Ontological Designing

Anne-Marie Willis

Ontological designing implies a radically different understanding of design as practice and object than those generally available; it also implies different ways of understanding how we, as modern subjects ‘are’ and how we come to be who/what we are in the modern world. The following attempt to seek out the meaning of ontological designing is undertaken mainly by selectively going back to the primary source - Heidegger.

First, a preliminary definition of ontological designing will be put in place. This will be worked over by considering Heidegger on ‘the ontology of equipment’ as well as his concepts of ‘worlding’ and ‘thinging’ all of which are crucial to the idea of ontological designing. Then the ‘hermeneutic circle’ is added as another fundamental ingredient. The paper ends by considering parallels and differences between ontological designing and other theories of design.

To begin simply, ontological designing is a way of characterising the relation between human beings and lifeworlds. As a theory its claims are:

- that design is something far more pervasive and profound than is generally recognised by designers, cultural theorists, philosophers or lay persons;

- that designing is fundamental to being human - we design, that is to say, we deliberate, plan and scheme in ways which prefigure our actions and makings - in turn we are designed by our designing and by that which we have designed (i.e., through our interactions with the structural and material specificities of our environments);

-That this adds up to a double movement - we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us.

Why is this not just another way of saying ‘we are conditioned by our environment’ or ‘we are shaped by the cultures into which we are born’? To see why not, we have to focus on the ontology of ontological designing.

Ontological designing, then, is (i) a hermeneutics of design concerned with the nature and of the agency of design, which understands design as a subject-decentred practice, acknowledging that things as well as people design, and following on from this, (ii) an argument for particular ways of going about design activity, especially in the contemporary context of ecological unsustainability. This leads to a further implication: the theory of ontological designing carries with it a politics.

Ontology, the Ontic And the Ontological

Ontology means “of or belonging to the understanding of being.” Put extremely simply, ontic refers to what is; ontology refers to enquiry of what is, while ontological refers to the condition or behaviour of what is. The question of being has been central for the whole ontological tradition of philosophy - the necessary brevity of my attempt to define it here, cannot but do violence to this tradition.

‘Being’ as a noun is not common in everyday language nowadays and many first-time readers of Heidegger are initially baffled by it, suspecting that it names some kind of mysterious essence. Nothing could be further from Heidegger’s intentions. ‘Being’ is not to be conceived of as yet another entity - a supra-entity - such as Spirit or God, but as the conditions of the possibility of presence.[7] In fact, for Heidegger, the notion of essence lying ‘behind’ or ‘underneath’ beings was one of the problems with the Western metaphysical tradition.

A term used by Heidegger, ‘being-in-the-world’ (Dasein), sometimes translated as ‘being-here’, requires further elaboration. Put over-simply, ‘Dasein’ stands for ‘human being’, but only for something particular about human beings, which is the capacity for understanding. Dasein is distinctive among all other beings in that ‘being is an issue for it’.[8] This is a constitutive feature of its being; the understanding of being belongs only to human beings.[9]

Ontological Designing

Anne-Marie Willis

The Ontology of Equipment

For Heidegger, being-in-the-world is grounded, situated, always already caught up with the concerns of the world and with doing. This is a different explanation of the processes of human understanding to that of the Western metaphysical rationalist tradition, which draws a sharp line between the observing (human) subject and that observed, and which would define the essential nature of a piece of equipment, such as a hammer (Heidegger's example) through a description of function and/or observable properties such as mass, material, weight. This is how science brings something into presence. 'Bringing into presence' refers to the human activity of giving meaning to 'what is'. This occurs primarily through language, which is a hermeneutic (interpretative) activity. The claim here is that human access to 'what is' can never be direct and unmediated, but is always interpretative. But interpretation is not restricted to rational, conscious, purposeful activities of naming and classifying. It also includes (and for Heidegger, prioritises) everyday interpretative dealings with the world, such as using things which have the essential character of 'in order to' and readiness-to-hand. This is more than simply a way of describing practical activity.[10] Tony Fry takes up the implications in an ontological account of the industrial craft tradition, specifically, precision machine work:

critically read and wrote the text of production, besides the interpretation of information, the judgment of eye and the guidance of critical touch, was also implicated in a more intuitive reading of a wide range of machine process data, which involved a range of senses, like the reflection of light on the cutting surface of metal being turned, the colour of the sworf (waste) produced by the heat of the cutting, the smell of cutting oil as the temperature of metal changes, the sound of the cut or, to move from a lathe to a universal grinder, the color and size of a fan of sparks - and so with each machine tool there was a bringing of work to life.[11]

Following Heidegger, he describes this as a kind of knowing in which 'what is known is lodged in the practical performative act, as it is expressed by the hand as exercised skill, it thus does not correspond with knowledge as we understand it as reflection or description'.[12] Here is ontological designing - based upon a circularity, in which knowledge comes to be inscribed by being with the ‘designing-being’ of a tool , this in turn modifying (designing) the being of the tool-user. This extends the understanding of design beyond that which would normally be thought of, i.e., the mental prefiguration of what is to be made and the pattern or template that guides making. These are aspects, but there is also: the designing effect of the properties of the raw material to be worked upon which will require, for example, certain temperatures to be applied; the way in which the machine tool designs the work process as a set of actions, skills and knowledges. Then, once the fabricated object leaves the factory, there is the way in which it will design the actions of its users, according to the inherent delimitations of how it can be used - here we can think of equipment, appliances and other functional objects as having ‘horizons of use’, similar to Gadamer’s notion of interpretation as ‘an interaction between the horizon provided by the text and the horizon that the interpreter brings to it’.[13] Interpretation is inseparable from the ontological designing process.[14]

Equipment and technology provide the most easily graspable examples of ontological designing, but its power comes from extending beyond these contexts (or more accurately, an ontological thinking together of the material and the immaterial). However, this carries risks, particularly once the material character of equipment is left behind to consider the ontological designing of the non-material, for example, of systems of organisation or methods of thinking (or ‘habits of mind’, to express this in more ‘ontologically sympathetic’ terms). The risk is a loss of specificity in which ontological designing could be seen as equivalent to ‘environmental determinism’, carrying no more agency than ‘influence’ (as in ‘the influence of environment upon individuals’, where neither what constitutes environment nor what kind of action ‘influence’ is, are ever spelt out). Yet to make a material/non-material distinction for ontological designing is partly to miss the point - because in most situations both are present - thus the designing effects of an administrative system are inseparable from its materialised environment of IT infrastructure, forms, filing cabinets, work stations and work hierarchies, flows of paperwork and electronic information.

[7] “Something comes to presence. It stands in itself and thus puts itself forth. It is. For the Greeks, ‘being’ PDF GENERATED BY SEARCH.PROQUEST.COM Page 13 of 18 fundamentally means presence.” Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics (trans Gregory Fried and Richard Polt) New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 64.

[8] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (trans. John Macquarrie &Edward Robinson) Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962, p. 32

[9] Hofstadter, one of Heidegger’s translators puts it this way: ‘human behaviour is mediated by the understanding- of-being. If ontological means “of or belonging to the understanding of being”, then the human Dasein is by its very constitution an ontological being. This does not mean that the human being has an explicit concept of being, which he then applies in every encounter with beings; it means rather that before all ontology as explicit discipline of thinking, the human Dasein always already encounters beings in terms of a pre-ontological, pre-conceptual, non- conceptual grasp of their being. Ontology as a scientific discipline is then nothing but the unfolding, in the light proper to thought and therefore in conceptual form, of this pre-conceptual understanding-of-being’. Albert Hofstadter, Translator’s introduction to Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, rev. ed. 1982, pp xxiii. He goes on to say that Dasein doesn’t ‘have’ understanding ‘as a property’. ‘The Dasein is its understanding .... The Dasein is ontological in this peculiar way: it is its ontology, it exists its understanding-of-being within its life-comportments.” p. xxiv.

[10] Heidegger’s phenomenology refuses a theory/practice distinction - rather philosophical theorising is a type of practice and practical activity has its own theoretical understandings - ‘action has its own kind of sight’. Being and Time, p. 99.

[11] Tony Fry, ‘Green Hands Against Dead Knowledge’ Remakings, 1994, p. 93.

[12] Fry, Remakings, p .94.

[13] Winograd &Flores, op cit p.28.

[14] A link could also be made here to Don Ihde’s phenomenological investigation of technology. The question of technology and control is usually wrongly put he argues - i.e., it is usually posed as ‘does technology control us?’ and ‘can we control technology?’ Using a tool shop example like Fry’s he goes on to explain ‘... insofar as the tool- human context is constituted as a relation while the user ‘controls’ the chisel, it is the lathe and its turning of the furniture leg or banister piece that provides the context for the lathe-user’s movements. To enter any human- technology relation is already both to ‘control’ and to ‘be controlled’. Once the notion of technology in the ensemble is raised, particularly insofar as technologies are embedded in cultural complexes, the question of ‘control’ becomes even more senseless’ Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, p. 140. This statement opens up the much larger question of the nature of technology (a task for another time). For the moment, a qualification can be added that the statement is particular to certain understandings of aspects of certain technologies rather than to technology per se.

(2) ↓

Dasein (↓)

From German Dasein (“there-to be”), from da (“there”) + sein (“to be”).


(philosophy) Being; especially the nature of being; existence, presence, hereness, suchness, essence.

From Wikitionary

Foreword (↓)

The chair is designed by human, and now the chair designs human back in an unexpected way. We want our designs to serve us, but we never expect such side-effect would happen.

If we see this occurrence from an overall point of view, are we, human, actually designing ourselves?

The second part of the project, “Self, who?” aims to address the question asked above, which would involve Martin Heidegger’s thoughts around the concept of ontology and how designers today embed ontology into design so as to find out how we, human are designed by who.

Are we designed? How are we designed? We are designed by who? How to define ourselves in this designed world?

Findings around the problems are presented in this part. There is no answer. It is all about asking questions, putting forward hypothesis and thinking.

Are we the designers
or the designed?
with Jason Silva

Jason Silva
March 10, 2015

Balenciaga 2020
Summer / Spring
Campaign & RTW

Demna Gvasalia
September/October 2019

Ontological Designing

Anne-Marie Willis

New skin

Mayumi Hosokura
April 2020

Plastic World

Mária Švarbová
August 2015

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