Design of Understanding 2013 – a review

For the third year running, The Design of Understanding dedicates itself to escaping the ruins of the Cartesian project. René’s rules of science that helped kick-start the enlightenment project “to divide each of the difficulties […] encountered into as many parts as possible” [1] enabled humanity to decipher the earth, the universe and the human body at a speed never seen before. Yet as it now slowly starts to dawn upon us, this idea of dividing does not help much when we have to unwrap the complex system of our current world and even less in suggesting what should be done to create positive change in the future. Mapping the old theory of science on the complexity of the world leads to a situation once humorously explained by Borges through a fictional Cartographers Guild:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it  [2]

If Descartes’ rules don’t bring us any closer to understanding our now and building our future, what should we do? Some try to find the answer in ever more data points, others turn to new-age religions and yet others start to play with the information at hand. In this quest for a post-Cartesian understanding of what the world is, could, and should be, the Design of Understanding provides a helping hand.

Luckily, these ‘as many parts as possible’, be it words, atoms, bits or people, behave, although not perfectly predictable, also not entirely at random. The Lorenz system (see image on top) as shown by Beeker Northam is a great visual representation of this.

Matt Cottam tells the story of Tellart, a 21st century industrial design company, who worked with Google to create an installation to make the internet understandable. Moving from the digital to the physical world came with unexpected constraints. Lawyers pointed out that children needed to keep their privacy; how though can you do this whilst also allow them to connect their museum visit with their computer at home? A colourful personal logo-card turned out to be the solution. Physical scale started to play a role too: you might be able to make a hundred thousand facial drawing print-outs for actual visitors, but what about a hundred million web visitors? Suddenly virtual turns out to be not so virtual at all and take lots of material and maintenance. To make sure the Amazon rainforest had any chance of survival they skipped printing on paper and invented a sand-drawing robot and also the world’s first whiteboard eraser robot.

Joe Parry, builder of the network visualisation tool Keylines, mentioned how hard it is to understand networks. We cannot understand a network unless we see it, and even when we see it we cannot understand anything with more than a 1000 nodes. Because of the size and complexity of networks in a remarkable amount of cases the easiest way to gain understanding is by printing everything out and placing it on the wall. His tool Keylines allows users to go through large datasets with more ease and at higher speed. It allows to answer questions such as: who are the network leaders, who are effective communicators, what are the effects when person x leaves the network? Ultimately understanding the network means understanding the place of each node in the network and being able to explain the network in both in and at a high level.

Phil Gyford tells the story of his decade-long project of blogging Samuel Pepys’s diary at the speed of one entry per day, laughingly quoting Steward Brand “A building is not something you finish, it’s something you start”. He also noted the ability of a web-based diary to map the world in time and space, and wondered where do you stop explaining: there are always more maps, paintings and articles –more context– you can add.

Llyod Shepherd, writer of historical fiction goes through his process of note-taking. With better tools and more information at our disposal note-taking has become easier. Choosing which notes to take though has become a lot harder. And the act of sense-making has become an ongoing tour-de-force. To deal with an abundance of data, note-taking ultimately becomes a personal and aesthetic act.

Justin McGuirk shows various Latin American architecture projects, demonstrating that designing houses is the easy part. For architects the hardest part and the part where they can make the biggest difference is in influencing the system: talking to politicians, to neighbourhood committees, to lawyers and the police to make it possible to not only build new housing but to change the infrastructure and the way the city functions. He shows an example of a project where instead of building the conventional solution of a road to connect the suburbs to the center, the architects managed to build a cable car cutting down the transport time from two hours to nine minutes, all without massive physical changes to the urban environment. He ends with a set of guidelines that are as true for architects as they are for designers: to achieve the impossible you have to focus on redesigning the system by being an extrovert, a catalyst, a connector of the informal with the formal and a performer in a show of policies, laws, developers and inhabitants. What you design is not so much the object as the system in which this object can exist.

More reviews:
Design of Understanding 2013 — Aden Davies
Design of Understanding 2013 — Rodcorp
Design of Understanding 2013 – Mark Barratt
Sketchnotes — Eva-Lotta Lamm
Sketchnotes — Boon Yew Chew
Lanyrd page
Last year’s review

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