creativity tools. In his method, two, or more, apparently incompatible frames of thought are forced together. By ‘frames’ he means "any ability, habit, or skill, any pattern of ordered behaviour governed by a 'code' of fixed rules". When this happens, the mind is believed to struggle to make rational connections. Eventually, it makes a creative leap that, if successful, may surprise all of the collaborators. In a sense, then, this model is a fundamental combinatorial model, whether what are combined is seen as ideas, viewpoints, or people. There is, therefore, an interesting parallel between ‘creative innovation’ and sexual reproduction. In both cases, two ‘parent’ factors combine to create a new outcome that differs from each. Whether in sexual reproduction, or in ‘creative innovation’, successful innovation is difficult to achieve. This is because their success depends on the appropriate alignment of a huge number of complex, usually hidden, or unknown, factors.

The rarity of successful innovation

One of the difficulties of imagining, or catalysing, a paradigm change is that the next paradigm may be, arguably, ‘unthinkable’ from within the (language of the) current one. According to Albert Einstein (1879-1955), “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. Commenting on the process of evolutionary innovation in biological terms, Rupert Sheldrake (1942-) has noted that it is more difficult to achieve for the first time than it is to replicate. As we may know from our professional experience of ‘creative innovation’ (i.e. in art, or design), once a difficult, unprecedented event has taken place for the first time it is much easier to repeat (c.f. Sheldrake, 1981). In the ecological context, we might begin to explain this by noting that all living organisms must adapt in order to survive. Again, looking at parallels with 'creative innovation', humans may find it difficult to grasp without discussing it in terms of language, and the opportunities that new words, or linguistic patterns, facilitate.

Abductive reasoning

Ten years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first Sherlock Holmes novel (1887), Charles Pierce published his concept of ‘abductive reasoning’ (Pierce, 1877). This form of logic is very different from ‘deductive reasoning’, in which the ‘correct’ answer is predictable, or discernible, from the initial premise. Deduction is a relatively closed mode of reasoning. It can, therefore, constrain those who assert that researching, learning, or logical reasoning must be rigorous (c.f. Wood, 2012). However, in abductive reasoning, the thinker must start with for an otherwise incomplete, or inexplicable event, then formulate a plausible hypothesis that will explain, or account for it. Thus, in abductive reasoning there is no single, perfectly ‘correct’ solution. Nevertheless, this should not be interpreted as a criticism. In effect, it can be seen as an ‘adaptively creative’ form of reasoning. When a living creature unexpectedly comes face to face with a predator in the dark, there may insufficient data, or time, for so-called 'rigorous' deduction to be effective. In seeking to understand how animals survive in a rapidly changing, unpredictable world, Gregory Bateson, (1980) therefore suggested that ‘abductive reasoning’ is common. This is another way of saying that creative ‘guesstimation’ plays an important role within our repertoire of survival skills.

Sympathy and difference

While we are familiar with heroic figures, such as Sherlock Holmes, Albert Einstein, or Gregory Bateson dazzling us with their abductive skills, we are less au fait with what happens when experts use different languages to work co-creatively. Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) was a pioneer in exploring couplings between different organisms. Philosophically speaking, there is little qualitative difference between radically different types of thinker, or organisms from different species. Von Uexküll knew that each living creature experiences the world differently, because of differences in their sensory organs and nervous systems. This approach borrows from empirical philosophy, which assumes that our experience consists of sensory data from the ‘outside world’, and which arrives at the brain after mediation by the particular sensors and processors of the nervous system. He therefore coined the term ‘umwelt’ (von Uexküll, in Ingold, 2011, p. 64) to describe the subjective ‘reality’ of this experience, noting that each individual creature has a characteristic repertoire of awareness. In the case of humans, we have managed to augment our experiential reach with technological sensors, and other prosthetic devices. As humans, we may also realise that different languages and cultural contexts can heighten our awareness of specific phenomena.

Structural coupling

Potentially, by changing the metaphorical and syntactical structures of language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) we might re-attune ourselves to the 'umwelt' of other species, whose sensory ranges appear to be outside our own. This would be a way to change attitudes, relationships and habits of behaviour. When organisms find themselves entering one another's 'umwelt' they may begin a process of reciprocal actions that become habitual. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1980) describe this eventual state as 'structural coupling', where the term 'structure' refers to the sum of essential elements within their world, as a system. It therefore includes the vital organs, metabolic, sensory and cognitive processes, in addition to all of the symbolic, or semantic codes and values that sustain its living state. The level of structural coupling is co-managed by the organisms, each of which must balance its own benefits of coupling, with the risk that they might hold for its own, structural identity.


Structural coupling is a reciprocal process that is managed through what Humberto Maturana calls 'languaging' (Maturana, 1978). This can be described as the reciprocal, meaning-making activity by which adjacent organisms first create, then settle on, a workable code of communication. It is important to emphasise that this process is part of each organism's survival repertoire. It is, however, not an individual process of 'self-expression', but both a creative and a co-creative capability. It would be unusual for two co-dependent organisms to be independent of others in the food web. However, within our artificial systems of economics, law and education it is more possible. The act of 'co-authorship' could be described as a type of 'coupling' between authors. However, in many research contexts this process is less of a structural mode of coupling if it is characterised by highly cynical, or hierarchical processes in which a team leader will precis and 'edit' existing documents, rather than encouraging the much longer, deeper process of 'structural coupling' that might lead to co-creative innovation by the team of authors. We call this deeper mode sympoiesis (Wood & Nieuwenhuijze, 2006). We defined it using the following performance indicators:

1.AttributableWhen work achieved is recognisable by, and interoperable by, both, or all authors.
2.Transcendent grey-spacer.png When authors agree that the work achieved is of a higher quality or use value than that which any could have achieved by working alone.
3.SurprisingWhen work achieved embodies favourable qualities or outcomes that were emergent and, or, unpredictable to both/all author/s.
4.TransferrableWhen work achieved also connects or transcends the collaborative task itself.

Beyond Sympoiesis

Arguably, sympoiesis could be regarded as a particular form of symbiosis (Margulis, 1998). Indeed, both are special forms of synergy that relate to living organisms. As alluded to above, scientists have tended to map different benefits from coupling into a schema that identifies individual players, rather than emergent benefits for the whole system. I am not an expert, and this is work in progress. The distribution of coupling types into five categories: mutual, commensal, exploitative, amensal and neutral make for a rather limited mapping of how organisms interact (see Rayner, 2012). The term 'exploitative' includes both 'parasitic coupling' and 'predator-prey coupling in one category. Where 'mutualism' describes a relationship that brings benefits to both. While 'commensalism' resembles parasitism in describing relationships that benefit only one of the organisms, however, without disadvantaging the other. In this case I have mapped the system from the standpoint of other organisms (e.g. summarised as 'the ecosystem') beyond the couplings in question. This has served to change the conventional taxonomy and indicates the relative unimportance of individuals, within the system.

grey-spacer.png +++ grey-spacer.png MutualEcosystem benefits / beneficial to both partners
grey-spacer.png ++0CommensalEcosystem benefits / one partner benefits / no harm to the other.
grey-spacer.png ++ExploitativeEcosystem benefits / one partner benefits at expense of other.
grey-spacer.png +0AmensalEcosystem benefits / negative effect on one of the partners
grey-spacer.png +CompetitiveEcosystem benefits / both partners suffer
grey-spacer.png 0++ grey-spacer.png MutualNeutral to ecosystem / beneficial to both partners
grey-spacer.png 0+0CommensalNeutral to ecosystem / one partner benefits / no harm to the other.
grey-spacer.png 0+ExploitativeNeutral to ecosystem / one partner benefits at expense of other.
grey-spacer.png 00AmensalNeutral to ecosystem / negative effects on one of the partners
grey-spacer.png 0Competitive grey-spacer.png Neutral to ecosystem / both partners suffer
grey-spacer.png 000NeutralNeutral to ecosystem / no benefits or difficulties for either partner.
grey-spacer.png ++ grey-spacer.png MutualDamage to ecosystem / beneficial to both partners
grey-spacer.png +0CommensalDamage to ecosystem / one partner benefits / no harm to the other.
grey-spacer.png +ExploitativeDamage to ecosystem / one partner benefits at expense of other.
grey-spacer.png 0AmensalDamage to ecosystem / negative effects on one of the partners
grey-spacer.png CompetitiveDamage to ecosystem / both partners suffer

Table 2: Relative benefit/loss chart for different types of coupling

An afterthought for writers in art & design

Much of what we may, in the context of academic writing, understand by 'language' or 'dialogue' may be very different from what has been described as 'languaging' between different species. While, in the context of the former, the use of a received order, or 'proper' rules grammar and vocabulary may seem vitally important to teacher and/or researcher, the processes of 'languaging' and 're-languaging' that are co-created between different species may be, literally, a matter of imminent life and death. We might learn from Koestler's bisociation method, in which entities that seemed incommensurate may be reconciled by a creative, and sometimes inexplicable, leap of spontaneous innovation. Perhaps, by understanding these processes more deeply, we will learn how to catalyse a 'structural coupling' between seemingly incommensurate institutions, organizations, or discourses. All of these processes, in turn, may inform the challenging task of paradigm change, which might be described as a timely confluence of similarly oriented structural couplings. In this respect, it is hoped that the current incompleteness of this article will encourage co-authorship between me (the current author) and you (the reader as future author). After all, what may seem complete (i.e. frozen in print) is only part of a slow, but living dialogue.


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