Ontological designing

RELATED TERMS: Design History; Design practice and functionalism; Genealogy - Nietzsche; Ontology; Lifeworld - Lebenswelt - Umwelt

In The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Martin Heidegger writes that, “The point is not to gain some knowledge about philosophy but to be able to philosophise.” If, to paraphrase Heidegger, the point is not (simply) to gain some knowledge about design, particularly narrative environment design, but to be able to design, then one must have a satisfactory understanding of what it means ‘to design’, as a complex field of action existing in a ramified field of prior designings. To develop such an understanding, as well as some knowledge about design, it may be useful to consider the notion of ontological designing.

Nic Hughes states that,

“Ontological design surfaced in 1986 with the publication of Flores and Winograd’s ‘Understanding Computers and Cognition’. Since then various theorists and practitioners have developed the idea, most notably Anne-Marie Willis and Tony Fry. Philosophically, much of the DNA can be traced back to Heidegger and Gadamer, but Latour and OOO [object-oriented ontology, add. AP] bring a new dimension to the debate.” (Hughes, 2010)

How does ontological design differ from other theorisations of design? A good article with which to begin to answer this question is that by Anne-Marie Willis (2006) entitled “Ontological designing – laying the ground”.

Willis (2006: 80) states that “ontological designing is a way of characterising the relation between human beings and lifeworlds”. She outlines the main claims of ontological designing. First, design is far more pervasive and profound than is generally recognised, even by practitioners of design, who ought to be aware of its significance. Second, designing and the outcomes of designing are a fundamental human action. Humans design in the sense that they deliberate, plan and scheme in ways which prefigure their actions and makings. In turn, humans are designed by their designing and what they have designed (their designings), i.e. through ongoing interactions with the structural and material specificities of their (pervasively designed) environment. Third, these ongoing interactions constitute a double or reflexive movement or entanglement: while we, as humans, design our world, our world acts back on us and designs us. This might be considered an interpretation of Heidegger’s insight that humans are the beings for whom their own being is a question.

To see how this differs from saying that humans are conditioned by their environment or that they are shaped by the cultures into which they are born, Willis suggests that one has to focus on the ontology of ontological designing. To elaborate, she explains that, firstly, ontological designing is a hermeneutics of design that is concerned with the nature and agency of design, i.e. its ability to act in ways that are not contained by the notions of subjectivity and intentionality. Thus, it seeks to understand design practice is decentred from subjectivity, a position which requires an acknowledgement that things as well as people design. Secondly, ontological designing enacts an argument for particular ways of going about design activity, particularly in relation to contemporary societal and environmental issues, for example concerning societal inequality and injustice and ecological sustainability. Thirdly, on account of this complex agency and relationality, ontological designing is ‘political’, in as far as it concerns recognising ongoing patterns of interaction, in which design and designings play a large part, and how (further) design might reinforce or alter those patterns towards particular ends, although not in any prescriptive or predictable sense.

There are many definitions of design. Some emphasise constructive forethought, Nigel Cross (1995) notes, while others distinguish between proceeding by intention and doing so with the addition of systematic modelling, a key feature of design for Carl Mitcham (1995) . Herbert Simon contends that design is primarily about problem-solving, particularly inherently ill-defined problems. For Simon, all professional practices involve design, implying the sense of changing existing situations into preferred ones, a sense that Donald Schon develops into a characterisation of design as knowing-in-action, emphasising reflection-in-action and tacit knowledge.

Tony Fry considers that there are three elements to the over-arching term ‘design’. They are, first, the design object, i.e. the material or immaterial outcome of designing; second, the design process, i.e. the system, organisation, conduct and activity of designing; and, third, the design agency, i.e. the designer, design instruction in any medium or mode of expression and the designed object itself as it acts on its world.

The three elements of design cannot be simply bolted together, Willis (2006) notes. There needs to be something that is fundamental to all three, but not in the sense of an ‘essence’ of design. Thinking design ontologically provides this grounding as it implies being in the world as a condition which is always already situated, the condition of worldhood. It therefore provides a starting point for understanding modes of human being, such as dwelling and purposeful activity. Ontological designing also implies the operation of the hermeneutic circle, which provides the basis for thinking about how change happens within that which is always already situated. Irrespective of whether we look at the design object, the design process or the design agency, there is never a beginning or end of design because situated worlded-ness is ever-present and is ever animated by hermeneutic circling.

Fry’s ontological claim, that ‘design designs’ is stronger than asserting that ‘design affects’ or ‘design has an influence upon’. Neither design object, design process nor design agency is granted primacy. Once the comforting fiction of an originary human agent and a design intention evaporates, the inscriptive power of the designed stands out: you are engaged in a designed world that has designs upon you, so to speak, with which or against which you (inter-)act.


Cross, N. (1995). Discovering design ability, in Discovering Design: explorations in design studies, edited by Richard Buchanan and Victor Margolin. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 105-120.

Fry, T. (2012). Becoming human by design. London, UK: Berg, 91–105.

Hughes, N. (2010). Ontological design. Haunted Geographies [Blog]. Available from [Accessed 13 November 2016].

Mitcham, C. (1995). Ethics into design, in Discovering Design: explorations in design studies__, edited by Richard Buchanan and Victor Margolin. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 173-189.

Willis, A.-M. (2006). Ontological designing – laying the ground. In: Willis, A.-M., ed. Design Philosophy Papers, Collection Three. Ravensbourne, Queensland: Team D/E/S Publications, 80–98. Available from [Accessed 14 September 2016].

Further Reading

Many of the issues related to ontological designing are discussed in the periodical Design Philosophy Papers, 2003-2017, whose archive can be found here: