Design as production of presence – systemic approach to re-designing novelty

Piotr Michura and Stan Ruecker

The reality and recurrence of symbiosis in evolution suggests that we are still in an invasive, ‘parasitic’ stage and we must slow down, share, and reunite ourselves with other beings if we are to achieve evolutionary longevity.
(Margulis and Sagan, cited in Clarke and Hansen, 2009, 7)

In this paper, we propose that radical innovation not only changes meanings (and can be driven by meaning change) but also, more fundamentally, changes people’s experience of presence (and vice versa), which is the larger framework in which ascribing meanings takes place. Taking this position as the basis for a systemic approach to design has the potential to radically change our understanding of what it means to do “human-centred” design. According to Norman and Verganti (2014), radical innovation (as opposed to incremental innovation) can come from a change in technology or a change in meaning. The change in meaning which can lead to radical innovation can be supported by research through design, but only when the researcher-designer avoids the traps of following the currently supported meanings. If designing is making sense of things, designing radical novelty must involve changing a framework in which sense-making takes place.

Humans “make sense of things” (Krippendorf, 1989) to the extent that the created, new structures fit. Humans construct their worlds by “re-cognising stabilities” within a recursive process of acting and sensing the results of acting (Krippendorf, 2007). The stabilities that make human worlds, are just enough, no more no less, to build a coherent, non-contradictory view of the assumed reality. To design, according to second-order cybernetics, is to act and to participate within systems, constantly produced by their constituents, in order to create opportunities for desirable, preferred actions (Krippendorf, 2007.) A designer is always involved as a component of the system s/he wants to influence.

We agree that radical innovation involves changes on the implicit level of the design system. By reshaping the very boundaries of the system, radical innovation enables people to realize potentialities. But we propose that defining designing as “making sense of things,” which fits perfectly into the construction of Norman and Verganti, is not the whole picture of what design is. Consequently, the possible innovation made through design can also take place on other levels. But what if designing could be approached as a nonrepresentational phenomenon, something which is not to be interpreted (endowed with meaning) in the first place, but instead allows another form of relationship with the artificial?

Following the ideas of Gumbrecht (1999), we propose that designing contributes to the “production of presence,” which is a gesture that Gumbrecht contrasts with meaning-making. Drawing on the history of literary scholarship, Gumbrecht argues that hermeneutics and interpretation gained so much attention within humanities that researchers have tended to overlook other aspects of cultural phenomena. He points to examples of how jazz improvisation, conversation or football matches unfold. These are events that are able to catch us in the appreciation of a moment. Although they might be analysed according to categories of meaning or symbolic value – those analyses miss the actual point of what those events are about. According to Gumbrecht, they are first of all nonrepresentational and non-meaning-producing acts.

He proposes that human engagement with the artificial is not narrowed to attribution of meaning and that in addition to meaning-making, there is our “experience of presence” – an intense feeling of “here and now.” Presence in his view is “the convergence of an event-effect with an embodied form.” It is about the emergence of forms, following the Luhmanian reading of Spencer-Brown’s calculus of form, where distinction and indication select what is to be observable. The form is a unity of distinction – marked and unmarked states, demarcating boundaries of a system against its environment.

Gumbrecht speaks about “embodied form” associating the presence effect with spatial and tangible material aspects that affect our bodies and senses. Landgraf (2009) in the analysis of Gumbrecht opposes this view, placing the source of those effects in pre-representational acts of making a distinction. He points to the drawbacks of connecting the notion of presence solely to embodiment, in danger of pushing a more or less tacit process into something concrete and real (and making materiality a precondition of experience and observation).

With the help of such conceptual substitutions [system/environment distinction, Spencer-Brown’s form concept], we can comprehend the psychic and the nervous systems as observing and relating to their environment long before comprehension mediated through language and abstraction is initiated.
(Landgraf 2009, 196.)

Similarly, Katherine Hayles (2017) points to non-conscious cognition as possibly shared among organisms as well as extended into the realm of networked machines. She states that organisms and machines are involved in “processes that interpret information in contexts that connect it to meaning”, where meaning is understood, on the very basic level, as a selection of information. She provides a non-anthropocentric view that we live in hybrid human-technical assemblages.

Analogically to Luhmann’s idea of “a person” understood, quite surprisingly, as a complex of expectations put forward by the social system, we want to argue that designing of novelty might be based on a thorough reconceptualisation of commonly assumed system boundaries involving resignation from the central position of a human and even in questioning the very notion of it.


Clarke, Bruce and Mark B. N. Hansen (2009). Introduction. Clarke, Bruce and Mark B. N. Hansen Emergence and Embodiment. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Hayles, Katherine, a lecture Contesting for the Meaning of Meaning: Cognitive Technologies, Cognitive Humans, Cognitive Others, at the University of Rhode Island, April 17, 2017.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich (1999) Epiphany of Form: On the Beauty of Team Sports. New Literary History, 30: 351-372.

Krippendorf, Klaus (1989). On the Essential Contexts of Artifacts or on the Proposition that ‘Design Is Making Sense (of Things),’ Design Issues, V(2), 9-39.

Krippendorf, Klaus (2007).The Cybernetics of Design and the Design of Cybernetics. Kybernetes 36(9-10), 1381-1392.

Landgraf, Edgar (2009). Improvisation: Form and Event. Clarke, Bruce and Mark B. N. Hansen Emergence and Embodiment. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Norman, Donald A. and Roberto Verganti (2014). Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research Versus Technology and Meaning Change. Design Issues, 30(1), 78-96.

Posted: Oct-2017

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