Klaus Krippendorff’s Trajectory of Artificiality

28. November 2021

In his 2006 book “The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design” Klaus Krippendorff, who studied at HfG Ulm under Horst Rittel and went on to teach at the Annenberg School for Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the University of Pennsylvania for more than forty years, writes about the “Trajectory of Artificiality”. Rather than reducing design problems to “products”, we should also look at the increasingly immaterial qualities of “goods, services and identities”, “interfaces”, “multi-user systems”, “projects”, and “discourses”.

The philosophy many designers today still articulate follows Louis Sullivan’s dictum of “Form follows function”, written in 1896 It is worth noting that Sullivan himself meant it in a somewhat different way that it has become to commonly be understood.. Krippendorff points out that this dictum is anachronistic and doesn’t represent today’s complex society and problems. “This dictum, elevated to a design principle, entails the belief that the form of tangible products would emerge naturally from a clear under­standing of the function they are to serve. It does not question what they are to serve, where functions come from, and the legitimacy of those who define them for designers to start with. It signals designers’ blind acceptance of the role they are assigned by society and by their industrial employers in particular.”

His “Trajectory of Artificiality” shows a trajectory of modern design problems. Each step is a different kind of artifact and offers different challenges and possibilities to designers — and “form follows function” is only helpful on the first step of the ladder. “This trajectory is not intended to describe irreversible steps but phases of extending design considerations to essentially new kinds of artifacts, each building upon and rearticulating the preceding kinds and adding new design criteria, thus generating a history in progress.”

Krippendorff’s “Trajectory of Artificiality” [Krippendorff 2006, p. 6]

The artifacts we work on are usually not limited to one step in the trajectory but contain elements of multiple steps, each offering and requiring a different perspective on the artifact. This framework gave me a lot of insights when I started thinking of digital products as products, goods, services, interfaces, networks [and when you are involved in their creation also projects] — all at the same time.

Products — Utility, Functionality, Universal Aesthetics

Products are what producers produce — this is where the origin of the modern discipline of design lays, starting in the late 1800s. Because the producers were the ones taking on financial risks, they were the ones whose concerns designers had to look after. The primary concern of course being the price of production in relation to the price that a product can be sold at (and by extension of that its utility to buyers); the secondary concern being to prevent unexpected misuses. Designers also wanted to make the products nicer to look at, hiding the underlying mechanisms, and so they became concerned with aesthetics. But because of the nature of mass-produced goods, they had to come up with a universal aesthetics that “was believed to be culture free and valid for everyone”. Krippendorff points out the imperialistic attitude that came along with this, leading Westerners to consider anyone following other aesthetics as primitive. “Thus, in the industrial era, the idea of product design came to hide its subtext, the expansion of markets, the propagation of Western technological ideals to underdeveloped populations, and the refusal to take responsibilities for unintended consequences […].” It seems to me that another name for these kinds of artifacts that is less prone to being misunderstood than “products” might be “tools” — in the sense that a tea kettle is a tool for making tea.

Goods, Services, Identity — Marketability, Local Aesthetics

Since the 1940s designers have started thinking mostly about goods, services, and identities — leading to the new role of designer as “stylist”. “Goods are manufactured to be traded and sold, not merely used. Functions are secondary to their role in the marketplace and serve at best as sales arguments.” Instead the primary concern becomes recognizability and the impression of trust­worthiness. “Because these kinds of artifacts fundamentally are concerned with diverse people’s perceptions — people that belong to different communities, have different habits, and pursue different goals in life — the design of goods, services, and identities can no longer rely on a universal aesthetic. Rather, it has to recognize a variety of less formalized and community-specific folk and local aesthetics.

Interfaces — Natural interactiveness, Understandability, Adaptability

Interfaces are all about mediating between complex technological devices and their users, enabling these users to use devices whose operation they do not comprehend. Often the operations of these devices is in fact incomprehensible: they are of no use at all without their interfaces. “The design of interfaces shifted designers’ attention from a concern for the internal makeup and appearance of technology to what mediates between users and technology, the betweeness in which interfaces evolve.”

What we call “user-friendliness” is the attempt to create interfaces that are easy enough for users to understand so that they can use the device in the way that they intend to. “For designers, a key concern is that interfaces are understandable. Users’ understanding need not be ‘correct’ as intended by the producer, engineer, or designer of the technology. It needs to go only as far as needed for users to be able to interact with that technology as naturally and effortless as possible, without causing disruptions and reasons to fear failure.

Multiuser Systems & Networks — Informaticity, Accessibility, Connectivity

Krippendorff writes: “Multiuser systems and networks facilitate the coordination of many human activities across space and time […].” These include not just the obvious ones like communication systems, e.g. the telephone system or the internet, but also sign systems, information systems like libraries, and mass-media networks. In order for communities to arise in these systems, they have the be good at providing information, but also be accessible and facilitate connectivity. “Designers can no longer determine how such a system will be used, but they will have to provide the facilities for its many users to organize themselves within and around it.”.

Projects — Social viability, Directionality, Commitment

“[Projects] typically arise around particular desires to change something, to develop a technology, for example, and leave something behind that is useful for others outside those directly involved. As artifacts, projects are realized in particular communicative practices among participants.” In this sense management is fundamentally the design of projects. As such, projects are to a large part a communication challenge. They depend very much on language and narratives: “Projects always proceed in language, in narratives of what has to change, needs to be done, how, by whom, and at which time. They also have a purpose, a point, and an ‘objective,’ however vague this may be to start out with. Under­standing this purpose must attract people, motivate them to make commitments, coordinate their contributions, and direct their activities forward.” It would be futile to think that a project can be led to success by a single person in charge that issues instructions — it is the ability to shape details and control their part of the project that makes contributors most productive. “All that the designers of projects can do is to suggest a direction, generate open spaces for potential stakeholders to see possibilities for making their contributions, and to attract sufficient resources for the project to come to fruition. Projects are socially viable organizations, constituted in what people do, and last long enough to leave something behind […].”

Discourses — Generativity, Rearticulability, Solidarity

“As a first approximation, discourses are organized ways of talking, writing, and acting accordingly. […] Discourses direct the attention of community members, organize their actions, and construct the worlds they see, speak of, or write about.” Discourses appear whenever people act together as a community. Our communities’ discourses always shape our thinking and doing, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. Because of this, we cannot escape our communities’ discourses, only push them forward. “Discourses entail a tension between being conservative, reusing established forms, and being creative in new ways.”

Changing discourses is very hard because they involve many people and cannot be controlled. But we can aim to shape the discourse by introducing new ways of speaking and changing the language that the discourse uses, thereby introducing new ideas: “Because language, being, and acting are so intricately connected, it seems difficult to redesign a discourse, at least not in the traditional sense, from outside of it. […] However, it is not impossible to create and start using new metaphors, new vocabularies, and new ways of languaging […], thus bringing forth new ways of conceptualizing the world and encouraging new practices.


Krippendorff concludes his trajectory of artificiality with four observations:


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