Design’s Invisible Century

Double exposure: Dallas, Texas, and the moon. [Photo by oaphoto]

Design has entered its invisible century. This does not mean that design itself has become invisible; quite the contrary. Designed images have become ever more pervasive in our increasingly visual culture, designed products ever more pertinent in a rapidly growing human population, and designed environments ever more important given the predominantly urban existence of our species. But the great discoveries in design in the 21st century will come not from the design we can see, but rather from that which we cannot. Let me explain by means of an analogy.

In 2004, the science writer Richard Panek published The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes, in which he argued that the 20th century constituted the “invisible century” of science. 1 As he explained, at the end of the 19th century, many scientists believed that the great discoveries had all been made and that the future of scientific investigation would involve the refinement of existing knowledge. “Little remained to be done but to measure physical constants to the increased accuracy represented by another decimal place,” as one physicist put it. 2 But as it happened, such confident predictions would soon prove wrong, for it was in the first decades of the 20th century that Einstein and Freud made their path-breaking discoveries, revealing what Panek calls “hidden universes” that opened up whole new areas of understanding and activity in the “invisible” world of the subatomic particle, space-time continuum and human consciousness.

What Einstein and Freud achieved bears directly on design practices. And in fact the two scientists had much in common with designers. Einstein and Freud were both spatial thinkers, using thought experiments as the basis for most of their discoveries. Einstein imagined being in an elevator traveling at 32 feet per second squared, which is the force of gravity, and he realized that in such a situation, he could not tell whether the elevator was moving or at rest, which meant that acceleration and gravity were the same thing. He then imagined that if a light beam entered the moving elevator on one side, it would strike the other side of the rising elevator slightly lower, appearing to bend — which meant that gravity, too, bent light.

Alexey Titarenko, Untitled (Stranger), 1996. [Courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery]

Freud used spatial analogies to describe the unconscious as well. He likened the subconscious to the submerged part of an iceberg or an island to convey the extent to which the subconscious lies below the surface, invisible to us. Freud also described how the physical world takes on metaphorical meaning in our dreams, representing connections we may not be conscious of while awake. The role of the psychoanalyst, like that of a designer or a critic, involves the interpretation of people’s dreams in search of the meaning that we give to the world around us.

Like the best designers, Einstein and Freud each displayed deep empathy; they were able to imagine the world from the perspective of others. Einstein’s discovery of the equivalence of energy and matter when traveling at the speed of light squared came about from his ability to see himself not only as a physicist looking at a particle, but also as the particle itself, imagining what the world would look like from that vantage point. Likewise, Freud’s discovery of the subconscious repressions of his patients hinged on his willingness to sit and listen to them struggle to resist and ultimately open up to his non-judgmental questions about their lives.

Both Einstein and Freud made imaginative and metaphorical use of Wilhelm Röntgen’s late 19th-century discovery of x-rays. Much like the ability of architects and designers to conceptually slice through objects to understand them in plan and section, Einstein and Freud analogized their accomplishments as the equivalent of seeing beneath the surface of things to perceive what had surrounded us all along but never before been visible. As Panek writes, what Einstein and Freud “wound up discovering wasn’t new evidence but a new way of looking at old evidence … a shift not in perception … but in conception.” 3

And also like designers, who envision objects and environments that do not yet exist, Einstein and Freud took a speculative approach to their work. Unlike many scientists, they didn’t draw their ideas from experimentation, but instead, as Panek writes, “they hypothesized, and then, as need be, depending on the evidence, they revised, until the hypothesis matched observations.” 4 In other words, Einstein and Freud made creative leaps, as designers do, and then tested and adjusted an idea in an iterative way until it aligned with reality.

Eric William Carroll, Experimental Observation (Einstein). [From the series G.U.T. Feeling]

Einstein and Freud set out to explore their hidden universes because science some hundred years ago left too many paradoxes unexplained and too many ideas unchallenged. Einstein questioned the old assumption that, while we can alter space, we cannot alter time, just as Freud overturned the accepted notion that to catalogue the symptoms of mental illness would be to explain it. And in both cases, they wrestled with paradoxes that others ignored, such as how energy or ideas moved without any intermediary substance like the ether or without connecting neurons to carry them.

The Hidden Universe of Design

Like science at the turn of the last century, design now faces its own unchallenged assumptions and unquestioned paradoxes, and it too has its own hidden universes to explore. Why do we assume, for example, that design primarily involves the creation of physical products or environments, when we know that every human activity has been “designed” in some way? Why have the countless processes of design, which pervade and inform almost all that we encounter in our daily lives, remained so invisible to most people? And what does design have to contribute to the seemingly invisible systems, services and flows that have begun to fail us because of their poor design? Because so few people have any education in design thinking, they often do not understand or know how to employ the design process — the iterative, critical examination of possible scenarios that has proven so effective in the physical world in anticipating likely failures or unintended consequences that need correction before a design becomes a reality. And because most designers rarely have the opportunity to apply this process to the invisible world of processes and procedures, we all suffer as a result.

Think of what we might have avoided, in the sphere of economics, had we subjected some of the morally hazardous financial products — the devastating subprime mortgages, or highly leveraged corporate buyouts, which have wrought so much personal and collective damage — to “design reviews,” assessing all that could go wrong and requiring thorough redesign before exposing so many people to so much risk. Or imagine how the last decade might have differed had we scrutinized the overly optimistic assumptions behind our infrastructural systems and addressed the possibilities of airport security being too easily breached, major bridges collapsing, category 5 hurricanes hitting New Orleans, or tsunamis striking the Japanese coast?

Double exposure: Marseille, France, and Rabat, Morocco. [Photo by Alexandre Baron]

Many of those responsible for the dramatically inadequate responses that followed have claimed that no one could have foreseen such catastrophic events; but in fact such events were foreseeable, and the failure to do so bespeaks a lack of design skill and professional imagination. Design thinking enables us not only to create things that work well, but also to anticipate what could go wrong and to prevent that from happening as much as humanly possible. These catastrophes also show how rarely designers get asked to participate in development processes outside of the narrow confines of what the design community itself has traditionally thought of as designed.

Architects and planners often complain about the constraints of working within rules and frameworks set up by other professionals — e.g., in law, finance, government — that can make it difficult to do the right thing. But by limiting our own view of design to the giving of physical form to the visible things we use and inhabit, we implicitly concede that design can do little to change the badly conceived or simply outdated laws, policies and procedures that have helped create and perpetuate environments that have become inequitable, unsustainable and dysfunctional.

To change this sorry situation, we need to begin applying design thinking to this invisible universe of processes, policies and procedures as thoroughly and as rigorously as we have to the visible world. This will entail two fundamental shifts in how we think about design itself. First, it will require a change in education, in which the design of physical products and environments would be just one among several possible ways to use this knowledge — and just one among a range of careers for designers. Legal education went through such a transformation in the 20th century, when law schools began to emphasize not only trial law but also legal analysis and thinking, and in this way expanded the application of legal skills to encompass the fuller range of career paths now available to lawyers, many of whom never set foot in a courtroom. For design education, this means a much greater emphasis on the epistemology of design — on how designers think and on how the design process works — and a much greater acceptance among educators that applications of this knowledge will extend well beyond those currently emphasized in most design schools.

Eric William Carroll, Time and Space (left) and Space and Time (right). [From the series G.U.T. Feeling]

Second, it will require a rethinking of design as a fundamental skill with which all educated people should have some familiarity and even facility. We accept that this is true for other disciplines — for examples, we are all expected to have some understanding of mathematical, scientific and historical models of thinking; but design — the one form of thinking that assesses the world not as it is or was, but as it could be — hardly exists in primary, secondary or even post-secondary education. To address this lacuna, design educators and practitioners need to develop new structures for collaboration with teachers at all levels in preparing design curriculum modules for primary and secondary education, and also to intensify our partnerships with other disciplines in applying design thinking to the many wicked problems we face.

These two shifts might seem contradictory. If we educate everyone to think like designers, will we need designers anymore? The answer, of course, is yes. We still have mathematicians, scientists and historians, even though most educated people have some ability to understand how these disciplines think and proceed. We also still have law schools, even though legal thinking has penetrated many aspects of our lives. The design disciplines, too, will remain important fields unto themselves, and many practitioners will continue to design objects in the physical world, just as many scientists after Einstein and Freud have continued to discover new things about the visible world. But as in these other realms, design thinking will become more powerful in its ability to improve the quality of our lives as it becomes more pervasive in our educational system and more prominent in the design of the invisible world.

The examples of Einstein and Freud suggest how we might do this. Just as their discoveries produced paradigm shifts in our understanding of reality, so too could designers apply the ways in which we think and see — “with x-ray eyes” as Panek said of Einstein and Freud — to phenomena far beyond the physical forms and spaces we now focus on. This shift will almost certainly lead to new discoveries, if for no other reason than that the invisible realm of design remains so largely unexplored by the design community itself. And with it will come whole new professional roles. Science’s invisible century launched fields such as atomic physics, psychoanalysis and human genomics, to name just a few, and the invisible century of design is already beginning to spawn new career tracks with names like service design, experience design, public-interest design and geo-design.

Eric William Carroll, The Standard Model (left) and Spectrum (Epson) (right). [From the series G.U.T. Feeling]

Design thinking, prototyping and visualization skills will link all of these new activities. Just as Einstein and Freud made the invisible world visible, so too could designers help others envision what policies or processes might look like visually and spatially and how they will perform functionally. This could range from diagramming processes to reveal weak points, to connecting seemingly unrelated phenomena and thus identifying potential unintended consequences, to illustrating the physical implications of policies in order to evaluate their ultimate effects. Systems often fail because of over-simplification in concept and design; the application of traditional design methods could help those in power understand the true complexity of the networks — e.g., infrastructure, finance, information, et al. — for which they are responsible.

Also, just as Einstein and Freud were able to envision empathetically — to see things from multiple perspectives — so too could designers enable policymakers and process people to view their work in terms of those who will be affected by it. Gathering user information at the very start of design processes, rather than after the fact (as so often happens); showing what a regulation or procedure might mean to particular people, rather than to abstract “stakeholders” or “average” constituents; and communicating those effects in plain language and smart visuals rather than in obfuscating jargon — all this could have a transformative effect on the quality and efficacy of public decision-making.

Finally, just as Einstein and Freud speculatively explored heretofore hidden universes, so too could designers show those in power how to prototype and test alternative scenarios and critically assess the possible consequences of projects and plans. With designers as regular participants in the development of policies and processes — much as lawyers and financial analysts are today — we would see much less of the linear, deductive and reductionist thinking that has enabled so many design failures in the invisible world and much more of the iterative, abductive and divergent thinking that has helped make the physical world, especially in the most developed countries, so much safer, healthier and cleaner than in the past. The larger goal here is to make our environments and systems better and stronger still — the public should never be expected to tolerate financial “innovation” that could destroy the global economy or “austerity” measures that lead to deferred maintenance and collapsing roadways. We can no longer afford not having designers involved in these arenas.

Double exposure: Chicago, Illinois. [Photo by Patrick Spence]

The Proof in Paradoxes

The proof of this way of thinking about design will ultimately rest with what it can accomplish. We continue to value Einstein and Freud because of their insights into the most difficult and perplexing problems of their day; the path-breaking explorers of design’s invisible century need to set their sights similarly high. The usefulness and value of design thinking lies in its ability to resolve pressing and persistent paradoxes. Let’s start with two particularly difficult ones: Smith’s paradox of value and Jevons’s paradox of efficiency.

Adam Smith, in his late 18th-century treatise The Wealth of Nations, asked why water, which is essential to our survival, has such a low price, while diamonds, which have little or no survival value, garner such a high price. 5 Smith recognized that the use value and exchange value of things can differ substantially; and ever since economists have argued that Smith’s paradox reflects the difference between the total value of a commodity and the marginal value it has for any individual. But despite such explanations, there remains the paradox that what we value and will pay a high price for remains, on occasion, at odds with what is most essential to our survival.

The 19th-century British economist William Stanley Jevons recognized a related paradox when he observed that greater efficiencies in the use of a finite resource, like coal, did not reduce its consumption, but instead increased it, contrary to expectations. 6 We can easily see why Jevons’s paradox occurs. Greater efficiency in the use of a resource can reduce its price, which prompts more consumption, and it can also increase economic growth, which in turn fuels ever greater use as more people have the means to use the resource. Thus Jevons argued that we should not rely solely on improvements in efficiency to reduce consumption.

Double exposure: Bordeaux, France. [Photo by Garuna bor-bor]

Such paradoxes raise profound problems for modern society in general and for the design professions in particular. In recent decades there has been a great deal of work — designs, proposals, competitions, books, articles, etc. — directed toward reducing the demand for water, energy, materials, etc., within everything from industrial processes to LEED-rated buildings. Yet Smith’s paradox suggests that the overall abundance of resources like water and energy makes conservation a losing battle economically, while Jevons’s paradox states that even if we persist in becoming ever more efficient, consumption will only increase — a losing battle environmentally. Smith and Jevons did not believe that we should simply give up and continue to be wasteful or inefficient. But their observations imply that we cannot rely upon economics or technology to ensure that we do not over-consume resources necessary to our survival.

Some economists have argued that public policies and economic incentives can counter such paradoxical effects: for instance, we can levy taxes on resources like water or fossil fuels, set quotas on use, and control availability to keep the price high. 7 Such tactics, though, have proven hard to sell economically or politically; they strike some as “social engineering” that unwisely tampers with the free market drive toward the greater efficiency and lower cost of commodities. But as Smith and Jevons show, unless we take some action, an unfettered marketplace will often work to decrease cost and increase consumption to the point where we will exhaust the supply of vital resources and in the process drive up their costs. And as we have seen in recent years, increasing volatility in the price of crucial commodities like fossil fuels, and increasing scarcity of essential resources like water, can disrupt entire economies and devastate people’s lives.

That these paradoxes still exist — and around issues of such vital importance — suggests that we have designed economic incentives in contradictory and ultimately self-defeating ways: undervaluing what is most important and becoming ever more efficient at heedless consumption. So let’s assume, for the moment, that we want to avoid solutions that look like top-down social engineering, (which almost guarantees political defeat); we then need to design incentives that would encourage bottom-up, voluntary choices by individuals to do the right thing. This could include creating social stigmas against over-consumption (as has happened with obesity) and educating ourselves about the hazards of unhealthy products polluting the commons (as has happened with smoking).

Alexey Titarenko, Untitled (Crowd 3), 1992. [Courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery]

It could also involve creating a network of easily used infrastructures around the sharing of resources (as has happened with ride-share programs), and generating a sense of community around the reduction of waste (as has happened with the widespread acceptance of recycling and with the voluntary simplicity movement). These are just some of the ways in which the design professions might take on new and hybrid roles — and not only in creating the messages, products and environments to help make such ideas happen, but also in helping identify the structural problems and in generating and testing diverse ideas to address them. We have designed our way into such paradoxes and we can design our way out of them, if we conceptualize the challenges with enough depth and vision.

As was true for the invisible worlds discovered by Einstein and Freud, the hidden universe of design surrounds us; we just need to develop the x-ray eyes to see it. All human artifacts and activities — not just our objects and architecture, but also our organizations and operations, policies and procedures, systems and infrastructures — have been designed, and too many of the most critical have been badly done by professionals and politicians who didn’t know the first thing about design. While we cannot blame them for what they didn’t know or couldn’t see, the stakes have gotten too high for us to continue in this way. The expansion of design into these “invisible” realms has practical value not only to design professions in which labor-intensive work is increasingly automated or outsourced, but also to the entire human population and to the planet as a whole, suffering from the unsustainability of a badly designed world.

  1. See Richard Panek, The Invisible Century, Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes (New York: Viking, 2004).
  2. Panek, 64.
  3. Panek, 168.
  4. Panek, 175.
  5. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 12.
  6. John Polimeni, Kozo Mayumi, Mario Giampietro, Blake Alcott, The Jevons Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements (London: Earthscan, 2008).
  7. See Paul Krugman, The Great Unraveling, Losing our Way in the New Century (New York: Norton, 2003).
Thomas Fisher, “Design’s Invisible Century,” Places Journal, April 2012. Accessed 05 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 05.12.2012 at 15:43

    Fascinating article.