Design and the Elastic Mind

Design / by Paola Antonelli /

In the emerging dialogue between design and science, scale and pace play fundamental roles. By MoMA curator Paola Antonelli.

Design and elastic mind CLICK TO ENLARGE Bonnie Ralston, Samuel Sherman © The Museum of Modern Art 2008

In the autumn of 2006, The Museum of Modern Art and Seed launched a series of monthly salons to bring together scientists, designers, and architects, so they could meet and present their work and ideas to each other. Our aim was to explore the promising relationship between science and design and its increasing relevance.

As science and technology accelerate the pace of society, design has become more and more integral to our ability to adapt to change. Indeed, in the past few decades people have coped with dramatic changes in several long-standing relationships—with time, space, information, and individuality, to name a few. Designers are translating these “disruptive” scientific and technological innovations by providing thoughtful guidance and a collaborative approach. In order to step boldly into the future, we need design.

Adaptability is an ancestral distinction of human intelligence, but today’s instant variations in rhythm call for something stronger: elasticity. The by-product of adaptability and acceleration, elasticity means being able to negotiate change and innovation without letting them interfere excessively with one’s own rhythms and goals. It means being able to embrace progress, understanding how to make it our own. One of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change. Designers have the ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and social mores and to convert them into objects and ideas that people can understand and use. Without designers, instead of a virtual city of home pages with windows, doors, buttons, and links, the internet would still be a series of obscure strings of code, and appliances would be reduced to standardized skeletons of functions. Without a visual design translation, many fundamental concepts—such as the scope of the human genome or its comparison with that of other primates—would remain ungraspable by most. Designers give life and voice to objects, and along the way they manifest our visions and aspirations for the future, even those we do not yet know we have.

What we’re witnessing today is the emergence of a singular design creativity. Taking their cues from sources as varied as nanostructures, biological systems, topography, and cosmology, designers are introducing new areas of study and influence to their field and endowing their objects with new types of functional gradients. The goal is to facilitate as seamless a movement as possible from fast to slow, virtual to physical, cerebral to sensual, automatic to manual, dynamic to static, mass to niche, global to local, organic to inorganic, and proprietary to common, to mention just a few extreme couplings. Much of this is being done by bona fide designers, but scientists and artists have also turned to design to give method to their productive tinkering, what John Seely Brown has called “thinkering.” They all belong to a new culture in which experimentation is guided by engagement in the world and by open, constructive collaboration with colleagues and other specialists.

Fundamental to this emerging dialogue between design and science is the appreciation of the role of scale in contemporary life. Today, many designers have turned on their heads several late 20th-century infatuations, for instance with speed, dematerialization, miniaturization, and a romantic and exaggerated formal expression of complexity. After all, there is a limit beyond which micro keyboards are too small for a person’s fingers and complexity becomes overwhelming. Examples abound in all fields of people’s desire to return to what is perceived as a human dimension, including gastronomy (the slow food movement), agriculture (organic produce), travel (ecotourism), production of energy (distributed generation), economic aid (microinvestment), and politics (the town hall meeting), to name just a few. Each reflects the idea that global issues are best tackled on an individual or local level. The most contemporary design theory is devoted to the quest for an environment, whether virtual or physical, built in human proportion. Designers who believe in this stance apply the same bottom-up methodology in order to spawn innovations that are organically attuned to human nature and to the world, and they rework priorities so that human beings always come before any celebration of progress, as in the One Laptop per Child project.

The idea of human scale has changed since Charles and Ray Eames’s famous 1968 film Powers of Ten because human perception has been expanded and augmented by technology. Distance is not what it used to be, and neither is time: Not only does it range from the attosecond (10-18 seconds, or the time it takes for light to travel the length of three hydrogen atoms) to the Long Now, the concept that inspired Danny Hillis to establish a foundation whose goal is to promote thinking for the next 10,000 years, but some professionals’ routine commute is a twice-a-month Tokyo-New York round-trip, while others work across several time zones without a need to state their position at any time. Indeed, where and when have become hard to pin down on any who.

The focus now is on ways to break the temporal rhythms imposed by society in order to customize and personalize them. If design is to help enable us to live to the fullest while taking advantage of all the possibilities provided by contemporary science and technology, designers need to make both people and objects perfectly elastic.

The design principles that will accomplish this differ from the so-called human-centered design that functionalist industrial designers of the past 50 years have employed. These new principles embody the great responsibility that comes with design’s new power of giving form and meaning to the degrees of freedom opened by the progress of science and technology. At the Royal College of Art, Anthony Dunne, head of the Design Interactions Department, preaches the importance of “critical design,” or “design for debate,” which he defines as a way of using design as a medium to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions, and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It helps us ponder how we really want things to fit into our lives.

Indeed, even as technology offers us more and more options, many agree that we in fact require fewer—not more—objects in our lives. This very simple belief unites the diverse and yet similarly idealistic efforts of many designers worldwide who are trying to inform our lives with the same economy of energy and materials as found in nature. In addition to balancing our lives with the imperatives of new technology, designers today must also consider the impact of their creations on the environment. Organic design has had many different connotations in history, but in its most contemporary meaning it encompasses not only the enthusiastic exploration of natural forms and structures but also interpretations of nature’s economical frameworks and systems. It emerges from the rapidly growing realization that we need to learn to use less matter and energy and to be more efficient. Several factors make contemporary organic design radically different from its past expressions. Towering among these is the computer, whose capacity to master complexity has, perhaps surprisingly, allowed a closeness to the forms and structures of nature never achieved before. Moreover, the urgent need to manage nature’s resources more thoughtfully and economically has provoked a sense of responsibility that is felt—or at least worn as a badge—by contemporary thinkers and doers.

When it comes to design, however, a badge is not enough: According to an annual review by Britain’s Design Council, 80 percent of the environmental impact of the products, services, and infrastructures around us is determined at the design stage. Design needs to engage directly and further develop some of the tools with which it is currently experimenting, such as biomimicry, algorithms and other forms of computational design, and nanotechnology.

All these tools are about giving objects basic yet precise instructions and letting them fully develop and connect in networks and systems, and this is where one of the most powerful new directions for design lies. While traditional design is often about cutting existing materials to shape or, in the best cases, taming and adapting them, computational and nano-design are about generating objects and also about seeing them adapt to different circumstances.

As designers advocate and obtain roles that are more and more integral to the evolution of society, they find themselves at the center of an extraordinary wave of cross-pollination. Interdisciplinary design has existed for decades, but only recently have other communities started to seek designers’ contributions. However, this is just the beginning. The figure of the designer is changing from formgiver to fundamental interpreter of an extraordinarily dynamic reality; one increasingly informed by science and mediated by technology.

Because of their role as intermediaries between research and production, designers often act as the main interpreters in interdisciplinary teams, called upon not only to conceive objects, but also to devise scenarios and strategies. To cope with this responsibility, designers must set the foundations for a strong theory of design—something that is today still missing—and become astute generalists. At that point, they will be in a unique position to become the repositories of contemporary culture’s need for analysis and synthesis, society’s new pragmatic intellectuals.

In these pages, Seed presents seven predominant themes—from visualization to algorithm—that emerged from our Seed/MoMA salons as those underlying this new movement. I hope the ideas advanced here, which reflect those in the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit, will make waves, and that the waves will ripple into an irresistible discussion on the future role and responsibility of designers.

— Adapted from the exhibit catalogue, Design and the Elastic Mind © 2008 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Originally published April 2, 2008

Tags design innovation pace scale technology

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM