The Design Way: metaphysics

Evil, splendor, and the guarantors of destiny & design

This blog post attempts to summarize Section IV: Metaphysics of Nelson and Stolterman’s “The design way” (TDW: 2012, 2003), see also the six previous posts. TDW merges several intellectual traditions, including Churchman’s systems approach, which also inspired our own book “Wicked Solutions.” It is not surprising that there are interesting parallels between the books, some of which we are happy to point out (to ourselves in the first place) at the end of this summary.

Evil of design      Several metaphysical issues arise from a design approach to life. These are related to design excellence, design uncertainties, and design boundaries. Boundary issues arise when we talk about the responsibility of the designer for various types of evil that may result from a design that is not altogether beneficial. These evils could be classified as willful evils, natural or necessary, unavoidable evils, and accidental evils. Other forms of evil are disharmony, separation from the All (Aldous Huxley), and unintended consequences. Evil is also part of the paradox that “design is splendor and evil.” This simply means that design can give magnificent results, but this can easily turn into the reverse.

Paradoxes    One of the best ways of looking at paradoxes in design is as necessary, opposite dimensions that make design exciting. The designer does well to understand and accept them. Without tension, there is a loss of aesthetic quality and depth. TDW mentions twelve paradoxes. Design is ..: (1) non-attachment and total engagement; (2) flux and permanence; (3) knowing and naiveté; (4) collaboration and solitude; (5) experience and fresh eyes; (6) process and structure; (7) cyclic and episodic; (8) control and uncontrollable; (9) unique and universal; (10) infinite and finite; (11) timeless and temporal; and (12) splendor and evil.

Splendor of design       Every designer has the responsibility to avoid evil and strive for excellence. The best designs display excellence in one form or another. There is no way of knowing for certain that excellence has been achieved. For a design to be excellent it must have value and meaning. The two are inter-related and key ingredients of what could be called “soul” of design. Soul “moves” people by the depth, beauty, integrity or usefulness of design. It may challenge the values that underlie earlier world views, assumptions, and judgments.

Guarantor-of-design       At some point a designer has to face the fundamental uncertainty that goes with design: how can he or she know for sure that the design will serve the client and not harm anybody else. To express and discuss this concern, Churchman (1979) proposed the category of “Guarantor-of-destiny” (or GOD). In TDW this is renamed “guarantor-of-design” (or god). It denies the existence of an external guarantor: the designer will simply have to learn to live with the responsibilities that go with design. Key element in this learning trajectory is the improvement of one´s “design character” as an internal guarantor in terms of values, beliefs, skills, sensibility, reason, ethics, and aesthetics.

Avoiding responsibility       Since design is beset with uncertainties and there are no guarantees, designers have a natural tendency to avoid responsibility. This can be done in a variety of ways: (1) transferring responsibility to the client; (2) sloughing off responsibility in a complex web of administration; (3) creating fogginess; (4) “truth telling” by agreeing on a particular method of inquiry that is considered to be beyond doubt, e.g. some scientific or other widely accepted technique; (5) not taking responsibility at all by admitting that “one can only do so much” and no longer seeing responsibility as an opportunity to improve oneself as a designer.

Parallels with “Wicked solutions”    If we admit to the idea that a designer – any designer, be it of buildings, projects, programmes, or organizations – has to take responsibility for his or her design in a broad sense, there is no escaping from the need for a systems approach, which is what Wicked solutions offers in an accessible way. It looks at value and meaning by taking in key perspectives. By doing so critically it helps create “fresh eyes”. It works on both process and structure. It looks particularly critical at ways in which responsibilities are avoided by so-called “false guarantees,” especially in relation to the knowledge needed for designing a “wicked solution.”



About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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