Gardeners of Organisations

For my Final Master Project I investigated how I could become a gardener of organisations.

A technological rationality prevails in how people tend to look at organisations. This rationality can be illustrated by the metaphorical reference of organisations to machines. Even language is shaped by this perspective, as people talk about input, output, efficiency and (human) resources. Even though this view brings enormous prosperity, it also brings challenges such as burnouts, low engagement and slow adaptation of the organisation to the market. Based on academic research, personal experience and interviews we propose a new metaphor that aims to solve these challenges. An organisation as a garden. Rather than teaching people how to adjust their view to match with the new metaphor, we follow the example of the Japanese tea master, Sen no Rikyu, who strived for new values through their embodiment in physical things. In this research project, we conducted an intuitive inquiry in search for how the practices and values of the organisation as a garden can be embodied in design. Eight actionable findings resulted, which designers and organisations can use to adopt these new values and practises.

When I sat down in the garden to write a reflection on this project the first thing that came to my mind was what should I choose to put down in words? I feel that in this project so much of my previously acquired skills and knowledge have been intertwined and I have learnt so much, that the task of putting it into a limited number of words seems daunting to me. I don’t want to misrepresent what I’ve learnt in an unbalanced way. The best I can do is to dive into the first reflections that come up in my mind, and hope that by doing so I paint a good picture of some of the interesting things I experienced and learned.

The analogical method
During the introspective cycles of the inquiry, I reflected on the flaws of my M1.2 project. One thing I kept getting stuck on was that Frederic Laloux’s framework for “evolutionary stages” of organisations categorises organisations in their entirety. An organisation is either entirely teal or entirely orange for example. This clashed with my experiences within the design studio I was an intern at, as I saw that each member of the organisation had their own perspective and way of rationalising towards the organisation. This categorisation is further insufficient as it is very distanced from everyday human experiences and ways of doing things and it takes quite a leap to get from these categories to handles for design. Instead of working with categories, we chose to work with lenses through which people see the world. This would give us a starting point, far closer to 1st person experience, and therefore far more “workable” with regards to design. We did this using an analogy: looking at an organisation as a machine and looking at an organisation as a garden. It is important to make the distinction that this is an analogy is used in reasoning. In Augmenting Fun and Beauty; A Pamphlet, Overbeeke, Djajadiningrat and Wensveen give criticise the use of metaphors in design as follows:

Metaphor sucks. […] We think the usefulness of metaphor is overrated. […] Gentner and Nielsen1 and Gavern2 also point out the limits of perfect fitting metaphors. The challenge here is to avoid the temptation of relying on metaphor and to create products which have an identity of their own.”3

While I believe that the criticism is fair and valuable in reasoning “what makes good design” I feel it is aimed at the consequences of using metaphors in design and does not refute the central point of analogical reasoning. In practising the use of analogy throughout this project I feel that it can be extremely valuable in reasoning and even design, however, it must be used with foresight. One must know what they are doing. French philosopher Gilbert Simondon specifies that “the analogical method, which posits the autonomy of operations in relation to their terms, is valid only insofar as it sticks to an ontological postulate stipulating that structures must be known by the operations that energize them and not the inverse.”4 In other words, analogical reasoning only has epistemological value if the analogy is made explicit in the operations of the structures being related to each other and not in the structures themselves. A correct use is for example: One’s thoughts are as a stream of water, because they are continuously flowing and ever changing in operation, not because one’s thoughts are clear and a stream of water is also clear.

As such, I believe the careful use of analogy can be extremely valuable in design. Understanding the nuances of it has changed the way I reason in a design process and I hope to utilise and further develop this way of reasoning in design in the future.

During this project my perspective on aesthetics changed. Before, I understood aesthetics as the study of the beautiful, or the judgement of beauty. In design, I covered the subject by asking myself and others: does it look good?

In the first half-year of the project I was absorbing manners of perspectives on the topic with the idea of describing the values I wanted to strive for in organisations. It was then that Sander introduced me to Charles Pierce’s perspective on aesthetics, which he characterised as the study of the good (grasped as the admirable), and thus of the ends governing all conduct and thought.5  In short, I now understand it as answering the question of: what do I/we want? Ethics is then, in my understanding, the question of how do I/we get there?

In hindsight, I see that this first half-year was an exercise in aesthetics. I was figuring out what I wanted for myself and society. This is something that (in design and in life), I presume because of my Protestant upbringing, I had never really thoughtfully taken into my own hands. This new understanding has changed my identity as a designer, but also identity in general. I see enormous value in taking the time to search for that what is to be admired, forming a vision in terms of values to strive for. I think that this is absolutely key when designing for societal transformation, not only reasoning in a consequentialist way, but thinking about what values one cherishes in themselves, how one experiences these values and what they mean to them.

Designing for values
Before this project I had never “designed for values”, before or at least in this way. I had experiences with critical design, but not the embodiment of values in designs for everyday use. Learning post-phenomenological investigation gave me new eyes on how designs mediate our experience of the world. In practising it I found out that even the tiniest details in design can involve people in and alienate them from values. Changing the shape of a table for example, or the position of a bookshelf can already have a significant effect. The post-phenomenological term ‘Multistability’, used to describe the indefinite amount of ways people can use a design while recognising that the way a design is materialised will shape “stabilities” in these uses, is key in this.

With these new eyes I developed a critical perspective on how to design for values. So often these values are embodied in designs in an almost caricature way. For example, functions of a design will only operate if users exhibit a certain value, or a design is in itself only a trigger for reflection on a value. I feel that to reach a certain quality in this, one needs to pay attention to details, context and multistabilities and recognise that humble details can already make a huge difference, and that that in itself is “enough.” The further investigation into quality in design for values is something that I would like to pursue further in my development as a design researcher.

Throughout my internship and FMP I learned about the importance of ownership when it comes to change. In one of the workshops, we introduced our values and practised in an aesthetically “finished” way. We used complicated language and mentioned that these were values we wanted to strive for. This was met with hesitation. The participants hadn’t resonated with the values and felt like this was an imposition of change, not a helping hand. Learning from this, we sought to give participants ownership of the changes they were making even in the form of how we presented the values and practices to them. We experimented with tape-aesthetics, described as explicit honesty with regards to the “continuous becoming” of a design reflected in its aesthetics and an unfixed and unfinished quality in order to open a dialectic and give ownership of changes to participants. I believe this can be used to intentionally steer a dialectic in a design process and find it a very valuable insight for collaboration and my further development in the future.

[1] Gentner, D., & Nielsen, J. (1996). The anti-Mac interface. Communications of the ACM, 39 (8), 70-82.

[2] Gaver, W.W. (1995). Oh what a tangled web we weave: metaphor and mapping in graphical interfaces. Adjunct proceedings of CHI’95, 270-271.

[3] Djajadiningrat, J. P., C. J. Overbeeke, and S. A. G. Wensveen. “Augmenting Fun and Beauty.” Proceedings of DARE 2000 on Designing Augmented Reality Environments – DARE 00, 2000, 132. doi:10.1145/354666.354680.

[4] Combes, Muriel. Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013, 10.

[5] See Esthetics at Commens Digital Companion to C.S. Peirce.