Theoretical Practice

RELATED TERMS: Actor Network Theory; Avant-garde movements; Cinema and Film theory; Creative thinking; Critical Theory; Design History; Interaction Design; Open systems theory; Postmodernism; Practice; Sculpture World-forming, World-making, World-building; Design practice and functionalism; Narrative environment design; Poststructuralism; Method and methodology; Critical thinking; Heidegger; Sloterdijk

It could be argued that a narrative environment, in bringing theory into practice, forms a complex ‘whole’, a ‘totality’ or a ‘system’ of some kind, one that involves human, non-human and environmental value systems, for which suitable conceptual frameworks that encompass all these dimensions satisfactorily are difficult to find, as is discussed by Frederiksen et al. (2014). One way of expressing this ‘wholeness’, that is not a unity but an ensemble or assembly, is that it constitutes a ‘world’

Although an output of design thinking and design practice, a narrative environment is not simply a ‘whole’ in the form of a ‘product’, ‘commodity’ or ‘artefact’; nor is it a ‘whole’ in the form of a ‘media product’ or a ‘service’ in any simple sense. In other words, designing a narrative environment is not simply product design, media practice nor service design; and, furthermore, while narrative environments deploy typography and graphics, nor is it a version of graphic design, for example environmental graphics or wayfinding. In many ways, the design of narrative environments is closer to such practices as interaction design (now that it has moved away from its initial focus on computer interface design) and experience design (but, again, not necessarily in such forms as user-experience design or UX design, which is mainly organised around advertising and brand experience).

The general argument articulated here is that narrative environments ‘act’ and have effect on people in the world, i.e. they are ‘practical’, but they are not simply functional or instrumental in their mode of action; nor, indeed are they simply ‘aesthetic’. This requires a subtle understanding of (social) ‘practice’, which requires a theory of actantiality, incorporating agency and potentiality.

In seeking to find methods and concepts for thinking about the design of narrative environments as ‘wholes’, other than those which resort to a distinction between form (as ‘aesthetics’) and function (both as purpose and as mode of action), it may be valuable to think of narrative environments as ‘open systems’. Other metaphors which may prove useful in the initial stages of thinking about the openness of narrative environments are dynamic systems, networks, spheres, worlds, societies, communities or situations. In this context, while a narrative environmental ‘whole’ may contain structures, they are part of more dynamic processes which, in some way, operate together to form a (more or less temporary) ‘whole’.

From a methodological perspective, in the early stages, it is important not to think of modes of action of this narrative environmental ‘whole’ in empiricist terms, e.g. not to think of a narrative environment as a building, a museum, a school, a factory, an office, a home, or indeed, a city or a country. To do so is potentially to foreclose design thinking and design practice around existing functionalist aesthetics from which it would be difficult to break free, without an extensive critical practice, for example, ‘deconstructing’ (Derrida) the existing ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Ranciere) to enact a re-distribution of the sensible (as in some forms of avant-garde art practice). It is also important not to think of this narrative environmental ‘whole’ in universalist terms, which assumes an abstract universality of time and space, a singular humanity and a common experience, all of which would be misleading. A finer-grained approach, incorporating plurality and diversity, is needed.

In other words, an approach to the design of narrative environments is needed which can, on the one hand, question the taken for granted assumptions of existing categories and practices; and, on the other hand, allow for the plurality of human experiences. It is also important that such design thinking and practice admits that the outputs are open to ‘chance’ or ‘happenstance’, that its mode of action and effectuality cannot be fully foreseen or foreclosed.

Thinking about such matters as how ‘wholes’ are constituted has been underway at least since the end of World War Two. One of the initial problematics being tackled in that post-1945 period was the issue of ‘totalitarianism’, i.e. of the constitution of a ‘whole’ which was so deterministic that it left no room for freedom of action and interaction, no matter whether this took the form of ‘communistic’ regime or of a ‘fascistic’ regime, such as is raised by the work of Hannah Arendt.

Since that time, a whole range of theories have emerged that seek to address this issue of a ‘whole’ that not a totalitarian unity (e.g. post-Marxist thinking and new materialist thinking) nor a universal uniformity (e.g. post-Humanist and post-structuralist thinking). In more recent times, since the early to mid-1970s, several new problematiques have arisen around the notions of ‘globalisation’, ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘neoconservatism’, with their concerns to define a single, unified ‘world’ governed by the principles of a presumed (and presumptuous) capitalistic ‘free market’.

For example, the design of narrative environments could valuably be thought through in terms of their possibly being:

distributions of the sensible (Ranciere)

apparatuses or dispositifs (Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben, Barad)

biopolitical regimes (Foucault, Agamben)

actor-networks (Latour, Callon, Law)

actant-rhizome ontologies (Latour)

rhizomes (Deleuze and Guattari)

machinic assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari)

socio-techical assemblages (Schatzki)

agencements (Deleuze and Guattari)

story worlds (world-making #1) (Jenkins; Tsing)

autopoietic systems (Luhmann, Maturana and Varela)

spheres, bubbles and foam (Sloterdijk)

assemblages (De Landa, Braidotti)

fields of actantiality (Greimas, Latour)

fields of spatial (social) practice (Lefebvre)

fields of habitus (Bourdieu)

learning environments (Tovey)

nature-cultures (Haraway)

onto-epistemologies (Haraway, Barad)

cybernetic organisms (Haraway)

open systems (e.g. Ludwig von Bertanlanffy)

world systems (e.g. Wallerstein)

world, Liebenswelt, Umwelt (world-making #2) (e.g. Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty)

complex systems

dynamic systems

strange loop or tangled hierarchy (Hofstadter)

As may now be obvious, the assumption behind employing the above kinds of theorisation is that they become necessary when one recognises that narrative environments are never neutral. Attention must be paid to the ways in which they invite, welcome, include and promise some people and are uninviting, unwelcoming, exclusive and unpromising to others, a situation which may be part of a larger scale processes of ‘othering’ more generally. Furthermore, one cannot assume a neutral ‘outside’ or ‘common ground’: as one exits one narrative environment, one enters another, even if this is new domain is defined as ‘public space’.

A narrative environment, as an outcome of design thinking and design practice, is a response to a situation, and in the form of its responsiveness it evinces a ‘philosophy’, both in the sense of a ‘methodology’, i.e. a characteristic way of using it, realised through a set of practical interactions, but not simply reducible to them; and in the sense of an ‘atmosphere’, a characteristic way of feeling or experiencing it.

In thinking about narrative environments in this way, as open systems that require come kind of theorisation to understand the nature of their openness and connectedness, you will be able to articulate them within appropriate theoretical horizons, albeit possibly shifting horizons, thereby incorporating insights from such domains as feminist theories, post-Humanist theories, New Materialist theories, speech act theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and post-Marxist theory and possibly even insights from Buddhist thinking.

In short, you will be able to approach the design of narrative environments with an array of suitable critical and creative thinking methodologies in the form of ‘philosophies’ and/or ‘tools’ for thinking through what is happening and may happen.


Fredriksen, A. et al. (2014). A conceptual map for the study of value. An initial mapping of concepts for the project ‘Human, non-human and environmental value systems: an impossible frontier?’ LCSV Working Paper Series. Manchester, UK: School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester. Available from [Accessed 28 May 2015].