Guiding idea

Design and design research are for the main part still adhering to the conviction that scientific research efforts will necessarily increase planning capacity and predictive power with respect to the success of design solutions. The leading paradigm seems to be based upon the assumption, that the design field will more and more become a subject of causal models, that the formerly white map will become increasingly colourful and complete, and that the swampy regions of uncertainty and unpredictability will be subsequently replaced by solid and well-grounded knowledge. Historical experience and empirical evidence, however, permit us to be sceptical about this modernistic assumption.

The forthcoming conference is set to challenge the approach or attitude, which may be labelled as the "knowledge base position" of design research, not by claiming that it is superfluous, but that it neglects and leaves out the much larger field of "not-knowing" or "unknowledge". Or, to put it more precisely it neglects the various attempts made by diverse fields such as systems theory, evolution theory, complexity theory and others, to deal with real-world problems in manners, which, at the same time, acknowledge and respect the special systemic nature of these phenomena namely their obstinacy, their unpredictability and their uncontrollability.

As a consequence, "knowledge-based" design research almost inevitably creates its own blind spot. It is unable to appropriately recognize the full implications of what it means to be in a field of uncertainty, a space of imagination and projection, where we necessarily have to act when designing. The "knowledge base position" is insufficent by itself and needs to be complimented by the "unknowledge base position". The hypothesis of this proposition is that systems theory and evolution theory provide promising means to enter the field of design thinking from the other side of the distinction knowing - not-knowing, that is from the side of "unknowledge". Systems approaches acknowledge both the knowable and unknowable. We can "know" the unknowable by knowing where the knowable ends.

It is not so much of science as a method, but science or knowledge as an ideology, which is being called into question. By (scientifically and non-scientifically) examining the processes of designing as processes in the course of socio-cultural evolution, we will learn more clearly what is impossible in design and design research, and we will be in a better position to identify the stable islands of reliable knowledge, which are - without any doubt - existing in design.

The conference title " DESIGNsystemEVOLUTION" is a deliberate choice and requires some semantic clarification: "DESIGN…EVOLUTION" acknowledges and appreciates the obvious fact, that there is a considerable development, differentiation and complexification of and in the discipline. Professionalization is advancing, but progress in foundations is nevertheless slow and still questionable. "…system…" addresses the phenomenon of both interlinked as well as separated chunks of knowledge and action and reflection being in the design process and in disciplinary communication and practice.
System thinking of one kind introduces the concept of "organized complexity", which is helpful for illustrating and managing the inherent "wholeness" of design situations. System concepts of the other kind remind us of the inevitable autonomy and autopoietic character of the various entities involved, which leads to fundamental incompatibilities, causality gaps and the highly temporal nature of knowledge in design.
"DESIGNsystemEVOLUTION" addresses the development of the professional and academic field of design in its typical progressive + chaotic character.

The forthcoming conference is aimed to provide a forum for the presentation and discussion of these new approaches and ideas, and maybe to initiate a framework for the development of a new domain of design research.


The field as sketched above is not at all well-structured. Therefore we propose a number of very general headings with somewhat metaphorical character and with some more precise sub-headings. They are to serve as illustrations and suggestions for possible contributions to DESIGNsystemEVOLUTION and for the final organization of topics and tracks at the conference.

stories & histories / science & fiction

1) development / evolution of design (the design phenomenon in time)

design histories and design futures…(e.g. design in Bremen)

design for social / cultural needs (e.g. designagainstcrime)

design for evolving societies / design in the periphery…

2) designing evolution (controlling the uncontrollable)

designing nature…

design on an evolutionary scale (biological, genetic, geographic design…)

design as social and cultural guidance system (political design…)

rhythms & algorithms / genes & memes

3) evolution theories in design (explicitly applying e-theories)

evolutionary models of industrial / design development

evolution of artefacts

genetics & memetics in design

4) evolutionary design (imitating evolution)

the physics of form

evolutionary algorithms in design and engineering

generative design & art

search & research / complexification & progress

5) evolving paradigms in design research (introducing the joker)

the scientific approach

the project centered approach

"Design Noir" and beyond…

6) design theories / methods / philosophies evolving? (progress in design?)

evolutionary epistemology

"wicked problems" and 2nd order cybernetics

the evolution of design methods (hard / soft / chaos+complexity / …)

knowing & not-knowing / systems & management

7) design paradigms in innovation & strategic management (new or different?)

dealing with uncertainty

designers - experts in not-knowing?

Futures Studies and scenario-planning

8) Theory of social systems: Niklas Luhmann + design + evolution (special track)

and some dedicated counter-positions...


© 2004 Niels Verhaag