Open-ended Design as Second-order Design. A case study of teaching Cybernetics and System Thinking to Industrial Design students

Francesca Ostuzzi, Walter Dejonghe and Jan Detand

Open-ended Design
Second-order Design
Industrial Design

Design can be seen as the process of creation of what is not there, and what is ought to be [7]. One of the main problems of this complex process is the gap that is created between the design space and the real context of use [3]. To cover this gap, a constant conversation is needed, between all possible stakeholders of the design process itself. Thanks to this conversation, which can be seen as Second-order Cybernetics, the actors learn about what conserves and what changes in the designed solution thanks to the context/environment [2], which can also be defined as re-appropriation [8]. This conversation can occur only in time and in the real context of use. To facilitate the conditions for this conversation to happen, which is ultimately a design act done by others, a second-order design is advocated [2][4]. The definition by Dubberly et al. of second-order design as “[The signage system] is never completely finished, never completely specified, never completely imagined. It is forever open.” closely resembles the definition of Open-ended Design as outcome of the design process that is “able to change, according to the changing context. Open-ended Design, can also be defined as suboptimal, error-friendly [6], unfinished, Wabi Sabi, contextual, context-dependent and is characterized by its inner flexibility due to the voluntary incomplete definition of its features, also defined as its Imperfection.” [9].

In this paper, we describe a case study of teaching Cybernetics and System Thinking design to Industrial Design Engineering students. The course, given to 3rd year students, is project-based [5] and focuses on small communities. The goal of the course is to let the students interact with the community and, by the constant use of functional prototypes and observations of the occurring interactions, try to start a self-sustaining process. The described year edition is about compost, both aerobic and anaerobic. Specifically, we focus this paper on an experiment where the students’ learning process was supported by the adoption of Open-ended Design Solutions.

The flow of the experiment is as follows.
• Every student received a case study where specific strategies for Open-ended Design are adopted in commonly used industrial products.
• (Task 1) Every student had to conduct an analysis following the flow reported in Figure 1, which mainly consists of:
o Model of Alpha process, highlighting the spontaneous process occurring and the meaning feedbacks related to is.
o Model a possible “controlling solution”, meaning a solution that ignores the identified spontaneous process. To do so, the use of archetypes was advised [1].
o Explicit the main hypothesis (HP) done by the designer and how this relates to the complex dynamic of change. Starting with the basic HP for which “of the product is used, then it changes”.
o Answer and explain the ten lenses of OeD, here listed.
♣ Why is the product changing? (relation with the spontaneous process)
♣ Who is changing the product? (agents of the spontaneous process)
♣ Is the main actor making a change to reach a particular goal? (goal directedness)
♣ What is changing in the product? (phenomenology of the process)
♣ How much is the product changing? (phenomenology of the process)
♣ How fast is the product changing? (phenomenology of the process)
♣ Is the change reversible? (phenomenology of the process)
♣ When is the change happening? (relation with the Life Cycle of the product)
♣ Where is the change happening? (relation with the Business Model)
♣ How many products can be produced in this way? (relation with the Business Model)
o Describe and explain the lens “How”, which is divided in mechanisms, that is how is the change physically supported (i.e. by using a modular solution, by using a fragile material, etc.) and strategies, that is how commercially is the change supported (i.e. by producing a big number of standard products in form of DIY kit, by using digital technologies in co-creation processes, etc.). Highlighting relations with both the engineering background of the students and their entrepreneurial skills.
o Model of Beta Process, highlighting if the newly designed system is working as anticipated (accordingly to the HP) or not.
• (Task 2) Every student has to design a double-blind test in order to learn more about the spontaneous interaction between the actors and the product, in the real context of use. To do so, the strategies studied and described in Task 1 should be applied, in order to increase the intensity of the traces (working as feedbacks) left by the interaction itself.

Figure 1: Open-ended Design, dynamic and learning process.

Students applied practical Open-ended Design solutions, or second-order design solutions, to start a conversation (through design) with different stakeholders. Here, the voluntary (designed) imperfection of the system served as trigger for re-appropriations, which helped the designers in learning about the real interactions with the system itself. This experiment stresses the need for teaching system thinking skills for designers, focusing on the fundamental capabilities as anticipating possible scenarios and losing control on the designed object. Also, it stresses the importance of practical examples and strategies to achieve and support re-appropriation processes in real-life experiments. These strategies cannot be taught to students as “fixed realities” being highly related to the context, but can be introduced to them as inspirational and comparative tool. By doing that, the actual Open-ended Strategies developed by students became the expression of their creativity as designer, and served as tool to support intentional change.

Short reference list

1. William Braun. 2002. The System Archetypes. The Systems Modeling Workbook: 1–26. Retrieved from
2. Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro. 2015. Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 22, 3: 73–82.
3. Guido Hermans. 2015. Opening Up Design: Engaging the Layperson in the Design of Everyday Products. Umea University.
4. Klaus Krippendorff. 2007. The Cybernetics of Design and the Design of Cybernetics. Kybernetes 36, 9/10: 1381–1392.
5. Dabae Lee, Yeol Huh, Charles M. Reigeluth, Stephanie Bell, Emily J Summers, and Gail Dickinson. 2010. Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. The Clearing House 83: 39–43.
6. Ezio Manzini. 2012. ERROR-FRIENDLINESS How to deal with the future scarcest resource: the envionmental, social, economic security. Tha is, how to design resilient socio-technical systems. John Wiley: 56–61.
7. Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman. 2012. The design way: intentional change in an unpredictable world. London.
8. Francesca Ostuzzi, Peter Conradie, Lieven De Couvreur, Jan Detand, and Jelle Saldien. 2016. The Role of Re-Appropriation in Open Design : A Case Study on How Openness in Higher Education for Industrial Design Engineering Can Trigger Global Discussions on the Theme of Urban Gardening. 17, 4.
9. Francesca Ostuzzi, Lieven De Couvreur, Jan Detand, and Jelle Saldien. 2017. From Design for One to Open-ended Design . Experiments on understanding how to open- up contextual design solutions . In Design for Next.

Posted: Oct-2017

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