Writing The Paradigm

square-50cm-spacer.jpg this article relates to a recently published book
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Metadesigning Book Cover Mock Up
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Metadesigning Designing in the Anthropocene (See also an interview with the book's illustrator Stacey Rossouw)


Citing a recently published book on metadesign (Wood, 2022) the article asks whether designers could learn to change paradigms. Defining metadesign as an extensible superset of adaptable and comprehensive practices, it suggests that we also need to include the many ‘conditions’ of design (e.g. education and training, evaluative frameworks, international standards and protocols, etc.) that shape the outcomes of practice. Given the complexity and scope of this idea, it seems likely that we will need to develop genres of writing that are judged by outcomes, rather than by style, veracity or logic. The article outlines a diagnostic tool that enables users to register, evaluate and map the critical relationships that co-sustain a given paradigm. Mapping them enables them to be evaluated holistically. Modifying individual parts of the map might help to change the paradigm as a whole. The article also draws upon gastronomic and chemical analogies to bring non-serial clusters of critical elements together in effective ways. These would be designed, for example, to ‘emulsify’ team relations, or to ‘catalyse’ active engagement within groups.

Metadesigning Designing

During the Glasgow COP26 summit of 2021, despite being briefed by bright scientific thinkers and strategists, political leaders fell short of saving the planet. Our recent book on metadesigning (Wood, 2022) asks whether design-based reasoning could add what is missing. Scientific reasoning is useful for providing the evidence-based facts that governments need for making important decisions. This enables politicians to respond to issues such as climate change and biodiversity depletion. Unfortunately, politics is also a form of bargaining and expectation management, therefore voters are sometimes told what they want to hear, rather than what they deserve to know. The book’s underlying supposition is that, whereas fiscal governance is bureaucratic and circuitous, design is able to inspire human behaviour in ways that are direct, experiential and non-judgmental. This ambitious idea is what has driven our quest for ‘metadesign’. The term metadesign has been around since the early 1960s and is associated with numerous attempts to think beyond the existing scale and scope of design. Our book offers a brief overview of some of the many perspectives and opportunities that are associated with it. Elisa Giaccardi’s chapter is a personal and anecdotal summary of her pioneering work in applying metadesigning to digital computing and the community.

The Conditions of Design

In his foreword, Clive Dilnot also celebrates the visionary thinking of John Chris Jones whose 1984 book ‘Designing Designing’ has attracted recent interest (Jones, 2021). Jones cannily foresaw the need for a methodology that would include ‘the design of design processes and processes of change’. By way of contrast, Paul Taylor’s chapter summarises some of Richard Buckminster Fuller’s attempts to map out what he called an ‘anticipatory design science’ (Fuller, 1967). Even by combining these contrasting perspectives we might begin to envision a very broad and adaptable methodology that could be called ‘metadesign’ (see also Maturana, 1997). One might, therefore try to develop it as an open access resource. Used as an instrument for cooperative change, metadesign might act as a superset of interoperable, adaptable and open source supertools. (Wood, 2022, p. 4),. Given such an ambitious aspiration, writing is likely to become a more important aspect of design, given that it can readily map out some of the conditions of design that underpin its outcomes, shape its assumptions and limit its practices.

A Comprehensive Approach

Caio Vassão’s chapter gives an overview of some of the opportunities and pitfalls inherent in the quest for metadesign. He warns against the temptation to see it as design on a demiurgic scale, arguing that we will need to acquire more comprehensive and democratic skills of co-design, so that we're able to work through an ecosystemic approach. But even this will not be enough. Everything is connected, so the world needs nothing less than a paradigm change. Unfortunately, most designers are ill prepared to work at this level. If we wish to influence the outcomes of design we need to include the conditions of design. In this regard, education is a formative aspect of metadesign. Whereas corporate bodies may be constrained by the need to compete on a commercial basis, educators are free to make radical reforms. Ironically, as Lara Furniss’s chapter argues, the discipline-oriented nature of most design teaching has made it too fragmented and inflexible to meet the challenge. Her study of UK university design degrees reveals that the fearlessness, coherence and multi-disciplinary breadth of the top design companies is largely absent from discipline-focused design courses.

Is Design part of the problem?

Perhaps universities find it easier to prepare graduates for working as well-trained specialists within larger teams. If so, this is unlikely to encourage criticism of outmoded disciplines and tired old business models (c.f. Feyerabend, 1975). Many designers therefore find themselves working as accomplices to the ‘extract-shape-and-dispose’ habits that have given the Anthropocene its definitive character. In this sense, the design industry is part of the paradigm that needs changing. To put this right, designers will need to re-think their roles and practices. This amounts to a collective process of metamorphosis at the professional level that is included in our metadesign agenda. Given the complexity of the task, it is obvious that metadesign must evolve as a complex and self-coordinated set of practices. Drawing upon feminist and other theories, Mathilda Tham’s chapter reminds us that our global client is also a victim and a culprit. We therefore face what she calls a ‘super-wicked problem’ and cannot expect a clear design brief; nor can we expect to find a ‘magic bullet’ solution. Using analogies drawn from textile art and craft, Tham advises the reader to “stay with your thread inside the criss-crossy web” (p.21) and defines metadesign as the “art and craft of finding love, systems literacy and agency”, (p.19).

The Importance of Synergy

Here, Jordan Dalladay-Simpson’s chapter offers some encouragement, reminding designers that, when they reconcile philosophical and pragmatic issues in sufficiently imaginative ways, they become ’world makers’. One reason why social paradigms are complex, is because they are tacitly embodied, situated and distributed (Polanyi, 1969). For this reason we cannot ‘say’ a lifestyle paradigm, any more than we can ‘say’ or ‘write’ how to ride a bicycle (Wittgenstein, 1961). However, Olu Taiwo’s chapter draws upon pre-literate traditions from Africa as a way to discuss ‘lived’ knowledge and the collaborative modes of wisdom that are contained in the term ‘Ubuntu’. The idea that innovation is always, in essence, pluralistic is also the basis for John Wood’s chapter on ‘reinventing invention’. Wood explains why we should ditch the popular myth of the ‘lone genius’ and understand innovation as a combinatorial and relational act (c.f. Koestler, 1964). One reason for this is that finding new ‘synergies’ is often more effective than making existing systems more ‘efficient’ (Corning, 2003). Drawing upon his experience of working with international urban design and landscape architecture projects, Chuck W. Ware Jr. reflects on standards including the quadruple bottom line (i.e., environment, community, economics, and art). Noting that it is customary to address them separately, as though they have no common interests, he shows how it is possible to develop performance-based synergies within, or between them.

Thinking in Fours

Although we tend to visualise synergies as auspicious pairs of things they exist in many configurations. John Wood explains that we can get six times the number of synergies from a ‘creative quartet’ than from a ‘duet’ (i.e. a pair). This applies to his learner-driven ‘relational learning and evaluation’ system which he has implemented in a number of universities. Wood found that it can enhance the student’s ethical awareness and resourcefulness. Learners define their own role within a four-dimensional map that evaluates the six possible relationships between themselves (i.e. as learner), their ‘reader’ (e.g. a nominated client), their ‘proposition (e.g. the ‘work’) and the ‘context’ (i.e. background conditions). Hannah Jones also uses a tetrahedral configuration to think beyond the common user-centred approach. Finding empathetic accord with the ecosystem, she argues, is now at least as important as the cultivation of ‘user-empathy’. One of the difficulties of managing all of these ideas is how to co-design within systems whose complexity is caused by having too many agents and participants to manage on a one-to-one basis.

Designing Beyond the Thinkable

In their joint chapter, John Backwell and John Wood outline a managerial framework designed to help companies to map out and to enhance what they call ‘organisational consciousness’. A more focused version is also offered in Anette Lundebye’s chapter, which describes her practical facilitation methods that she developed to cultivate ‘team consciousness’ within an organisation. One of the difficulties of working with large fields of consciousness is that, even when they are effective, they may defy our attempts to encapsulate them in verbal descriptions. If we are to re-design paradigms we must also acknowledge the need to think beyond the ‘realities’ defined by language (Whorf, 1956). The first of Julia Lockheart’s two chapters explores the importance of ‘languaging’ new possibilities that may be - as Clive Dilnot’s foreword put it - unthinkable. If we are to design beyond the prevailing (i.e. ‘thinkable’) paradigms we will need to raise the organisational conscious in ways that also reveal opportunities hidden within the unconscious. Lockheart develops this idea further in her second chapter, which draws upon her research into collective dream interpretation that she conducted with sleep expert Prof. Mark Blagrove. An interesting and unexpected feature of this research showed that the collective interpretation of dreams can enhance empathy within the whole group. (See also Tomohide Misuuchi’s article).

A Science of Exceptions

How can we become more receptive to the unexpected unknown? Trying to co-imagine someone else’s dream is difficult because dreams seldom conform to straightforward description or simple explanation. This is similar to envisioning new paradigms. Inventing new words can open up new insights or, even, suggest unfamiliar paradigms. However, metadesigners will also need to reason without words. To this end, Hyaesook Yang’s chapter discusses semiotic thinking. Whereas theoreticians commonly explain semiotics as a ‘system of signs’ Yang redefines it from a designer’s point of view. She develops the discussion by advocating bio-semiotics, as it can heighten empathy with creatures that have very different sensory and cognitive capacities from our own. Živa Ljubec’s chapter theorises the unthinkable by speculating about the nature of evolution and how one might imagine the emergence of a new species. She draws upon Alfred Jarry’s radical supposition that the world is more aptly defined by exceptions, than by repetitions. Whereas orthodox science seeks ‘laws’ that make prediction feasible, evolutionary change tends to defy precedent. Drawing upon quantum science and Jarry’s ostensibly ‘fake’ science of ‘Pataphysics’, Ljubec invokes the concept of a scientific unconscious that, rather than offering ruggedly dependable ‘laws’ of the universe would deliver authentic, but unique events.

Re-Designing Academia

Perhaps Ljubec’s and other challenges to traditional scientific inquiry will help us to understand paradigms and ‘super-wicked problems’. We certainly need to cultivate a radical openness to unique opportunities that may lurk in the unknown. But would such an agenda be welcomed and understood by corporations or, for that matter, by the senior managers of our modern universities? (c.f. Elton, 2008) For a decade or so we have seen the creeping monetisation of the education system and the quasi-commodification of paper qualifications. As a result, many senior academics increasingly find themselves embroiled in managerial disputes about the services, grades and written qualifications paid for by students. How are we to re-tune education to the global crisis threatening all of us if the current discussion is limited to tuition fees and loans? In this context it seems unlikely that we will see a resurgence of the art school models of learning, as they would require more emphasis on experiential, face-to-face learning and less emphasis on writing methods designed to be evaluated ‘fairly’ by AI gadgets. Indeed, how might we usefully re-define the purpose of writing in the era of the Anthropocene?

Re-purposing Writing for Metadesigners

The UK Government’s Coldstream Report of 1960 was intended to set the standards for art students to be awarded honours degrees. The art schools took this to mean that they should impose genres of writing that were borrowed from the scholarly disciplines. This turned out to be a mistake, as the word ‘writing’ was not used in the Report (Lockheart, 2016). Indeed, whereas the key purpose of scholarship is to gather, assemble and validate truth claims, design practices are better judged by outcomes, rather than by veracity. Nonetheless, over the years since then, art schools continued to absorb the aspirations, assumptions and methods of the humanities and sciences. In some ways, designers have benefitted from this misadventure. Nevertheless, it is now time to retrace our steps and to re-purpose writing in ways that support designing and metadesigning. This would entail re-thinking the status and potential of design as a practice and as a profession. Design appears to have evolved from the human capacity to contrive, invent and shape the future. Nonetheless, when compared with lawyers, doctors or accountants, artists, designers and craftspeople are usually regarded as members of the ‘minor professions (Glazer, 1997). This may be surprising. While Homo sapiens has been extracting and shaping hard materials ever since we parted company with our chimpanzee cousins several million years ago (Harari, 2019), alphabetical writing and summative reasoning emerged only in the last five thousand years in the form of fiat currencies and accountancy (Graeber, 2011).

The Shape of Writing

Traditional genres of scholarly writing tend to present data as a series of assertions, the logic of nature may require a more systemic understanding. Indeed, ordering truth claims in a sequence probably derives from the temporal practices of oratory and the rhetorical appeal of devices such as stylistic consistency, comparisons, symmetry and explicitness (Panofsky, 1968). However, adhering to these conventions will not necessarily ensure a useful outcome for the reader. Indeed, the traditional truth-centred approach of classical scientific discourse may be unsuitable for designers if it encourages them to act like a dispassionate observer, rather than a responsible advocate on behalf of the reader. Instead, it might be more useful to emulate the systemic and highly relational nature of paradigms. In my relational learning framework author, reader, context and proposition are co-creative elements that act as a holon within larger systems. If we are to understand how paradigms work we may need to adopt more modes of writing that map sets of relationships. This might resemble a meticulously balanced food recipe, or a precise map of ingredients, similar to what computer scientists call ‘knowledge graphs’ - i.e. databases of relationships, rather than things.
square-50cm-spacer.jpg 8 Things 28 Combinations

square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 1 - Relations outnumber things

Non-relational Paradigms

As figure. 1 reminds us, there are always more relationships between ‘things’ than the number of things themselves. Usually, the value of assets increases when we combine them in the appropriate order and context. This suggests that we need to cultivate and to value relationships, rather than things. Unless a bicycle can be put into a working relationship with a competent rider and a flat road, its use-value is likely to remain low. Money is profoundly different. If we were to swap each of the 8 ‘things’ in figure 1 for a coin of equal value the total value would be beyond dispute. But in order to make counting possible, we must agree to objectify the countable items as a virtually identical member of one abstract category. This is why coins and banknotes are designed to look identical. It ensures that 8 separate Euro coins will always amount to 8 Euros, irrespective of the order in which we combine them. As Georg Simmel (1900) put it, "The quality of money consists exclusively in its quantity.” In short, money is limited to relationships that are summative.

The Structure of Paradigms

Thomas Kuhn used the word ‘paradigm’ to describe scientific cultures of belief held within academic institutions. He showed how scientific paradigms often resist change, even when they are beyond their sell-by date. Just as a scientific communities sometimes choose to ignore the next paradigm, so our cultures and communities may resist new ideas and visions. One reason why we may cling to an old myth or value is because it may be attached to other assumptions that we are reluctant to challenge or revise. In linguistic studies, a ‘paradigm’ is a set of very similar words that, when combined, create a definitive meaning or broad concept. In everyday discussions, we change meanings by substituting different words within a standard grammatical structure, rather than re-inventing the structure of thought beneath it. However, if we change the grammar (c.f. de Saussure, 2011) we may be able to make new things ‘thinkable’. By enlarging the domain of the thinkable we will notice more possibilities and opportunities.
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Kvitash Blood Circles
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 2 - Kvitash’s Relonic mapping of blood chemicals

Homeostasis in Paradigms

For metadesigners, living systems offer a wonderful example of paradigms that maintain their own state of equilibrium (i.e. homeostasis). They do this via feedback and feedforward loops that enable self-regulation at local levels and self-coordination across the whole. Figure 2 shows a relational map depicting all of the vital chemicals in the blood (Gorbis & Kvitash, 2006). This systemic approach enables medical experts to map the internal metabolic conditions of patients. According to Vadim Kvitash’s diagnostic method the example on the left depicts conditions likely to culminate in a fatal heart attack. The one on the right depicts the conditions of a non-fatal heart attack. Instead of referencing parameters against an arbitrary benchmark, each is logged in terms of its relationship to each of the others. In this case, the lines depict abnormal relations that can guide a reliable survival prognosis for post-operative heart patients. As Kvitash’s approach is systemic we believe it to be applicable to complex paradigms.
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Automobile Paradigm DARKER
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 3 - Template for ‘re-writing’ the automobile paradigm

The Automobile Paradigm

One reason why paradigms resist change is because they are co-sustained by strong reciprocal benefits or interests. We may recognise many of them as clusters of vested interests, habits and ingrained assumptions that co-sustain one another. Figure 3 represents some of the relationships that sustain the automobile paradigm (Kauffman, 1995). It shows why switching from fossil fuel powered cars to ‘greener’ (or self-drive) alternatives will not change the paradigm. Unless we reflect on the issue at a higher level, we may stay with the belief that it is ‘normal’ to sit in a car for several hours per day. The same principle applies to grammatical paradigms. Although substituting nouns in a sentence may create new semantic possibilities the grammatical paradigm behind it will remain unchanged. In figure 3, the interconnecting lines represent the 66 possible relationships implied by the 12 agents. Annotating the status and qualities of each line (I.e. relationship) makes it easier to identify and grasp the elements sustaining the paradigm. With a little entrepreneurial imagination one might then find opportunities to reconfigure the twelve agents in novel ways. This may make new possibilities more ‘thinkable’ - although turning them into practical changes may prove to be more challenging.

Human Emulsifiers

In 1809 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe borrowed a chemistry-based paradigm to depict the sometimes fraught relationships between characters in his novel ‘Elective Affinities’. This idea can also be applied to the team building process. Of course, the paradigm mapping approach shown in figures 1 and 2 is unlikely to give a very nuanced understanding. In the ‘real world’, a promising meeting of new team talents can create unexpected hostility and conflict. This can also be true in cooking (Magee, 2007). Sometimes, when we combine otherwise delicious ingredients in a food recipe we watch in dismay as they descend into a muddle of unpleasant flavours. Paradigms are complicated and subtle. For example, it may not be just the choice and measures of ingredients that are the problem. When using ingredients with different melting points the sequence of cooking temperatures may determine the correct order and timing of their addition. We may want to mix two particular ingredients but find them immiscible. To get them to combine readily a suitable emulsifier may be required. Sometimes, team players who are critically important to the mission are unable, or unwilling, to work effectively together. In such cases it can be important to find an ‘emulsifier’ with the appropriate skills to maintain a working rapport with each of the participants. This may also mean being able to interpret and explain values using different styles of diplomatic language.
square-50cm-spacer.jpg 4 Fold Living Systems
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Figure 4 - strategically placed emulsifying handbooks to optimise organisational interplay

Emulsifier Handbooks

Some people seem to be natural emulsifiers, but particular situations may call for specific knowledge or a particular kind of personality. Ideally, an emulsifier would be an excellent languager who can empathise and respect the challenges and values inherent in dissonant perspectives. Emulsifying can be understood as a mode of enterprise, given that the word ‘entrepreneur’ literally means ‘taking from between’. Emulsifiers therefore need to be ‘entredonneurs’, too (Wood, 1990). Where team disagreements reflect disciplinary misunderstandings, a lack of shared experience, or different perceptions of the mission’s purpose, it may be helpful to write ‘emulsifier handbooks’ that prepare individuals for possible conflict, or are intended to encourage professional empathy. This would not be to mollify or to excuse differences, but to encourage a working environment in which difference is welcomed as a possible basis for complementarity. The handbooks should, therefore, offer the essential elements in a way that makes immediate sense to the reader/s for whom it is intended. In figure 4, the six emulsifier handbooks act to bring unity and coherence to the four agents. Each could be designed rather like a traditional Cornish pasty that has meat at one end and jam at the other. If each handbook can be read from either end, this may encourage readers to think about their own role in the context of that of their co-worker.

Catalysing Reactive Change

Perhaps we could see (metadesign) writing as a means of synergising and enlivening potential complementarities within communities. This might challenge the academic assumption that designers must learn to be ‘researchers’ who make truth claims based on ‘evidence-based data’. Perhaps we need metadesigners to develop a new writing paradigm that can reform behavioural paradigms. In the last century, newspaper journalists used vertical hierarchies of relevance. The story headline always contained the most salient information, supported by details of diminishing importance. But in thinking about paradigms, we cannot safely assume that a given piece of information is irrelevant. Perhaps it needs adding at a more propitious place, or time. In 1794, working within the context of chemistry, Elizabeth Fulhame devised the idea of ‘catalysis’. A ‘catalyst’ is a substance that will enhance, or quicken a chemical reaction without being changed or depleted in the process. It comes from the Greek word ‘katalúō’ (‘καταλύειν’) that means to ‘loosen’ or ‘untie’. Notably, this process will not take place unless there is sufficient available space for it to work. Heidegger cited the origins of the word ‘to say’ as representing the act of ‘gathering’, ‘laying down’ and ‘placing before’ a given recipient (Arsenault & Brinkley, 1995).

Ungagging the Gag

In the last decade or two, social media genres have further unpacked some of the assumptions and legacies from the ancient idea of rhetoric (c.f. Buchanan, 1985). In catering for a diminished attention span, Twitter and TikTok have invited writing styles that are less like speeches and more like recipes. Sometimes, simply clearing junk from a table, or emptying a room of clutter is sufficient to catalyse unforeseen opportunities. When this happens, the logistics of rearranging ideas may follow the mathematical principles one finds in the ‘Tower of Hanoi’ puzzle. Word limits force us to include only ‘essential’ ingredients that will incite pleasure or anger in others. In this sense, the outcome is often more important than the form. In 2021, David MacMillan received a Nobel prize (jointly with Benjamin List) for inventing a general procedure for rapidly catalysing novel chemical structures. Interviewed about his qualifications for devising the process, MacMillan cited his upbringing and sense of humour. "You can convey ideas quickly from growing up in Scotland…you learn how to talk and you learn how to tell a joke and you can get to a punchline," he said - you're good at it.”


David MacMillan: 'Being Scottish helped me win Nobel Prize’ BBC interview
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The joke is the purest, most essential form of storytelling. Every word has to count. (Paul Auster)