Shifting Paradigms: Tools and Systems

Posted on October 15, 2010 by Holly Willis

This report follows from the New Contexts/New Practices conference hosted by North Carolina State University, October 8 – 10, 2010, and was printed in Design Observer in conjunction with five other reports.

A vital next step in design education centers on taking seriously the notion of systems and systems thinking, which are inherently transdisciplinary, holistic and focused on the interrelationships and patterns of things, not on fixed and isolated parts of a larger process. This means embracing dynamism and emergent possibility as core to design methodologies as well as to design education. What does this mean with respect to curricula, pedagogy, assessment and teaching spaces? And how does this shift affect the designer’s identity?

David Thorburn’s provocation framing the “Shifting Paradigms: Tools and Systems” topic was an imperative wrapped in historical perspective and can be easily summarized: Get over it! Our current moment, as unsettling as it is, and as unique and apocalyptic as it feels, repeats a host of previous junctures in recurring cycles of disruption and stasis that punctuate the previous 200 years of Western culture. Thorburn’s perspective embodies a core sensibility in his field, namely media studies, which tends to dismiss both the pitiful announcements of imminent demise and utopian desires for a radical break in favor of an ecological view attentive to transition and evolution, and to a mingling of tradition and innovation. Indeed, these are the themes of the book Thorburn co-edited with Henry Jenkins titled Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, which traces a series of earlier moments of technological change. “The turmoil of the early film industry should offer a kind of comfort,” soothed Thorburn toward the end of his talk.

Thorburn’s eloquent invitation to consider the past offered little solace to the group assigned the task of thrashing through a topic that in its title alone encompassed three vast and knotty terms: tools, systems and paradigms. No less than Heidegger, Deleuze, Derrida, and, more recently, Giorgio Agamben, have taken time to define these ideas in the context of philosophy, and in design, Hugh Dubberly, Meredith Davis and others have similarly tackled the terms in a more specific realm. All three words gain additional intricacy in that they are shared by disparate disciplines, from systems theory to anthropology, from human computer interaction to biology, economics and business.

It’s no wonder then, that the ensuing dialogue was prickly, passionate and ultimately all over the map. Anne Burdick’s moderation centered on discerning some modicum of specificity in the use of terms, and we began by articulating our sense of each. Initial emergent themes acknowledged the accelerated pace of change, the rise in the complexity of the issues at hand for designers, and the need for a systematic transformation within education at a time when budget cuts prohibit such change. Consensus formed around key shifts in the paradigm of design generally, and in design education specifically (with “paradigm” here borrowing Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 definition of the term as a set of ideas shared by a community).

“Graphic design was about creating artifacts and we’ve moved past that to now creating contexts in which activities happen, in which people participate collectively,” said co-author Barbara Sudick from California State University Chico. “That’s very different from when we made discrete artifacts.” Stacie Rohrback of Carnegie Mellon, another co-author, concurred. “We don’t use the word ‘graphic design’ anymore. What we’re teaching our students is detached from an artifact. They may create an artifact, and it might be finite, but often it isn’t. Instead, it’s about building cognitive structures; it’s a meta-level activity.” But how practical is it to teach this, asked Jen McKnight, a co-author from the University of Missouri in St. Louis. “If half of the university design programs are located in art schools, are they suited to do systems work? Are they ready to let go of the artifact? Are they ready to divorce themselves from ‘graphic design’?”

The discussion of tools was more slippery, and followed the Möbius strip of determinism to assert that new tools inform our perceptions and experience, just as cultural needs give rise to new tools. However, key to an understanding of contemporary tools is that they, too, are no longer discrete artifacts, but are just as often platforms and systems. In that vein, Isable Meirelies of Northeastern University rejected the idea that our new tools consist of software applications and computers. “This is such a narrow view of tools. I really believe that all we can do in design education, especially in undergraduate education, is understand the ideas. So I have a problem with this idea that ‘the tools are changing.’ That’s only true if you define the tool in a narrow way.”

In summarizing the first two hours, moderator Anne Burdick responded to the nascent anxiety about design identity and asked, “Are we defined by our outcomes, or are we defined by the activity of design itself, regardless of outcome?” She continued, “In general, we’ve seen a shift from an autonomous, cohesive practice to one understood as networked, social and politically situated; open and permeable; even dynamic and changing. Where do we go next?”

For Sudick, the next step is taking seriously the notion of systems and systems thinking, which are inherently transdisciplinary, holistic and focused on the interrelationships and patterns of things, not on fixed and isolated parts of a larger process. This means embracing dynamism and emergent possibility as core to design methodologies as well as to design education. “This may be a hotspot,” she asserted, pointing to an idea that could be mobilized by conference participants immediately. “The behavior of a system reveals itself over time – can we use this concept in thinking about how we do assessment with students? Can we look at their behavior, their patterns, and then understand what those behaviors mean?” Others took this up to suggest curricula characterized by flux rather than stability; classrooms that are open and permeable rather than closed and finite; teaching materials understood as participatory platforms that are modular and extensible; and pedagogical practices founded on perceiving the larger system rather than isolated entities within that system.

Speaking with respect to an earlier definition of design centered on problem-solving, Burdick noted, “The problem with problem-solving is that you’re looking for answers as if there is an end,” pinpointing the teleological perspective ill-suited for a paradigm characterized as dynamic and in the process of becoming. In place of this forward-moving quest that presumes an end, Thorburn advised the opposite. “We must attend to the past as avidly as to the future,” he cautioned, sustaining the corrective put forward in his provocation. However, rather than looking either forward or backward, perhaps systems thinking might be useful here, which insists that we forego hypotheses and the reductionism of closed systems, and instead value the generative potential of the system for helping produce emergent ideas. Indeed, the entire New Contexts / New Practices conference was itself devised as a kind of system, moving away from the framing of hypotheses and the delivery of finished and complete thoughts in the traditional conference panel format to the opening up of a dialogue designed to be dynamic and generative.