Cognitive Point-of-View in Recursive Design

Author: Evan Barba

Systems thinking employs the concept of scale to denote the level at which a system is observed, and commonly organizes these levels into multiscale hierarchies of systems and subsystems (Pattee 1973; Wilensky and Resnick 1999; Salthe 2002, for examples). However, less formal uses of scale seem to be central to the way human beings organize the external world and represent it, both consciously and unconsciously, in the mind (Santayana 1998; Sale 2007; Hegarty et al. 2006). Many implicit and explicit uses of scale can be found in scientific and academic discourse as well as everyday language. Each of these uses has distinct nuances, but they all share in a broad definition of scale as a nested hierarchy of levels, and this suggests a common underlying conception or process that helps to organize human thinking.

Despite being fundamental to how we conceive of the world, there is little systematic study of the way designers employ scale in their practice and few general principles or models of design that explicitly use scale as an organizing concept. Nevertheless, its foundation in systems thinking and its vital role in human cognition suggest that scale-thinking is likely to be an important feature of the design process. In this presentation, I will further explore the role of scale in design by reanalyzing a well-known case study, the design of Herman Miller’s Mirra Chair, to demonstrate the multiscale, or recursive, nature of the design process. In particular, I will focus on the notion of cognitive point-of-view as a way to understand how designers continually reframe problems and resituate themselves at different scales.


In 2001, the internationally acclaimed Herman Miller furniture company, famous for its classic Eames Lounge Chair and high-end Aeron office chair, began designing a new mid-level office chair—the Mirra Chair. The company partnered with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, headed by architect William McDonough, to implement their trademarked environmentally sustainable Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) design strategy for the Mirra Chair (McDonough and Braungart 2002c; McDonough and Braungart 2002a). The Mirra Chair was the first product designed using a C2C protocol, and accounts of the process have appeared as published case studies (Lee and Bony 2009; McDonough and Braungart 2002b). Among other things, those case studies detail the ways that the constraints imposed by the C2C protocol forced the Herman Miller design team to reimagine its design and manufacturing processes. Some of the more notable observations include the attention paid to the fabrication and chemical composition of materials used in the various components of the Mirra Chair (armrest, base, back support, etc.) and the need to address the design of the production line and packaging (both of which were previously outside the boundaries of the design process) to meet C2C requirements.

When reanalyzed through a systems lens, the Mirra Chair case study provides a detailed account of how the C2C protocol required the design team to design at multiple scales. The accounts portray a design team that continuously shifted its focus from designing the form of the Mirra Chair itself to designing the various subsystems that produce its material components. This was a departure from the process the team had used for previous products, which treated the acquisition and fabrication of materials solely as constraints rather than as opportunities for the design of more effective subsystems. By continually shifting their perspective, the team was able to accomplish their environmental and product goals while also facilitating the C2C design of future products.

Recursive Design

A similar notion of taking multiple perspectives on a given system was described abstractly by Joseph Goguen and Francisco Varela (Goguen and Varela 1979). They used the term cognitive point-of-view (CPOV) to describe the way observers focus their attention when analyzing a system, and offered seven possible configurations of observer, system, subsystem(s), and environment (Figure 1). Their intention was to draw a distinction between two complementary approaches, behavioral and recursive. In the behavioral approach, the observer works only with the observable behaviors and collective variables of a subsystem. In the recursive approach, the observer analyzes the subsystems at the component level, reconfiguring them to create more desirable outputs. The complementary relationship between behavioral and recursive approaches is a model of how CPOV changes when working at multiple scales.

Goguen and Varela’s work readily describes the Mirra Chair design process. The Mirra Chair accounts detail a change from the “old way” of designing a product to a new process using the C2C protocol. This change can also be described in Goguen and Varela’s terms as a move away from the behavioral approach to a recursive one. In the old method, designers dealt only with the outputs of a subsystem. For example, they would discuss the properties of PVC in terms of collective behaviors like strength, durability, malleability, melting point, etc., but did not attempt to re-design PVC itself when these properties were insufficient. Yet, the C2C protocol required them to do just this. It forced the design team to look recursively into all the subsystems they relied on, treating them as unique design problems in their own right that needed to be addressed in order to proceed with the higher-scale design of the Mirra Chair.

The recursive model maps nicely onto the discussion of the Mirra Chair in many respects. Yet, some work needs to be done to update it if we wish to reveal a more general theory of the role of CPOV in design. Using the Mirra Chair case study as a point of reference, my presentation will provide a more thorough discussion of the ways in which the concepts of cognitive point-of-view and recursive design can help explain the Mirra Chair design process. In the course of that discussion, I will identify the limits of the original model, and show how it can be extended to yield a more dynamic notion of cognitive point-of-view and a general theory of recursive or multiscale design. Finally, I will discuss the implications of this theory in regard to a variety of topics relevant to both design and systems. These include ways we might train design students to more consciously and reflectively employ recursive design when addressing problems in interdisciplinary contexts, how organizations and teams might employ a recursive approach to projects and project management, and how we might proceed with a more formal research agenda in recursive design.

Posted: Oct-2017

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