Literature Review — Philosophy of Design after Anthropocentrism

Literature Review — Philosophy of Design after Anthropocentrism

Exploring the applicability of Object-Oriented Ontology to impact design solutions in the Anthropocene

This literature review explores 3 key areas:
1. The Importance of a Flat Ontology in Philosophy of Design;
2. Human-Centred Design and the Absent Human Object;
3. Integration of Object-Oriented Ontology within Creative Practice.

Keywords: Anthropocentrism, Flat Ontology, Human-Centred Design, Object-Oriented Ontology, Philosophy of Design


Contemporary society is experiencing several emerging realities, including; the end of Nature (Cox and Ince, 2019, Morton, 2011, Youatt, 2017), the rise of autonomous smart objects and AI (Cruickshank and Trivedi, 2017, Tatnall and Davey, 2017), the advent of transhumanism (Bostrom, 2003, Forlano, 2017), and the untold possibilities of gene enhancements (de Melo-Martín, 2008). For design practitioners, these types of developments call for a reorientation of ‘anthropocentric thinking’, due to these developments’ nonhuman-centric focus, or under-explored ethical themes (Boradkar, 2015).

Don Norman’s foundational work on HCD has proven to be an effective, profitable tool for organisations (2013). However, HCD’s focus to ‘meet human needs’ (Norman, 2013, p219), is now being questioned. In consideration of the proposed emerging realities: What happens when we design interacting systems for non- human actors (Cruickshank and Trivedi, 2017) (Tatnall and Davey, 2017)? Or, as Forlano asks, will nonanthropocentrism in design, lead to better, more equitable outcomes for citizens in sociotechnical systems (2016)?

Starting with Per Galle’s statement; why designers need a deeper understanding of what they are doing (2009), and why a flat ontology is suitable for today’s complex society (Harman, 2018a, p57). This paper will look at concepts, limitations, and adaptability of HCD (Cruickshank and Trivedi, 2017, Forlano, 2016, p50). Followed by anthropocentrism and how design concepts may build upon it through pluralism (Youatt, 2017, p15), or advocate anti-humanist approaches (Forlano, 2016, Morton, 2011). The paper then considers New Realism, in the form of Speculative Realism’s OOO (Harman, 2018a, Harman, 2018b, Morton, 2011); and lastly, a look at creative practitioners that are utilising OOO concepts in design practice.

In conclusion, the paper considers the positions of the literature explored, and suggests research and themes to address.

The Importance of a Flat Ontology in Philosophy of Design

Design shapes, touches, and influences all aspects of our lives, our desires and environments. Galle, poses the question, but ‘what shapes design?’ (2009). To understand the ‘nature’ of design, he states, takes ‘serious philosophical work’ (Galle, 2009).

Galle (2016) describes Philosophy of Design as the examination of design from a philosophical point of view, which asks ‘questions about knowledge, ethics, aesthetics, and the nature of reality’. Terrance Love (2000, p294) elucidates, that Philosophy of Design is a broader philosophical enquiry, beyond the limitations of ‘methods, methodologies and techniques of design’ to which design philosophy constrains itself. Both these statements are true to this paper’s focus. To begin an enquiry to these wider questions I look to Graham Harman’s OOO, which uses Manuel DeLanda’s flat ontology, as its starting point. Flat ontology is an idea that, ‘philosophy must begin by casting the widest possible net’ (Harman, 2018a, p256). Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak (2018, p1180) proffer that a flat, equal ontological basis for all entities, regardless of their unequal effects, allow for the consideration of nonhuman objects and their impact upon human experience, from the object’s own existence.

It has been identified that, ‘narcissistic’ humanism, idealism, and anthropocentrism, are leading causes to many of the world’s current issues (Ansari, 2013, p3, Bastian, 2013, Fry, 2006, p22, Harman, 2018a, p241). Ahmed Ansari establishes; it is not the move of human-centred design toward ‘a return to core principles and equal participation’ that is an issue, rather it’s the continental and postmodern philosophies that drive humans to preferable futures through material means, desires, and relationships (2013, p3). James Auger, in his Speculative Edu interview (2019), discusses the complicity of the design industry to Silicon Valley’s neoliberal vision of the world; succumbed to the illusion of improving peoples’ lives, there is a wilful blindness to the ‘negative implications’ to the products it creates. In his view, ‘design essentially needs a revolution’.

Figure 1. Visualisation of the four different concepts put forward

The concept of flat ontology has gone someway to address this need for new thinking (Harman, 2018a, p57). Harman’s interpretation of flat ontology is similar to Austrian philosophers like Alexius Meinong, whose Theory of Objects, also known as Meinong’s Jungle, has been an influence for Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s speculative design thinking. They understand the concept that, ‘imaginary objects have as much impact … through collective imagination as actual objects’ (Dunne and Raby, 2018, p52). Put simply, flat ontology gives equal value to real, compound, and imagined objects, this includes; humans, rocks, electrons, the Dutch East India Company, and Sherlock Holmes1 (Morton, 2011, p173).

Harman argues the reason a flat ontology is so important as a starting point, is to throw out personal prejudices and attempts at establishing hierarchies, when considering objects and their relationships (Harman, 2018a, p55). Furthermore, to remove prejudice toward our own species, and to remove the ‘narcissistic reflex’ of our species toward everything else (Ansari, 2013, p20)(Bennett J., cited in (Harman, 2018a, p241)). However, critics of flat ontology, OOO, and anti-anthropocentrism, suggest that by removing the central human figure it will encourage an all- encompassing category of the human object representative of the species, which will simply continue colonialism’s and capitalism’s uneven treatment, or ignorance, of minority and vulnerable groups within communities (Youatt, 2017, p42).

Another critic of OOO, Tony Fry, who claims that Harman fails to take into account objects that are ‘preconfigured or ahead of themselves’ through design processes (2006, p31). He disapproves of Harman’s proposition, that a bridge solely affords the connection of geological points, which neglects the bridge’s agency. Fry argues, the bridge sways, expands and contracts, and enables the traversing of animals, seeds, and humans among other objects (2006, pp32-33). He asserts that considerable more ‘exploration to support an ‘object-oriented philosophy’ is needed, which includes recognising the dialectical nature of the production of things’ (Fry, 2006, p33). What he is referring to here, is the creation / destruction binary; in this case, the mining and energy consumption needed for the design and construction of the components for the bridge.

Against the backdrop of new realities facing the planet and how we got here through market-driven desires, this section examined literature on, philosophy of design and flat ontology, and considered positions for and against decentralising the human object; which flat ontology sets about doing, to create an equal ontological footing for all entities.

Human-Centred Design (HCD) and the Absent Human Object

Medieval philosophy ‘orbited around God on one side and everything else on the other’ (Harman, 2018a, p256). Idealism and (post)modern philosophy ‘simply exchanged’ God with human thought, without surrendering the idea of a vastly important figure that occupies ‘half of ontology’ (2018a, p256). Harman’s OOO adopted Bruno Latour’s term of ‘non-modern’ philosophy to move beyond the arguments of modern and post-modern positions. Another aspect of OOO is its Aristotelean interpretation of DeLanda’s flat ontology; ‘a human is not more human than a plant is a plant’ (2018a, p257).

With his background in engineering and cognitive science, HCD pioneer Don Norman, is naturally human oriented, a humanist in philosophical terms (2013, p12 & p75). HCD was contemporaneous with the 80’s fictional idol Gordon Gekko and his line, ‘greed … is good’ (Stone, 1987) — the start of the ‘Capitalocene’; labelled as such as a deliberate critical provocation to the Anthropocene moniker (Blasdel, 2017, Cruickshank and Trivedi, 2017, Simon, 2019). A period driven by methods to understand and exploit the market’s desires to drive more sales, increase profit, and often, ironically, produce products with more complexity and confusion (Norman, 2013, p237). HCD has evolved with the times. It became empathetic. With growing awareness, HCD adopted anthropological methods like ethnography, to drive inclusiveness, fairness, and accessibility (Ansari, 2013, p2). But, it still creates uneven products, services and systems, as the market prioritises ‘certain groups in favour of others’ (Forlano, 2017, p28). It is also still mired in the capitalocene start-up culture mania (Auger, 2019, Forlano, 2017, p28). Additionally, HCD has led designers to unexplored ethical dilemmas like, the ‘difference between enjoyable and habitual use’, and an acknowledgment of the technology industry’s rhetoric of engagement and ‘delight’, which has contributed to digital dependence and addiction (Bowles, 2018, p57).

Rafi Youatt (2017, p43) doesn’t agree with removing the central human object, as this can create an ideologically uneven, all-encompassing category for the species. Instead, he proposes to create anthropocentrisms (plural). In this way, Youatt asserts, it is possible to side-step issues around discrimination inherent in human- centrism. However, without a flat ontology at the core of thinking, as per Hoffman and Novak (2018, p1180), Youatt’s proposal doesn’t bypass the ‘hierarchy of power’ issues and discrimination by priority. Although HCD human-centrism may be suitable for individual and specific situations, when dealing in more general terms, human- centrism has historically failed through exclusion, bias, or ignorance in favour of market-driven goals (Forlano, 2017, p28). Forlano, however, suggests that by taking on these issues, posthuman design may ‘decolonise design practice’ (2017, p29).

In a 1994 critical review of Don Norman’s book, ‘Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine’, Rick Robinson critiques Norman’s attempt at a general design theory, on why some objects are a ‘joy to use’ and others cause disasters (1994, p77). He narrows in on Norman’s focus on one of either, the person or the object, and warns of the dangers of such dichotomies in design theory; where theorists assume the answers to these ‘riddles’ will be found in either side, and do not consider their relationship to each other, in a larger context, outside these two anchor points (Robinson, 1994, p79). Robinson calls this the design ‘paradigm fault line’, upon which, he suggests, Norman (at this time) stumbles.

Figure 2. The author’s interpretation of a OOO object; showing the sensual, real, and withdrawn aspects of an object.

However, Ansari’s interpretations of OOO do provide a correlation of person and object, and of design and OOO; by linking designers’ endeavours to draw out the ‘real’, inner life of objects, while simultaneously being aware of the object’s ’sensual’ qualities of metaphor and aesthetics. While Harman’s OOO doesn’t account for the design process directly (Fry, 2006, p31), Ansari’s interpretation of designers’ approaches to understanding the ‘real’ and ‘sensual’ aspects of objects, provides the correlation between design and OOO we’re looking for. Cameron Tonkinwise writes, ‘Things … have alongside how they are (present), other possible and impossible modes of being’ (2012). Reflecting on this statement, Ansari writes; ‘the possible is only so because’ designers employ processes and cultivated sensitivities to reveal these ‘inner lives of things’ (2013, p13). The following two points offer an insightful connection between OOO, and design theory and praxis. The first; ‘Impossible modes of being’ and ‘inner lives’, refer to the ‘withdrawn’ and hidden ‘real’ qualities of objects in OOO; and second; Ansari’s assertion, that designers, with their immanent awareness of affects from objects’ materiality, are already ‘object-centred’ (2013, p12).

Within this section I have explored literature that places market-driven HCD and anthropocentrism, as philosophical and design praxis issues, which inhibit thinking widely on solutions for contemporary problems. I explored Youatt’s idea of human pluralism to create anthropocentrisms, to side-step issues of discrimination. We also looked at Norman’s inability to reconcile the human / object dichotomy. Ansari’s research revealed that designers do work with both the inner, withdrawn and real qualities, and the outer, sensual, aesthetic, metaphor of objects, which provides a correlation between OOO and design practice.

Integration of OOO within Creative Practice

ArtReview reported OOO as one of the top 100 most influential ‘forces’ on
the global art scene (Harman, 2018a, p8). ArtSpace writer, Dylan Kerr (2016), discusses OOO and its attempt to get us to think from objects’ points of view; and artists, that imbue meaning in objects as a matter of course, have found a kindred spirit in OOO, and this is the reason why OOO has found its way so deeply within the arts community.

Icelandic singer / artist, Björk, reached out to OOO philosopher, Timothy Morton, to discuss OOO, and asks of him: ‘Help me define what ism I am’ (Kane, 2015, pic.04/24). Björk’s unique explorations and visualisations of human / entity interactions, and physicalisation of emotion, Morton attempts to articulate her work in OOO themes: ‘in your art, … these non-entities take the lead and you merge’ (2015, pic.17/24). Björk allows these entities to exist in her work as she ‘leans’ into them. Alluding to this unequivocal equality and curiosity in her work, and confirming Morton’s interpretation, is the introduction to her iPad app, Biophilia; David Attenborough narrates, ‘Welcome to Biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations, … an urge to investigate and discover the elusive places where we meet Nature … where she plays on our senses…’ (Björk, 2011).

Architects too have started to consider the multi-faceted applicability of OOO thinking. Harman cites Mark Foster Gage who writes, architects are exploring OOO as it offers an ‘antidote’ from the ‘emphasis on becoming over being, but by extension, … being justified not by its own qualities, but by its relations…’ (Gage M. F., cited in, (Harman, 2018a, p8)). Harman expands upon German Philosopher, Martin Heidegger’s concepts on tools, that become part of an invisible background layer — until they break. For example; the keyboard, upon which I write, ‘recedes into the background’; it looks like its function (Gage, 2015, p97). Gage considers this proposition vital to architecture, a practice that creates products that exist on, and within, this ‘layer of invisible equipment’ (2015, p97). Both these notions; the invisible layer of objects upon which we depend, and objects being defined by its relations, rather than its qualities; are two deeply intelligent approaches to design thinking.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby explore flat object ontologies through their interest in Meinong’s Theory of Objects, the Austrian philosopher with whom Harman shares a similar interpretation of ‘object’ ontology (Harman, 2018a, p42). Dunne and Raby’s stance, is to remove the unhelpful binary of ‘real’ and ‘not real’ from ‘ideas, things, and thoughts’ (2018, p51). They feel design needs more ‘nuanced’ discourse around alternate realities. They argue that imaginary objects can have as much agency on life as real objects, through collective belief. Relatedly, globally, we have witnessed the very real impact of imagined objects through the rise of alternate-truths, fake-news, and the resurgence of conspiracy theories (Cox and Ince, 2020). This abstracted reality, where impossible, unreal, and unthinkable objects reside and have agency, has become Dunne and Raby’s ‘intellectual home’ (2018, p52).

These practices, considering their work from OOO framing reveal the following: The correlation between the artist and the designed object’s inner and outer being; the receding quality of functional objects that form part of an invisible background that our lives depend on; and the use of flat ontology to enable more ‘nuanced’ discourse around alternate realities and give agency to unreal objects. The diversity of creative praxis operating with OOO reasoning, offers us a glimpse to the range and orientations of the new thinking it enables.


In the context of emerging new realities, this paper uncovered several topics;

  • the importance of philosophical reasoning in design;
  • Harman’s interpretation of DeLanda’s flat ontology, to help designers think widely on topics; positions for and against anthropocentrism;
  • reflection on HCD concepts and its adaptability, and how it may evolve moving forward; and Harman’s OOO and its connection to design thinking.

I uncovered OOO further, by looking into creative practices incorporating OOO and flat ontological reasoning. Björk’s creative work, sees her gently ’merge’ and ’lean’ into other entities populating her work, indicating an equal-footing with these entities. Gage’s important insight to how architects are working to understand their work in connection to the invisible layer of equipment, which Harman developed from Heidegger’s philosophy on tools. Dunne and Raby’s removal of the binary of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, by giving agency to imagined objects.

It is important to note that this literature review has only touched upon OOO’s central ideas and limitations, and its relation to design thinking, research and practice — there are still depths to reveal, like, The Quadruple Object (TQO) concept, which could be assigned to ‘understand various forms of systemic discrimination’. (Skolnik, C. M., 2016).

This paper has revealed that concepts in OOO can offer novel approaches for design research, and encourage equal and just outcomes through a reorientation from anthropocentrism. This develops the following Research Question:

How do concepts, suggested by object-oriented ontology, enable equality and justice in multi-entity design research and praxis?

Research themes associated with this question include:

  • Adapting methods of design research to incorporate flat ontological approaches
  • Investigate OOO concepts of the sensual and real qualities of objects, and their relations, to enable equitable and just design outcomes
  • Understanding inequality in the invisible layer of equipment.

1 Lists like these are referred to as ‘Latour Litanies’ – after the pioneer of flat ontology, Bruno Latour


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