Asterisk-Shaped People / Escaping Disciplinarity

Asterisk-Shaped People / Escaping Disciplinarity

An essay on the role of designers in solving difficult problems, where I introduce briefly my concept of *-shaped people (contrast to T-shaped). This article was initially published as “Inevitable Indiscipline: the Final Escape from Disciplinarity” in The Journal of Design Strategies, Vol.5, “Transdisciplinary Design”, 2011 guest edited by Jamer Hunt, p.62
Abstract: Transdisciplinary Design is only new by name – it had been the norm for centuries before cultural history piggybacked the scientific revolution on a scenic detour through the labyrinth of disciplines. Human nature had been craving it. After basic attempts during the 20th Century, a brandable paradigm reaches critical mass at an expected moment in history.

Part 1: Aby Warburg Geek and Designer

9/9/99, beyond being a pretty date, marks the first ever publication in English of Aby Warburg’s immense “The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity”. The German father of cultural iconography had died exactly 70 years earlier, and his work had been relegated to dusty academia since. But at the turn of the century, the time was finally right for his precocious vision to become mainstream.
Aby was a geek. At 13, he gave up his right as eldest heir to his family’s banking empire to his little brother Max in return for a promise that he would buy Aby any book he wanted for the rest of his life. The pact was kept and his eclectic bibliomania became the core of one of the world’s most intriguing collections: the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, or KBW.
According to Warburg’s biographers, as a child the visual power and information overload he found in these thousands of books and images was confronted to his family’s conservative religious zeal. It catalysed his later search for the primordial energies and memes that inevitably crossed cultural and disciplinary borders.
As an adult art historian, Warburg’s project started with his attempt to bridge the gap between so-called “high” and “low” art, between classical art and popular cultural production. He needed to break down disciplinary boundaries to allow meaning and ideas to flow freely across academic and ethnic cultures, across geography and history, and particularly, across value systems.
He wanted to share and change the world and the KBW was to become the content and the tool. To ensure its continuity, what was a private personal library became a semi-public institution in Hamburg in 1921.
He designed the KBW as a non-classical library, where images and texts lived in a dynamic ever-changing order, where connections and relationships emerged between data items based on their position vis-à-vis one another at a particular moment (of time, of study…) more than on a top-down hierarchy.
In it he worked on the never finished Mnemosyne Atlas – a set of around 80 panels covered with around 2000 images from the collection. He used these to tell stories and constantly moved the images around to create connections and themes. They were conceptual mood boards that helped him design and test his theories.
Warburg and his two co-founders, Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing (did her name inspire Microsoft’s search engine?), eschewed the classical categories and devised taxonomy systems that allowed multiple tagging of each library item.
For 10 years, they kept an annotated 550-page diary of their daily work on the KBW. It reads like a 3-pen startup blog peppered with short tweets and comments left to one another in the margins.
Data hoarding, adaptive user interfaces, flexible disciplinary boundaries, horizontal value systems, relational interactions and emergent meanings, logged collaboration and short messages, icons and taxonomies, social responsibility and experimentation… Warburg’s 100-year-old story is rife with themes from today’s digital culture.
Warburg died in 1929 aged 63 in Hamburg. In 1933, 60,000 books and 20,000 photographs where shipped to London and away from the rise of Nazism. Today it lives on as the Warburg Institute of the University of London – a respected but less open and dynamic project.
With the original founder gone and the KWB a full-fledged British institution, the extraordinary vision was forgotten – until now.

Part 2: the Survival of a Temperament

Warburg had an initial intuition that culture was becoming too atomised, too segregated into mutually exclusive disciplines – and its understanding too formal and too formalistic. He felt that any work on the survival of memes across art history, through the notion of a collective human memory, would force the crossing of cultural and disciplinary boundaries.
That intuition is relevant again – and more pressing than ever. Today, on the other hand, all the right tools are here to support such a trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural vision.
The revival/survival of Warburg’s ideas vindicates him: central to his theory was the concept of “Survival” of images and motifs – of memes and global symbols – across cultures and civilisations.
Aby Warburg was a renegade for his time, but today he would fit perfectly in a culture of founders/designers. While not at all trained as a designer, it is clear that his KWB is very much a designed project that remained in “perpetual beta” until his death.
The KWB was from a designer’s perspective, a fascinating brief. It definitely wasn’t a straightforward physical object. It involved the creation of a living organism made of images and texts, set in an architectural exoskeleton. It had to interface with its human curators, physically and mentally. It had to be scalable and communicative and be sustainable for generations to come, and it had to change the world of cultural history.
In the internet age it would have been thought of as an online digital service – a huge media database with a visual CMS, accessible from anywhere through a web application. It would have involved information architecture, unit tests and user tests, thousands of lines of code, a GUI, a growth strategy, a business model, a monetisation strategy, branding, a mission statement – and it would have to fight off acquisition offers to change the world.
Warburg would have loved what you can do with Google, Flickr and Twitter combined. Perhaps the “iKWB” would have been a mashup of different services. The wonderful data visualisation possible today would have made his life much easier. Imagine a TuneGlue for iconography, or a “Viewers who have liked this painting also liked that one”. Millions of users comparing Boticelli and mobile phone snaps, would completely flatten the relationship between high art and popular culture… and they have.
Google hoards and organises the world’s information in order to sell ads on top of it, but Warburg hoarded information to build up knowledge, and from this knowledge design a better cultural theory.

Part 3: A New Global Paradigm

Warburg’s story tells of the closely-knit relationship between data, analysis, art and vision. In other words, between knowledge and its structure, and design.
Knowledge is the single most important fuel for any designer. Information and knowledge have been amassing for millennia at exponential rates, but what is unprecedented is how accessible they have become.
An early 2011 inventory of the world’s technological capacity ( tells us that we’re fast approaching 100% digitalisation of the entire human data production – 2002 was the first time digital media surpassed quantitatively analog media, and by 2007, 94% of the world’s knowledge had been digitised. This also represents around 1.5 Zetabytes (1500 billions of Gigabytes) of additional information per year, a big chunk of which is produced by individual users and consumers, who now “control the Information Age” (remember the 2006 “You” Time Person of the Year).
A proper archival of collective cultural memory is a civilisation’s ticket into history – that is why Ancient Egyptians built encoded pyramids, and why a gothic church reads like a pamphlet on high medieval theology. Writers, artists, architects, and designers have long taken on board, both consciously and not, the responsibility to embed such memory into their products.
We’ve come a long way from the Quattrocento. Back then Leonardo Da Vinci could write an “Impossible is Nothing” CV to the Duke of Milan boasting of his knowledge in everything from civil and military engineering and weapons design to architecture, painting and sculpture and, unlike Aleksey Vayner, still get the job.
In fact, a single “Universal Genius” like Leonardo or Michelangelo could also claim to be in perfect understanding (if not agreement) of the cultural, religious, political, and economic environment of his generation. In total sync with his society’s worldview, his work brilliantly defined, archived and channelled its values over history.
Less than a decade ago, it would have been futile to search for a 21st century equivalent character – because the sheer quantity of ever-shifting and ever-changing knowledge that he or she would need to amass would simply be superhuman. Instead, it became natural to talk of multidisciplinary teams as the way forward for design in education and practice.
Today, on the other hand, the democratisation of knowledge has re-empowered many young designers. But as a two-edge sword, it also over-democratised design. In a world where everyone can “design your own home” or crowdsource your logo online, capital-D designers have found themselves somehow disenfranchised.
They’d been spending too much time social networking or reading blogs anyway – putting them on a different interest plane. With increasingly higher social awareness and the coming of age of broadband and mobile finally allowing for proper global collaboration, a new generation of designers is becoming truly trans-cultural.
The new generation’s understanding of social and cultural responsibility is confronted to the nature of the digital medium: whereas the construction of a pyramid to archive Egypt’s memory could capture the resources and imagination of a nation for a century, we can now hold the same amount of information in a USB key.
In a world where architecture itself is less synonymous with building than with the organisation of information, it comes as no surprise that design has opened new fields of operation that are not necessarily object oriented.
Designers have been discovering knowledge outside their own field and responding to the over-democratisation of their trade, to outsourced and crowdsourced competition, by joining forces with other trades and other complementary designers into lose networks of transdisciplinary collaborators.
So while it is still futile to find one individual with a relative amount of knowledge and skill equivalent to Leonardo’s – it is not impossible to find many individuals commanding the right tools to access an incredible amount of knowledge. In addition, it is also quite possible to find amongst those, some who have a great affinity with the cultural values of their time, and/or who can be trained to become so tuned.
“Interdisciplinary centres” had been growing across academic departments since the mid 1970s, to respond to the erosion of disciplinary boundaries under the pressure of hard-to-fit study interests[1]. Similarly today, academia is readjusting to the new cultural realities.
The large businesses that are universities took heed of the new market opportunities that appeared at the same time as their authority as the main source of knowledge was dwindling. With American-born “Design Thinking” coming of age globally, a new branding exercise was in order.
From Stanford’s D.School to Parsons’ Transdisciplinary Design programme, to the even more recent PNCA Collaborative Design programme, competition is building.
Interestingly, the themes declared in these three schools programmes are not particularly new: systems theory, holistic design, design thinking, have all been around for quite more than a decade.  But universities have historically been very slow movers.

Part 4: Transdiciplinary Generation

If we are to believe Thomas Kuhn, all this is pretty predictable: a major paradigm shift occurred over the last 10 years, and the new worldview is finally entering the mainstream officially.
This new way of seeing the world has been called the “Quantum Paradigm”, in homage to the theory that brought about not only the electronic age and the life-changing technologies that came with it, but also the most significant changes in the way we understand the universe and our role in it since Galileo gave us the heliocentric worldview, and Newton the Mechanical Paradigm.
When scientists looked at the heart of matter in the early 1920s, they saw a world made up not of solid objects but of dynamic energy fields and abstract fields of potentiality. Quantum Theory described a world of uncertainty, complementarity, and triggered all kinds of metaphysical interpretations of what a reality made up of pure mathematics would be. The movie The Matrix plays with some of the notions that are very much on scientists minds – and it is not a coincidence that it was made 70 years or so after that theory.
In fact, it has been shown that a consistent average of 70 years was often necessary between a moment where a major new idea disturbs scientific discourse and when its effect on mainstream cultural production becomes complete: it is the time needed for a whole generation to grow up taking that paradigm for granted, reach positions of power and responsibility, namely in academia and politics, and finally affect education and policy.
Around the year 1999, in Oxford, we called for a relational theory of urban design based on the Quantum Paradigm. It would be built upon a conceptual meta-language borrowed from scientific themes (quantum dualities, complexity theory, self-regulation, biomimicry, etc) that would be generic enough to transcend disciplines, to help collaboration and to create wholly new ways of thinking and thus of designing. It fitted well with similar notions developed in parallel in other disciplines, from architecture to sociology and psychology and economics.  It was by definition transdisciplinary, but at that time, the word was not used in that sense.
Around the same period, Basarab Nicolescu, not surprisingly a theoretical physicist, reactivated a Paris-based International Centre for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET), “to develop research in a new scientific and cultural approach - the transdisciplinarity - whose aim is to lay bare the nature and characteristics of the flow of information circulating between the various branches of knowledge”...
Naming a paradigm is important for the congealing effect branding has. In our image-centred world, by giving a name (and eventually a language) to their shared worldview, like-minded individuals and groups can recognise one another, come together and collaborate more effectively.
By 2010 it was clear that the exact name of any such theory or worldview, had become secondary: the internet, and in particular social media, had made such encounters much easier, and a fresh generation of “quantum” thinkers and designers was thriving.
Once described as “T-shaped people” by IDEO’s Tim Brown, this new breed is “asterisk*-shaped”. They continuously absorb skills, practical knowledge, and popularized scientific ideas, first and second hand, including through film, gaming, and art – building up into a hybrid, science-aware but unscientific culture.
They are confident in their role and their learning capacity, they form networks and collaborate across cultures and disciplines. In turn they disseminate new iterations of knowledge through their work and activism. Thanks to social, academic, and professional networking they are now coming together to bring about an emergent movement – we think of them as “quantum acrobats”, but perhaps we can call them simply “transdisciplinary designers”.
[1] “Interdisciplinarity” coincided, according to Louis Menand, with the demographic shift in student and faculty populations in the USA in the last quarter of the 20th century: from a predominantly white male population, it shifted to a more balanced gender and race distribution. With the new demographics came new, and new fields of study interests (queer and gender studies, post-colonial studies etc) that wouldn’t fit within the existing framework were born.
Cover image generated by (aka DALL-E MINI)