Design as making meaning

  • Words

    Virginia Tassinari

  • Images

    Wout Trippas

Virginia Tassinari, researcher in design & philosophy, design and philosophy educator at LUCA School of Arts, pco-initiator DESIS Philosophy Talks, founder DESIS LAB LUCA School of Arts

Industries, authorities and the wider public in general are increasingly aware of the role design can play in the creation of new products, services and systems, not necessarily only for industries, but also for the societies in which we live. While this has always been the case, the awareness of the value of design has become more universally recognised: its ability to identify and tackle societal challenges, to reframe social issues and the debate around them, addressing them from a wide range of perspectives, helping to uncover and valorise unexpected opportunities and possibly translate them into concrete actions.

Design’s value to society is not only quantifiable in the radically innovative initiatives it generates, but also in its ability to shift, amplify and generate new meanings. These make it possible for these concrete initiatives to be co-designed and co-produced. When design is employed to add value to society – for instance by enabling the co-creation of new public services with citizens, civil servants and policy makers – it also conveys new ways of understanding words commonly used by reframing them, e.g. “citizens” as “active citizens”.

Such new meanings are not created by designers from scratch. In a way, they emerge from within society itself, for instance in bottom-up, grassroots social innovation where communities of citizens work together in small, local initiatives to improve their own neighbourhoods. Through ‘deep listening’, designers become aware of subtle but profound shifts in the meaning of words playing a key role in the sustainable behaviours of citizens. They capture the emergence of a new “common sense” of understanding of these words and further amplify them through their own projects, allowing them to scale and create more value for their contexts. Which shifted meanings to actively amplify is a choice in which designers need to question whether the shift actually leads to an improvement in the quality of people’s lives and our society in general.

The words we use

The meanings conveyed by these kinds of projects often stand in stark contrast to those we have grown accustomed to throughout the past centuries. Etymologically speaking, many words can be related to former meanings which had a direct link to the experience of being human. Through time, they became increasingly abstract, losing their more direct connection to human experience.

In the current understanding of the word “citizens” for instance, the idea that the term refers to real people – different individuals with different attitudes, needs and resources – is often no longer considered, at least not directly. In traditional vertical policy making models, citizens are often portrayed as a homogeneous group of people, characterised by a relatively passive attitude. This is just one example of how words often lose their original connection to tangible reality and direct human experience. Instead of helping us to better understand reality as such and act within it, they become more of an obstacle to doing so.

In this particular moment in time, the meanings of some of the words we commonly use in our everyday lives and language – having become abstract – are shifting significantly. We already illustrated how the notion of “citizens” may be perceived to shift in certain contexts, e.g. taking on a more personal, heterogeneous and active connotation. The same is true for words such as “politics”, “democracy”, “society” and so on. As they have drifted into abstraction, in a changing context their meanings are suddenly being questioned. Thus we rediscover ways in which these words might be reconnected to the concreteness of our lives in this era, reconnected to the stories of real people living them.

As mentioned earlier, these shifts in meaning not only emerge ‘anew’ from design projects, but often also from small, bottom-up initiatives popping up everywhere, in which solutions and services are (co-)created and prototyped in a way that emphasises human values, giving rise to more “human” framings of the above words in the process. Hence, these connotations slowly replace former ones and move into the realm of “common sense”. When designers work with local communities, in order to support such bottom-up initiatives, through their efforts, they basically amplify such reframed meanings, relocating them once again to the centre of people’s lives and their direct experiences as humans. Hence, when design works to tackle society’s challenges and enhance its value – for instance in a region such as Limburg – it not only gives rise to new solutions, but also to a new, more “human(e)” understanding of society.

If one wants to look at which roles design might play in societies of the future – and in particular in the future of a region – one therefore needs to look closely into the understanding of design as “making meaning”.

Making meaning

As they create objects, processes, services, artefacts, etc. designers convey meanings. This comes with a responsibility. Through their actions and creations, designers can choose to reinforce an existing, often abstract interpretation of key terms around which society evolves, or they can opt to convey alternative interpretations, in which human values are emphasised. This is a design choice.

When one designs to innovate society, the latter is often the case. When contributing to a sensible shift in the understanding of mainstream ways to read reality (e.g. from a passive idea of citizenship to an active one) designers can establish beneficial pre-conditions for small local initiatives to take root, in which individuals can experience this new understanding of being a citizen themselves. Through empowerment, they are enabled in having a first-hand experience of what it means to add value to their neighbourhoods (for instance by co-designing new local production systems, services and so on). In doing so, citizens can also experience the satisfaction which comes with being an active agent in society, and experience what the German philosopher Hannah Arendt calls “social happiness.

When design communicates new meanings that are more human- and experience-centred, it breathes new life into words and helps to translate the potential embodied by such new understandings into concrete action. Thus, it can help to open up (to) new ways of interpreting the world around us so that its potentialities can be fully manifested and possibly be translated into socially innovative solutions leading to an improvement in quality of life.

While designers often ‘merely’ capture and amplify these changes of meaning, sometimes they also anticipate them, by prototyping new understandings – making them visible and tangible – and embedding them in objects, artefacts and scenarios. In doing so, they make it possible for potentialities that under normal circumstances risk remaining un- or under-expressed, to become explicit, acknowledged. They pave the way for innovative solutions, otherwise hard to imagine.

Enhancing awareness of these shifts of meaning helps to recognise which resources, values, stories, etc. have passed unseen by the abstraction of words through time. It raises the opportunity for these potentialities to become evident, so that they can be more easily translated into concrete actions with a radically innovative character. This implies that when designers are fully aware of their role as meaning makers, they increase their value to the context in which they operate. Therefore, a cultural reflection is needed for designers to be more actively aware of which meanings they are conveying in their work, and to ask themselves more intensely what it means to create value for people.

In the past years, the province of Limburg, has played a significant role in experimenting with ways in which design and art can actively contribute to society. This makes it in my opinion a perfect vantage point from which to engage in a more global cultural reflection on new meanings of existing terms we designers should keep in mind when designing. Therefore, I asked a handful of friends and colleagues from around the world to each address one such shift in meaning and its implications for design practice in the future. Their contributions can be considered lenses through which to reassess our activities as designers and imagine what we could do in our region to take these semantic transformations more seriously and play an anticipatory, front-runner role.

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