The position of knowledge and expertise is changing radically, particularly in relation to how design literacy is affected when confronted with digital tools and media. Dick Rijken analyses design literacy on three levels – strategic, tactical, and operational – and examines the requirements of open design for developing a design vision, design choices and design skills.

Dick Rijken

Life in this network society  TREND: NETWORK SOCIETY is complex. We are involved in many different kinds of fluid relationships with friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, project partners, companies, brands, websites, platforms, clubs, schools, and many other kinds of communities. More often than not, we maintain these relationships using digital media like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and plain old email. We connect, communicate and share like our lives depend on it – as, increasingly, they in fact do.  SHARING

In his article, Paul Atkinson talks about the demise of the grand narrative of modernist design. While this is very true, it is not solely applicable to design; it applies similarly to all grand narratives, and to modernism in general. Where we were once infatuated by concepts like universal truth and linear progress, we now find ourselves in a chaotic maze of anecdotes and interconnected ideas. Linear progress has become perpetual change with no shared direction. Within that change, we are on a perpetual quest for personal meaning, no longer seeking truth. All this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make life difficult and unpredictable. If we can learn to improvise and to adapt, life can be deeply meaningful and rewarding. We are not there yet, though; there is still a lot to learn.

We connect, communicate and share like our lives depend on it. As, increasingly, they in fact do.

This article deals with the changing position of knowledge  KNOWLEDGE and expertise in open networks. Digital tools and media are generic infrastructures for creating, sharing and transforming information. They enable and facilitate personal learning on a massive scale. Anything that can be converted into a digital format can also be stored, shared and used by anyone, anywhere. This changes everything that has anything to do with ideas – and therefore also changes design. It changes how we design, it changes what we design, it changes how we think about design, and it changes how we learn and teach design. Ultimately, it will also change who designs. Web 2.0, with the concept of user-generated content at its core, will not leave the design discipline untouched.

Fundamental Paradoxes

In order to understand what is happening to design, we need to understand two strongly related paradoxes that are fundamental features of networks: the paradox of identity, and the paradox of choice.

The paradox of identity arises from the fact that networks are made of nodes and links, i.e. identities and relationships. Nodes have their own unique identity, but that identity is meaningless without links to other nodes. We have become more independent from others through the development and actualization of our own unique individual self. But at the same time, we have become more dependent on others, since who we are depends to a large extent on who we relate to and interact with. We feel a need to stand out in a crowd, but we are nothing if not connected.  TREND: NETWORK SOCIETY

We depend on fluid networks around us for our daily lives’ activities. Parties are announced on and communicated through Facebook, and the fun is later shared  SHARING through pictures on Flickr. We find jobs using LinkedIn, where we present our professional résumés, and ask people we’ve worked with in the past to write positive testimonials about us. We don’t exist if we have no visible presence in the networks we want to be involved in. If you are what you act like, you better make sure you act like who you are – or who you want to be.

This makes the network society an essentially cultural place. This is true not just in the anthropological sense that everything we learn is seen as ‘culture’, but in a very instrumental sense as well: activities like ‘expression’ and ‘reflection’ that are at the core of art and related cultural activities give form to the networked life of an individual. And this brings us to the second paradox, the paradox of choice. We are the designers of our own lives through the choices we make, and there are more choices open to us now than ever before. At the same time, this freedom has a dark side to it: we must choose, whether we like it or not.  MASS CUSTOMIZATION The freedom of choice that we have is also an inescapable obligation. With choice comes responsibility. The ability to reflect and give form to our lives within given constraints is just as important for an individual as reading, writing or arithmetic. In this context, we move from ‘design as culture’ to a culture of design, where design is part of our natural mode of being.

Atoms and Bits

There is help at our disposal. Digital tools, digital media and the vast resources on the internet collectively create a massive open and accessible infrastructure for individual and communal expression and reflection. In some domains, we have seen an explosive amount of activity (music production, digital photography) that has turned whole industries upside down.  OPEN EVERYTHING Other domains are just getting warmed up. This is particularly true for three-dimensional objects. As different technologies for 3D printing are becoming affordable, Fab Labs (‘fabrication laboratories’, a concept developed at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms) have spread from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the far north of Norway. Activities in Fab Labs range widely, including technological empowerment; peer-to-peer, project-based technical training; local problem-solving; small-scale, high-tech business incubation; and grassroots research.

There is a production infrastructure in the making that works with standardized formats for specifying 3D designs, so that our ideas for objects can be published, shared and modified just as easily as video clips on YouTube.

There is a production infrastructure in the making that works with standardized  STANDARDS formats for specifying 3D designs, so that our ideas for objects can be published, shared and modified just as easily as video clips on YouTube. Do-It-Yourself is no longer a matter of wood and nails; DIY  DIY is becoming more refined in terms of possible forms and construction concepts. In other fields, technological impulses like this have created an explosion of creativity among experts and amateurs alike. Accompanying that surge of creative expression, there is an awareness of the fact that technological facilitation is only meaningful at a very basic level. Anything that is fundamentally expressive or reflective derives its value from ideas and values that are embodied – and ideas and values come from people, not from technology. Again: anything is possible, but what do we want? Before we can rearrange atoms, we have to rearrange bits. Ideas! A richer palette of possible material forms requires a richer imagination than ever before. Buying a guitar does not make me a musician. Access to 3D design tools does not make me a designer.

Why Keep It Simple?

The concept of self-organization is an intriguing idea. Online media environments like YouTube, Flickr and Blogspot prove that well-designed (!) infrastructures
ARCHITECTURE can indeed facilitate personal expression on a mind-boggling scale, but they have one thing in common: simplicity. The media formats are simple (‘upload a picture here’, ‘this is a heading, type your text here’), and the media produced and shared by these tools are simple (a picture, a movie clip, a piece of text). But real life is not always that simple. As I’ve argued above, in networks, life can be annoyingly complex and most of us are not born with sufficient imaginative capacity to fully utilize the potential of the production technologies that are currently available. Most of us need help. When it comes to more complex media or artefacts, rolling out infrastructures and expecting self-organization to take care of the rest is simply not enough. Organizing self-organization is a lot of work, and does in fact involve a great deal of design and inspiration.

We are designers of our own lives through the choices we make. this freedom has a dark side to it: we must choose, whether we like it or not.

Traditional DIY stores know this very well. They don’t just sell basic construction materials anymore, but increasingly also offer ready-made lifestyle products: lamps, furniture, various semi-manufactured products, and so on. What’s more, they know that they need to help amateurs when it comes to making choices. Most websites for DIY stores  DIY feature some form of assistance. Besides tips and suggestions from famous designers, there are online tools that help buyers figure out their personal preferences for interior design. I’ve even seen moodboard tools for interior decoration. For people who feel completely adrift in the sea of choices, there are style coaches to help buyers find out who they are and what choices to make.

Design Literacy

When it comes to more innovative or complex designs, inspiration and imagination are just as crucial as production technologies. This holds true for seasoned pros and enthusiastic amateurs. When motivated prosumers want to express their identities, they need different kinds of knowledge and skills, which together make up what we can call ‘design literacy’. I suggest we conceptualize this at the following three levels:

Strategic vision
Know what you want, based on knowing who you are and what you want to achieve. This is about an awareness of personal goals and values. It can be very explicit, translated into formulated criteria, or very implicit, in which case there is an intuition that can be used to judge examples and design choices. Both approaches can work; more often than not, they co-exist in some form. Whatever it is that you’re going to make, you have to feel its soul and formulate its mission. There is probably no better example here than Steve Jobs, who has always had a very specific vision about using computing technology for personal goals, as opposed to serving the needs of businesses or governments. Apple was founded in 1979; over 30 years later, his vision has become a reality. Every product Apple has produced under Jobs’ guidance was a conscious materialization of that vision. On a more intimate level, amateurs who want to redecorate their homes will be stifled rather than liberated by all the choices and possibilities if they do not have some kind of understanding of what kind of ‘vibe’ or ‘atmosphere’ they want in their house. They, too, need a vision. There is no other way.

Tactical choices
Be able to make choices that determine what it is that you are making. What you are making is ultimately a design that can be produced, in order to make the vision a reality. We are caught between heaven and earth here, and this is the true level where design takes place: crucial decisions are made on a conceptual level that will eventually determine the details of the end result. Choices about content, structure, behaviour and form are made and fixed. This is where professional design becomes a profession, and craftsmanship begins to play a role. The question is: how much professional expertise is needed? Can this be done by an amateur?  AMATEURISSIMO It’s hard to have to start from scratch. Tweaking something that’s already close may be a better way to go. Open design to the rescue! If you see something you like, just download it and modify it to represent your vision. We’ll return to that later.

Operational skills
Be able to use available production tools and infrastructures. This can range from knowing how to point and shoot with a digital camera or upload a video to YouTube to making a final mix of a song that sounds good on different speaker systems or specifying a design with 3D modelling software for a 3D printer.

These are the pillars of what we can call ‘design literacy’: the development of vision (strategic), the formulation of a design (tactical), and technical production (operational). There are interesting interactions between the three levels, however. Ultimately, available production tools and infrastructure determine what can be made in the first place, so operational skills and tactical choices are often strongly aligned. There are also crucial links between tactical choices and strategic vision. If a 3D modelling tool is very user-friendly, very responsive, and well connected to the production tools (possibly through data standards), then the boundary between a sketch and a final design starts to blur, and users can work in a state of flow, where all three levels are active simultaneously.

Online environments prove that well designed infrastructures can facilitate personal expression on a mind-boggling scale, but they have one thing in common: Simplicity.

The distinctions between the three kinds of literacy are epistemological: they involve different kinds of expertise. All three involve mentality, knowledge, and skills – three very familiar pedagogical concepts. Thus, design literacy can be learned, just like many other things, but there’s more to it than learning to work the tools.

Becoming Literate

Professional designers  DESIGNERS have all the necessary expertise. They have an important role to play in the large-scale development of design literacy. They can be heroes when their high-quality designs inspire eager amateurs. They can produce examples to be shared on online platforms that can be used, modified and re-distributed. They can explain how they work, e.g. as teachers in face-to-face courses and online videos. In working towards the advancement of design literacy, professionalism is still our starting point.
Going back to the three central concepts of design literacy mentioned above (vision, design, and production), there are interesting opportunities and challenges in the organization of design literacy:

Strategic vision
The development of a personal vision can be facilitated by presenting, explaining and discussing high-quality designs from professional designers. The development of vision can be a vulnerable and intuitive process, and seeing how pros do it (in a video interview, for instance) can be very helpful and inspiring. Formulating the right question is often the best way to try and find a solution. Inspiration is the keyword here: designers can be inspiring through what they make, but also through showing how they came up with the right vision to begin with.

Tactical choices
The formulation of a design can be facilitated by the same high-quality examples, when they are published in ways that allow for inspection, modification and sharing. Open design plays a crucial role in this. Online environments that feature collections of high-quality examples that can be analysed, used, modified, discussed and re-published hold immense potential. Users need to be able to inspect the internal structure of a design, and then modify and share it. Designers can produce these examples and share their methods and insights in interviews or debates, and design teachers can develop new pedagogical methods and formats. In the world of digital media, users make mashups,  REMIX devising new combinations of chunks of information found elsewhere to create coherent new constructs. Open design allows for a similar approach to 3D objects, physical equivalents to mashups that can also be shared and discussed with others.

Operational skills
Technical production is the easiest skill, since all it requires is decent interface design for the relevant tools, supported by access to technical knowledge in the form of instruction manuals in print, video, or other formats. Many people can teach themselves how to do this and help each other using social media, such as forums or blogs.

Not everything can be done exclusively in the digital domain. There is definitely a need for face-to-face encounters with ‘designer heroes’, design teachers and fellow design amateurs. There is a potential here for existing cultural institutions like public libraries, archives and museums to organize the exchange of knowledge  KNOWLEDGE between pros and amateurs, as well as but just as much between amateurs and other amateurs. They can become hotspots in the real world where amateurs go to work on their expertise. STEIM is an example of such a hotspot.

Design into the Future

The STEIM story below illustrates a shift in the focus of skilled professionals: from high-quality production to high-quality coaching and education in order to facilitate expression and reflection in a larger community of passionate amateurs. Such a significant shift does not happen out of the blue; it is a deliberate choice and it takes real work, based on an informed awareness of how our world is changing.  REVOLUTION This new mentality is the ideal complement to the exchange of information and ideas that is made possible through open design and new technological infrastructures. This calls for an ecosystem of people, institutions, relationships, tools and open infrastructures, where design becomes a natural activity for all those involved. Deliberate initiatives to foster design literacy need to address the three levels discussed above. Open design is essentially a highly social affair: amateur users will gather in online environments that help them by offering good examples in the form of available open designs, which are accompanied by interviews with heroes that explain how they navigate through all three levels of literacy. Heroes are attractors; people will flock around them, learn from them and from each other. Some parts of this ecosystem will grow and flourish autonomously, but others will need to be very consciously designed and planned in order to create a vibrant and living environment. It will help us find inspired ways to deal with tough issues like identity and choice in complex and unpredictable networks.


STEIM is a laboratory in Amsterdam that experiments with electronic musical instruments for live performance. This was a very specialized affair in the 80s and in the 90s. STEIM’s instrument designers would develop personal instruments and user interfaces for musicians. They became world-famous for their expertise in connecting musical goals (strategic) to technical solutions (operational) through skilful design (tactical).

During the 90s, however, sensor technology and software became more widely available and more affordable. At the same time, the internet became a widely used platform for sharing knowledge and solutions among musicians. STEIM’s core activity became a DIY craze. STEIM consistently supported this trend, being one of the first organizations to hack cheap Wii controllers for musical applications and publishing electronic diagrams for its best-known musical instrument, the crackle box. But as this was happening, STEIM and its professionals had to reorient themselves to the changing situation.

Nowadays, STEIM is an important node in a world-wide knowledge network. There are more workshops than ever before. Moreover, starting in 2011, STEIM will offer a master’s degree in ‘Instruments and Interfaces’ in collaboration with the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. It has become a vibrant hub for learning about DIY instrument design and meeting other people with similar interests. There is a strong co-creation culture. Musicians are challenged to develop their personal ideas about the kind of music they want to make (strategic vision), and STEIM helps them develop their ideas, through co-design (tactical choices) and co-production by means of software configuration and the building of physical objects (operational skills).

Many people who visit STEIM don’t just leave with an instrument; in their time there, they have learned how an instrument is made. And the instrument is just the beginning; there needs to be substantial time spent in learning to play it, as well as resisting the temptation to tweak it further. This represents a big risk at the tactical choice level: know when to stop modifying and start using a product! This is expertise that transcends the operational level. This is years and years of experience feeding into how musicians are currently coached and educated.

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