Thesis proposal, 9/15/08

Nov 5, 02:41 PM // // Filed under:

“It would be nice to have better ways of monitoring what we’re up to so that we could recognize change while it is occurring . . . “
-Lewis Thomas, 1973

Emergence: In the making
Three years ago, I asked myself the question: In a world where everything is designed, how do designers keep their competitive edge? How do we position ourselves as experts when “do-it-yourself” design is all the rage?

During the following years, I continued to modify my question, realizing that what I was most curious about was the social nature of humans: the way they collectively make decisions, create solutions, and adapt to their situations. Appropriately, I became interested in social software, collaborative technologies, and other evidence of grassroots problem-solving or knowledge gathering. Finally, after obsessing with a similar thread for nearly three years, I could finally put a name to what it was I was truly fascinated with: emergence.

In his aptly titled book, Steven Johnson relates the first time such a concept was observed:

In August of 2000, a Japanese scientist named Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced that he had trained an amoebalike organism called slime mold to find the shortest route through a maze. Nakagaki had placed the mold in a small maze comprising four possible routes and planted pieces of food at two of the exits. Despite its being an incredibly primitive organism . . . with no centralized brain whatsoever, the slime mold managed to plot the most efficient route to the food, stretching its body through the maze so that it connected directly to the two food sources. Without any apparent cognitive resources, the slime mold had “solved” the maze puzzle. (Johnson, 2001, p. 11)

Reading this solidified what I’ve known all along: the humans I am attempting to design for are part of adaptive, dynamic systems – and in order to keep our edge, designers need to respond accordingly, in conjunction with these natural responses. As I slimed through my graduate coursework, I began to recognize the failure of designs to account for this ingenuity and adaptability of the human collective. Most of my personal projects were directed at and designed for groups of people; more often than not, these individuals were doing a great job of solving problems as a collective– self-organizing to find the shortest route to the metaphorical food.

However, I still felt that my professional design and creative problem solving skills could be useful. By observing emergent behaviors (and the results of such) within my target audiences, I was able to design engaging, dynamic, and representative solutions that responded to and supported the actions of the groups. The results are varied, but realistic and interactive – perhaps even establishing a new understanding of ‘interactive’ design.

Emergent identity: The thesis

At its core, emergent identity is all about stepping back and observing what is naturally occurring based on individual and group participation. It is about identifying patterns and how they might change, adapt, or otherwise construct themselves over time. These unique patterns become the basis for an identity that is representative of the group observed; most importantly, emergent identity engages the individuals so as to make them a dynamic part of their own identity formation, resulting in a sense of ownership of and contribution to the final product.

Having built up a body of work that showcases this concept, it makes sense to embark on a thesis by turning my investigatory lens inward–  looking back at what I’ve done, what I’m doing, and how my own identity is emergent . . . a result of innumerable small, repetitive, and related actions that have contributed to my fascination with interactive design. In keeping with emergent identity, the design solution should be:

*engaging (requiring critical observation or participatory action) *dynamic (changing over time or through participation) *representative (reflective of the engagement and dynamic qualities)

Whether it be a series of prints, a book(s) or even prototypical products, I want to create a representational design experience that embodies the principles of my of emergent identity work and relates this design method in context and form. Being able to successfully relate this concept using the language of design will be the capstone of my graduate experience, and just the beginning of my emergent identity.

Works cited
Johnson, S. (2001). Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software. New York: Scribner.

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