Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Complexity of the Particular

While preparing for my teaching I am doing some reading and some thinking. I have this reoccurring idea that I know is not new to me but it keeps coming back, and that is the idea of the complexity of the particular. In our book "The Design Way" we use the concept of the "ultimate particular" when we discuss the nature of design. We write:

"The outcome of a specific design process, such as a car, a curriculum, or an organizational structure, is an ultimate particular. It is something unique. It is not the universal car, the universal organizational structure, or curriculum. We are creating a particular, which, when taken together with other particulars, makes up the whole of our experienced reality."

we also give some examples of this:

"Distinctions between what is true (e.g., universal or general) and what is real (e.g., particular, full particular and ultimate particular) can be made in the following ways. A painting by Cézanne is real; the atomic weight of copper is true. An experience is real; a scientific observation is true. An organization is real; a proven fact is true. An individual’s perspective is real; a predictable event is true."

This is to some extent obvious and most people would probably say it is so obvious that it is not even important. However, when we understand and accept that design is about creating particulars, we also create a philosophical foundation that have extraordinary consequences for how it is possible to understand the design process.

Even though this idea of the ultimate particular has been with me for many years, it continues to excite me. And I am constantly surprised by the fact that it is so difficult to grasp the idea. Why is it so difficult? And why is it so difficult to see that complexity is not to found in abstractions and descriptions of the world but in the actuality of an ultimate particular. One single design manifests infinite complexity. Each design has in itself or reflects all possible aspects of reality. It is so easy to reduce the complexity of particulars by making simple judgments where only certain aspects of the design is noticed. So, richness and complexity is inherent in any design, while so frequently absent in simplistic and reductive descriptions and abstractions of the same designs. This understanding of designs as particulars also explains why a single design (a building, a car, a pen, a pair of shoes, etc) can evoke all our senses and make us speechless and overwhelmed. It is because that particular design has an infinite richness that resonates with our own overall experience of the world. Enough for now....


Dave said...

Please don't take this the wrong way. I am a designer philospher much like yourself and revel in these types of nuanced discourse. So here is my questions:

What is particular about design that is not particular about engineering?

It seems THIS question is not answered in the "ultimate particular" as you defined it here and so, I have to really ask:

Is there a difference between Design & Engineering?

My answer to the latter is definitely yes (I'm hoping yours is the same), but the difference is not in the result, but the path to getting there which is the opposite of "ultimate particularity" but rather about abundant futures vs. linear refinement. (design v engineering)

For me "the way" (sorry haven't read the book) is not about results. But about paths. That design thinking is about a philosophy applied to a path to topics not initially targeted by either.

Anyway, that's my thoughts. Interested in yours.

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Dave
Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, there is a difference between design and engineering, and I think you frame it well. Even though many processes can be seen as design processes (such as graphic, information,interaction, architecture, urban, organizational, etc), they are both similar in many ways but also differ. They differ because they deal with different materials and conditions, require different competences and skills, but they also are similar and all examples of design as a broad human approach to creative change. The fact that they are all focused on creating reality, not studying or managing existing reality makes them very different to science or art or management...

I fully agree with you that design is about the path and not about the result, even though as with so many other things, they can't really be separated in practice. That is why our book has the title "The Design Way" is all about design as a process, as thinking, as activity, as doing...

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