Consilience in Design
Dancing with the Meta and the Matter.

Footnote 1 

The formatting of this article is an experiment. Usually, I do not publish texts that are still drafts, especially if they have comments that challenge their ideas. Not because I do not like to be challenged, but because they might confuse you, the reader. But what if confusion is the necessary friction that gives you the space to shape your own opinion? Let me know how you experience this format.

Comments by BB (Bryan Boyer), EH (Emily Harris) and AS (Arianna Smaron).

Now, more than ever,* we need to learn to work together efficiently. Our rapidly evolving professions have led to new specializations, enabling a deeper understanding of emerging challenges. However, the solutions of yesterday often become the problems of tomorrow, and specialization can exacerbate the gaps between different disciplines. Simultaneously, we require teams with experts in diverse fields to address the growing complexity of our tasks. How can we foster a better understanding among related professions? This article aims to bridge these gaps through clear role definitions.

* BB: Is it true? Humans are a collaborative species. We’ve always needed to work together… what may now create new urgency is a proliferation of silos, professional identities, and other artificial boundaries that come with a society that lives with a high degree of abstraction.

Recently, I revisited Edward O. Wilson’s book “Consilience”.2 In the book’s opening chapter, Wilson discusses “The Great Branches of Learning”, science and humanities, and claims the necessity of achieving “consilience” to unify the knowledge of these divided academic branches. Wilson wrote ”The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship.” Consilience is achieved if multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, creating stronger evidence.

I still have my doubts that consilience in design is possible.* At least in the sense of Wilson’s definition of consilience. The metrics of science have proven to be inefficient in design, leading Otl Aicher to his famous quote “Design is not science” after the failure of an extensive attempt to establish a scientific curriculum at the HfG Ulm. While the Bauhaus definition of design has been born from the arts, the HfG Ulm wanted to break with the artistic tradition and redefine design as a scientific discipline.

* EH: I understand consilience to be the act of perspective seeking – to fully embody the perspective of another rather than just seeking to understand it. Maybe that adds a different dimension to how a designer might think about it?

However, it remains crucial in our increasingly specialized world, to overcome the emerged gaps and foster effective collaboration among experts from diverse fields. Without achieving consilience across various classes, disciplines, or professions, gaps emerge, leading to confusion, misunderstanding, and inefficiency—a systemic error.*

* BB: So consilience within design is one thing, and then consilience between design and other disciplines is another. Both important for different reasons. Internally to design I believe there has been ambiguity or confusion for decades as academic designers first struggled to make sense of the digital turn (is a website “faster” graphics or “artistic” computer science?) and then design thinking and strategy. Both waves have resulted in a proliferation of terms without a lot of clarity. This makes me wonder of consilience within design is still underway, emergent, perhaps simply much harder than it “should” be.

Which Gaps emerged?

Each of us has faced challenges emerging through gaps, leading to misunderstandings among colleagues from various departments, disciplines, or hierarchies. For instance, a creative director might overlook the potential of typography, while a graphic designer might focus solely on typographic details without considering the creative director’s strategy. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking about this relationship as a linear top-down process. The Creative Director writes the brief and the Graphic Designer executes it. Only that this is utter nonsense. The moment an idea manifests,* it changes its nature. The idea of the design transforms as soon as it becomes real. Like when you are articulating your thoughts. As soon as they leave your mouth or are typed out on your laptop, they become something different.** They become a sculpture that can be changed by everyone participating in its creation, even the observer. Creative Directors and Graphic Designers need to accept this reality and be ready to work together towards a common goal that might differ from their intentions. Conversational Design3 is a participatory process.*** 

* BB: Takes form as visuals or verbalizations?

** EH: Yes! Our bodies are like a two-way mirror reflecting inwards the external frames that surround us and interpreting them into our thoughts and values, whilst at the same time reflecting those amalgamated frames back out into our milieus. Whilst this can seem fatalistic if viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy it also strikes me as a continuous opportunity for adjusting our reality.

*** BB: And like all participatory processes, needs to be entered into by all parties knowingly. I think this is the source of the imagined friction you’re describing above between a CD and a graphic designer: some CDs want to be or are told to be dictators, not participants. Consilience may be helpful, but it cannot create respect out of thin air.

These gaps are increasingly prevalent in our daily work. Not just for Creative Directors and Graphic Designers, but for any professional relationship. While learning relevant skills is valuable to understanding the other perspective, the pace of change often outstrips our ability to keep up. Instead, fostering consilience – integrating diverse perspectives and knowledge* – is a more effective strategy for navigating these challenges, given the constraints of time and cognitive capacity.

* EH: Something about this makes me want to take it a bit further. What if rather than seeking to understand and integrate different perspectives, we opened ourselves more fully to the incredible potential of everything being relational? Sure, we need to be able to focus but maybe designers could also lean into the lived experience of the whole….as part of their training?

ML: I like this idea and you know much more about this approach than I do. I just don’t trust myself being able to ever fully grasp the relationships of everything. My embodied knowledge will always be limited to the relationships I experienced. I just can assume everything is relational, but never really grasp it. I prefer to accept this limitation and acknowledge other perspectives as being equally true.

EH: I’m not suggesting designers should try and grasp the infinite relationships of the universe! More that for whatever it is you are designing there is a wider gestalt type of whole – it’s the same for any discipline. I think that’s it’s really important to relax our attention enough to appreciate that, to zoom in and out between the specific task or perspective and the lifeworld (erlebt I think in German?). I will share some texts I love on this in case you are interested.

BB: Emily, what I’m seeing here is that designers need to be grounded and open people first, then skilled professionals second.

EH: Yes exactly and also to actively hold both positions in their craft. I’m an accountant and I enjoy building technical scenario models but they are meaningless if I forget to pay attention to the overall story. It’s probably obvious but the paper is centred on consilience so I’m continuing to poke a bit.

Image: (c) Martin Lorenz, 2024

The design disciplines can be broadly categorized into four fundamental disciplines: Visual Design, Motion Design, Object Design, and Spatial Design.4

Visual Design:

This discipline encompasses all areas primarily focused on two-dimensional communication. This includes Graphic Design, Type Design, Editorial Design, Brand/Identity Design, Advertising, UI/UX Design, Information Design, Data Visualization, Exhibition design, Wayfinding/Signage Design, Packaging, and more. This categorization and sub-categorization help streamline the vast learning curve within the design field.

Motion Design: 

Though closely aligned with Visual Design, Motion Design has to be treated as a distinct discipline. The evolution of communication channels has led many Visual Designers to embrace motion as a tool. While motion feels intuitive in digital media, its potential extends beyond animated logos and social media posts. It encompasses the art of filmmaking and the power of storytelling through the synergistic combination of moving images and sound.

Object Design: 

This discipline goes beyond the scope of “Industrial Design” or “Product Design” as the object may not be mass-produced or intended for commercial sale. Furniture design and even some aspects of retail design fall under this umbrella. However, when the scale transcends an individual object and becomes an environment, it enters the realm of Spatial Design.

Spatial Design:

This discipline operates purely in the three-dimensional realm, demanding a distinct set of skills focused on spatial perception and tools. Spatial designers guide a person’s view and movement through physical spaces, requiring a different approach from navigating smaller-scale experiences. While Object Design deals with three dimensions too, the scale is what differentiates the two. Architects, exhibition designers, and retail designers (when considering the entire space) are all considered Spatial Designers.

These design disciplines are not isolated. Collaboration is paramount. Spatial designers might require Visual Designer’s expertise for orientation or signage systems. Visual designers might partner with Motion Designers for complex storytelling animations. Object designers might rely on Visual Designers for user interfaces and packaging, with the reciprocity being true as well. Understanding how these disciplines work together is crucial for a successful design outcome.

Consilience allows for transdisciplinary (or transcontextual) compound learning and equips us to confront problem spaces from one discipline with the tools of another. Consilience could be a tool for better understanding and collaboration, shifting the response space where it is most effectively addressed.

* AS: In this categorisation where Art direction is placed? or/and story-telling and narration?

ML: I will get to that in the next section of this article. 🙂 Any kind of direction is placed on the “Strategic” level, in any discipline. The meta that will lead to the matter. Art Direction and Creative Direction make strategic decisions before they are turned into (Visual, Motion, Object, or Spatial) Design on the “Implementation” level.

Which Gaps need bridging?

The primary question we must address is: between which gaps do we require consilience? For instance, if you’re a doctor, understanding how different parts of the body interact is essential before specializing in a specific area. But what constitutes the “body” of design? Are we serving individuals, communities, institutions, organizations, corporations, countries, continents, the planet, or something completely different? At what scale does complexity become unmanageable? These are questions every designer and design school must answer. 

However, I guess we can agree that design’s function aligns with the incentives of the systems and system boundaries in which it operates.* Understanding this is crucial for acting consciously and responsibly. Therefore, I propose placing System Design at the core as a tool for achieving consilience. If we were to map all design disciplines, this is where we would position organizational design disciplines such as Strategic Design, Service Design, and Social Innovation Design.

* EH: I really hope not! Maybe I am misunderstanding but the thing I love about design is that it visualises things and opens up new understanding – if the incentives of the system are problematic then I hope the role of design is to show that and help people to consider the alternatives.

ML: I completely agree. I just wonder if design is able to change the systems it is embedded in. If the success of a company is measured by the profit it makes, then design is measured by these metrics too. The kind of perspective changing critical design questioning the “business model” is a rare case and probably too risky for profit-oriented companies and more often to find in organizations with different objectives. Are you suggesting design should always question the systems it is embedded in?

EH: I’m saying that gently. I don’t mean that design should become a direct challenger but that it should express what it sees. I don’t see design as a service, to be commissioned to fit within pre-defined boundaries. Something about that sentence feels very diminishing

BB: The unwritten tension here is between a “Designer,” as a titular professional who is almost always beholden to client or boss and thus status quo power structures, or “Design” as a capital letter practice that can be embodied by individuals with an interest in changing the status quo. Sometimes Designers Design and sometimes they don’t. I agree that Design can help make things visible, legible, operable that might not otherwise be so… and in those situations I believe the primary benefit is coming from the unique reasoning that is common to designers, specifically addictive reasoning combined with the “mirroring” of ideas and observations back to ourselves via material representations (images, prototypes, etc)

Image: (c) Martin Lorenz, 2024

In accordance with our design objectives, the methodologies, tools, and teaching approaches adapt. Similarly, the range of disciplines we aim to connect may shift. Should designers possess a systemic understanding of economics or ecology, psychology or sociology, and for what purpose? When the “Arts and Crafts” movement bridged the gap between the arts and crafts, it consciously opposed the dehumanizing effects of industrialized design. Conversely, under Walter Gropius’s leadership, the Bauhaus advocated for the industrialization of design,5 prioritizing standardized, scalable solutions in design and architecture over individualistic craft. However, the outcomes often diverge from the initial visions. A vision is a model of an imagined future system.* While we acknowledge the adverse impacts of the Bauhaus movement, it doesn’t necessarily reflect Gropius’s intentions. Even Gropius had his system boundaries and limitations to envision beyond them. 6

* EH: Love this!

How do we bridge the Gaps?

Which is the discipline of all disciplines? The discipline that is able to establish consilience in design and maybe even consilience beyond design? If we consider design a discipline that embodies implementation (matter-level) and strategy (meta-level), and the matter-level shaped the different perceptions of designers, the meta-level offers a chance of consilience. I named this meta-level “System Design” as an invitation to experience our planet (and everything on it) as an entangled system, and an idealistic hope that we can design better systems.

But words create new gaps and even the broadest terms have limitations. Some systems cannot be designed and not every design is systemic. This definition is only as long valid as it is helpful. The fifth discipline, the meta-discipline, which should not be a separate discipline but be embodied by all four disciplines, includes Strategic Design, Organisational Design, Policy Design, Service Design, etc.*

* ML: To some, it might look shocking that the meta-level design disciplines all belong to System Design and are not even separate disciplines, but always in interaction with one or more of the four main disciplines. My reasons are simple. Meta-level design needs matter-level design. Without a manifestation in words, images, movies, objects, or spaces, no strategy can be implemented. Meta and matter need to evolve synchronically.

“All models, whether mental models or mathematical models are simplifications of the real world.” writes Donna Meadows.7 System Design, working with mental models needs to be in touch with reality to evolve and adapt accordingly. We can work deductively from our models but need to challenge models inductively from reality.8

Image: (c) Martin Lorenz, 2024

One of the biggest and most painful gaps is the separation between strategy and implementation. This divide only apparently enhances efficiency as the strategist can delegate the execution to those implementing the strategy. However, it also leads to misinformation about the conditions of the “soldiers” and the true reality of the (matter) battle they are fighting. Sticking with the terminology of war, a general who is unaware of the condition of their soldiers, the weapons they are using, and the zone they are fighting in will struggle to win the war. A fluent information flow of each respective expertise and perspective is crucial for achieving a successful outcome. The meta should not be separated from the matter. The codified knowledge needs to be in touch with the embodied knowledge.* 

* BB: And indeed, wartime needs have driven the development of so many communications and information technologies. It’s a difficult history.

I am not a fan of military terms, especially when used for social causes, but the term “Strategic Design” poses another problem. When used in conjunction with other design disciplines, it suggests that those disciplines lack strategic thinking.* Since every design discipline requires both strategy and implementation, each of the four design disciplines needs consilience through System Design. System Design cannot be divorced from any discipline; it must serve as a tool for communication and collaboration among disciplines, ingrained in all of us. Each of us needs to engage in both the meta (strategy) and the matter (implementation within our respective disciplines). We all face the risk of causing harm through our own system boundaries, and the only way to overcome these is to enhance our conversational design frameworks with others.**

* BB: This is an irony that I’ve observed: add a “strategic designer” to a project and suddenly the other designers, say “graphic designers,” risk becoming merely hands instead of hands attached to brains. I don’t have a good answer beyond having a strong bond of trust between all parties involved in a project. In this bond, it’s easier for people more focused on “products” to represent issues of legibility, communicability, and perception. Likewise for people more concerned with “purpose” it’s often easier to convey issues of context, economy, politics, business, etc. trust between both sides of the purpose/product spectrum is needed, but that trust is counter to the assumptions built into the linear model of “think then do” that is at the base of so many workflows in todays world (thanks, modernism!)

** BB: It’s also just a question time. When you have more time you can navigate the blurry and shared responsibilities that you’re describing. Be short of time and not so much; people revert back to command and control structures almost. By default.

If you are a designer, in which of the four disciplines or in between which disciplines do you see yourself? I am trying to map all current disciplines. It is totally fine to be in several disciplines at once.

If you are not a designer but work with designers, how do you embed design in your discipline?

If you are a designer or not, we need to work together on consilience. I am interested in the gaps you experienced and maybe even managed to bridge.

  1. Referencing Donna Meadows’s “Dancing with Systems”, Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses”, and Bryan Boyers’s “Matter Battle” ↩︎
  2. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience, Random House, 1998  ↩︎
  3. Read about Conversational Design here ↩︎
  4. I am happy to be challenged. My objective has been to group closely related sub-disciplines. Which ones relate will change over time. New technologies or needs will require regrouping. My second objective has been to find a healthy scope of related sub-disciplines. It makes no sense to expect a student to dominate all fields that bear the name “design”. This will not just cause even more anxiety, but also a decline in quality, especially in the traditional but essential skills of design like typography and visualization. ↩︎
  5. Bauhaus Dokumentarfilm, 1969  ↩︎
  6. David Sloan Wilson: “Chickens, Cooperation and a Pro-social World” | The Great Simplification #56 ↩︎
  7. Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008  ↩︎
  8. This is where I agree with Wilson. We need a meta-physical layer allowing for consilience. System Design as the meta-physical layer will reach the matter level through the different disciplines. How exactly System Design for Design needs to be defined I am not sure, but I am sure we will be only able to develop this definition together, across disciplines.  ↩︎