The Art of Displacement: Designing Experiential Systems and Transverse Epistemologies as Conceptual Criticism

Rolf Hughes


With architects and designers increasingly facing problems that are neither predictable nor simple but highly complex, a particular synthesis of design intelligence and creativity is required. If the art of being a professional is becoming ‘the art of managing complexity’, what are the ‘boundaries’ of professional practice? ‘Trans-disciplinarity’, for example, requires liminal or neither/nor thinking (thus ‘boundary concepts’ remain a core concern). A concern with boundaries and ‘edges’ implies in turn a concern with ‘relationality’ (i.e. how we establish relations, positions, borders between different disciplinary priorities and methods) and thence a problem that affects how we think of disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, networks of various kinds, and trans-disciplinarity – that of ‘substance’, ‘content’ or ‘matter’.

This paper subjects design research, theory and practice to transverse epistemologies, attempting a ‘flow of transformations’ via such themes as authorship, remediation, smuggling, disruptive innovation, performative knowledge, and gesture versus identity. It brings together an ars combinatoria of conceptual criticism, trans-disciplinary practice as ‘disruptive innovation’, Michael Speaks’s notion of ‘design intelligence’ and Margaret Boden’s three types of creativity – combinatorial, exploratory, and transformational – seeking thereby to suggest new structures that might yield ‘transdisciplines’.

Departing from two separate points – Bruno Latour’s call for ‘earthly accounts of buildings and design processes’ and Jack Burnham’s identification of a paradigm shift from an ‘object-oriented’ to a ‘systems-oriented’ culture – the paper describes the formation of a new interdisciplinary practice, experience design (the design of meaningful experience across time), as a form of ‘epistemological Conceptualism’. This prioritises critical thinking and strategy, requiring designers, in the words of Ronald Jones, ‘capable of addressing cross-disciplinary problems by designing the social, political, economic and educational “systems” that give them greater reach, responsibility, influence and relevance’. Ultimately, therefore, any delirious promise of epistemological transformation must remain secondary to questions of ‘relevance’ and ‘impact’.

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