Design: from knowledge to meaning

November 3, 2016

 

I keep thinking about simpler and simpler ways to describe the essence of the design thinking movement. Let me start with a key insight: 

 

Knowledge accumulates in our heads as an amorphous cloud; it is only in the act of applying knowledge to a particular outcome that key categorizations and distinctions become apparent. This is the basis for meaning, which emerges as qualified, focused knowledge. Meaning then acts as the scaffolding that allows new knowledge to be added to old.  

 

Fine you say, but what does this have to do with design? Well design is one of the best mechanisms for applying knowledge to a particular (tangible) outcome.

 

Let's take a closer look at how this might happen. As knowledge is applied to an outcome it becomes "separated" if you will from its storage medium - our brains. It is this separation or distance between knowledge stored as abstract, blurry notions and knowledge projected onto tangible form that encourages reflection.

 

I posit the type of reflection that happens as part of a design process is special; it is bi-directional - the abstract projects the tangible even while the tangible shapes and focuses the abstract. This is what cyberneticians and social scientists call a "reflexive" relationship - one where creator and artifact are in a state of simultaneous influence. It is in this state of "flux" that nondeterministic insights, what design thinkers might call "abductive" leaps of logic, become possible. I firmly believe this is the basis of creative breakthroughs. 

 

Let's pause for an example. Einstein purportedly came up with the Theory of Relativity by use of thought experiments. In designing these thought experiments he inserted the notional distance between abstract knowledge and a more concrete sounding board that allowed for the leaps of logic necessary for breakthrough insights. 

 

To recapitulate: design facilitates the focusing of knowledge into meaning. The process involves an element of nondeterminism and unpredictability associated with creative insight. 

 

Now let's go a step further. Meaning can be regarded as situated knowledge - perspective if you will. Meaning is how we interpret knowledge. Now meaning itself is made of up of distinctions, categorizations and the like. These are "hard" notions which can act to stabilize and settle new fluid knowledge. Meaning is paramount to the ability to absorb new knowledge and therefore further understanding. Without a solid foundation, new knowledge may compromise old knowledge rather than add to its value. We as human beings aren't meant to be simple knowledge storage and navigation devices - we have Google for that. We are manufacturers of meaning. And design is key to the alchemy of meaning production. 

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