Design literacy: Organizing Self-Organization

by Dick Rijken


Life in this network society is complex. We are involved in many different kinds of fluid relationships with friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, project partners, companies, brands, websites, platforms, clubs, schools, and many other kinds of communities. More often than not, we maintain these relationships using digital media like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and plain old email. We connect, communicate and share like our lives depend on it – as, increasingly, they in fact do. 

In his article, Paul Atkinson talks about the demise of the grand narrative of modernist design. While this is very true, it is not solely applicable to design; it applies similarly to all grand narratives, and to modernism in general. Where we were once infatuated by concepts like universal truth and linear progress, we now find ourselves in a chaotic maze of anecdotes and interconnected ideas. Linear progress has become perpetual change with no shared direction. Within that change, we are on a perpetual quest for personal meaning, no longer seeking truth. All this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make life difficult and unpredictable. If we can learn to improvise and to adapt, life can be deeply meaningful and rewarding. We are not there yet, though; there is still a lot to learn.




This article deals with the changing position of knowledge and expertise in open networks. Digital tools and media are generic infrastructures for creating, sharing and transforming information. They enable and facilitate personal learning on a massive scale. Anything that can be converted into a digital format can also be stored, shared and used by anyone, anywhere. This changes everything that has anything to do with ideas – and therefore also changes design. It changes how we design, it changes what we design, it changes how we think about design, and it changes how we learn and teach design. Ultimately, it will also change who designs. Web 2.0, with the concept of user-generated content at its core, will not leave the design discipline untouched.


Fundamental Paradoxes

In order to understand what is happening to design, we need to understand two strongly related paradoxes that are fundamental features of networks: the paradox of identity, and the paradox of choice.

The paradox of identity arises from the fact that networks are made of nodes and links, i.e. identities and relationships. Nodes have their own unique identity, but that identity is meaningless without links to other nodes. We have become more independent from others through the development and actualization of our own unique individual self. But at the same time, we have become more dependent on others, since who we are depends to a large extent on who we relate to and interact with. We feel a need to stand out in a crowd, but we are nothing if not connected. 

We depend on fluid networks around us for our daily lives’ activities. Parties are announced on and communicated through Facebook, and the fun is later shared through pictures on Flickr. We find jobs using LinkedIn, where we present our professional résumés, and ask people we’ve worked with in the past to write positive testimonials about us. We don’t exist if we have no visible presence in the networks we want to be involved in. If you are what you act like, you better make sure you act like who you are – or who you want to be.

This makes the network society an essentially cultural place. This is true not just in the anthropological sense that everything we learn is seen as ‘culture’, but in a very instrumental sense as well: activities like ‘expression’ and ‘reflection’ that are at the core of art and related cultural activities give form to the networked life of an individual. And this brings us to the second paradox, the paradox of choice. We are the designers of our own lives through the choices we make, and there are more choices open to us now than ever before. At the same time, this freedom has a dark side to it: we must choose, whether we like it or not. The freedom of choice that we have is also an inescapable obligation. With choice comes responsibility. The ability to reflect and give form to our lives within given constraints is just as important for an individual as reading, writing or arithmetic. In this context, we move from ‘design as culture’ to a culture of design, where design is part of our natural mode of being.

/Excerpt from the article found in the Open Design Now website, under the Creative Commons license//you can read the full text here/

/Photography and Installation by Costantino Rizzuti/