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Design is Communication
Patrik Schumacher, London 2011
Published in: Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger, Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion
Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, New Haven 2011


What is design? What are its sui generis discourse and core competency? These questions can be best answered via demarcation from neighboring discourses/competencies such as engineering and art. What is the difference between design and engineering? Engineering is concerned with an object’s physical/technical functioning and fabrication, design with its social/communicative functioning. What is the difference between design and art? While design is concerned with the framing of real-life social interactions, the art object communicates outside of everyday life, as reflection, provocation, critique, or even disruption. It confronts the world with the specter of other possibilities. However, these other possibilities cannot be approached via art. They can only be approached via avant-garde design.
While I distinguish design—perhaps with unfamiliar sharpness—from both art and engineering, I draw all the design disciplines together into a single discourse and competency. Urbanism, architecture, and interior design, as well as furniture, fashion, graphic, and product design, together constitute one of the great autopoietic function systems of society. This function system of design is a global discourse—world architecture/design—which claims universal and exclusive competency for the global built environment as well as for the totality of the world’s designed artifacts—as long as these built environments and artifacts operate as frames or interfaces of social communication. What all the design disciplines and their products share is their societal function: the framing of communicative interaction. With respect to architecture this insight takes the form of an explicit thesis in my book The Autopoiesis of Architecture: “Every society needs to utilize articulated spatial relations to frame, order, and stabilize social communication. The autopoietic system of architecturewithin modern functionally differentiated society has taken up this societal function: to frame social communication.”1

The societal function of the other design disciplines—in particular, product and fashion design—can be defined in terms that are precisely parallel to the above definition of architecture’s societal function. The framing of communicative interaction is the societal function of both architecture and design. In fact, the spatial frames of architecture collaborate with the system of designed artifacts in the framing of social communication. Architecture distinguishes, separates, and gathers the participants for specific communications. The interior/furniture configures the participants into pertinent constellations, allocating roles and helping to define specific situations. The participants also dress up for specific occasions. All social interaction is framed by artificial spaces, artifacts, and adornments. We rarely communicate naked in the wilderness. In order to grasp the ordering capacity of architecture (and design and society’s dependency upon it), imagine that the 10 million people who live and work in a metropolis like London are stranded on a vast, undifferentiated plane, stripped of their clothes and their designed and built environment. Nobody would even know who he or she was anymore, let alone how, with whom, and where to interact. Design sets the scene and prepares the appropriate setting or stage for communicative interaction. Communication can begin only once the participants have been gathered, configured, and enveloped within an appropriate aesthetic atmosphere. Specific social institutions depend on specifically designed frames. A culture can be identified with its system of institutions, which in turn depends upon a system of designed frames. Frames are priming communications, premises that define, guide, and encourage all further communications that unfold within them.2 Architectural settings are thus to be designed as framing communications, as permanent broadcasts that function as constraining/enabling premises for all further communications that are to be expected within the respective space. Architectural settings are communications that help to define and structure social institutions.3 Spatial and artifactual frames also allow participants to find and anticipate communicative situations that might be expected with respect to specific settings Thus the built environment and the world of artifacts constitute an information-rich communicative medium—indeed, a semiotic system. Every talented designer navigates this system intuitively. However, as society and its institutional complexity increase it might become necessary to support the designer’s semiological competency by means of theoretical and methodological reflection.4

The sociological insight that underlies the identification of design’s societal function can be cast into the thesis that no society can be built up without articulated spatial frames, artifacts, and adornments. Even the most basic and precarious human societies ever observed—the Australian tribes, for example—exist and stabilize themselves via pre-architectural and artifactual frames.5 The built environment—filled with an ever-increasing multitude of artifacts—provides a new material substrate for long-term (cross-generational) social “memory,” a necessary foundation for the evolution of social order. Just as biological evolution depends on DNA as the material substrate of its stable, slowly evolving reproduction, sociocultural evolution depends on the built environment as the stable, material substrate of its evolving reproduction. This is the crucial point of bifurcation that engenders the sociocultural evolution of humankind as a new, sui generis type of evolution. Only via this new evolutionary substrate can a new, more complex, artificial order be built up that effectively allows the human species to escape the animal kingdom. The evolution of society goes hand in hand with the evolution of its habitat understood as ordering frame. The spatial order of the human habitat is both an immediate physical ordering apparatus that separates and connects social actors and their activities and a mnemotechnic substrate for the inscription of an external “social memory.” The social process needs the built environment and the world of artifacts as a plane of inscription where it can leave traces that then serve to build up and stabilize social structures, which in turn allow the elaboration of more complex social processes. These “inscriptions” might at first be an unintended side-effect of the various activities. Given spatial arrangements are functionally adapted and elaborated, and then further marked and underlined by ornaments that make them more conspicuous. The result is the gradual build-up of a spatio-morphological system of signification. Thus emerges a semantically charged built environment that provides a differentiated system of settings that help social actors to orient themselves with respect to the different communicative situations that constitute the social life process of the community. The system of social settings as a system of distinctions and relations uses both the positional identification of places (spatial position) and the morphological identification of places (ornamental marking) as props6 for the social communication process. Indications for this formative nexus between social and spatial structure abound within social anthropology, attesting to the crucial importance of stable spatio-morphological settings for the initial emergence and stabilization of all societies. In the analysis of the social structure of primitive societies, the drawing of the village plan (together with the taxonomy of its tools, clothes, and adornments) often serves as the most succinct summary and point of reference of social order.7
Appropriately designed places regulate social communication by helping to define the situation, reminding the actors who they are and ordering them into their appropriate relative positions.
Human society, from its very beginnings, evolved together with a built environment and the world of artifacts. This co-evolution is a universal feature of all human history. The modern constellation whereby the built environment is steered by architecture as a discursively autonomous (autopoietic) function system that co-evolves with several other such function systems—for example, those of science, law, economics, politics, and art—constitutes only the latest mode of this universal feature of human history. As traditional society evolves into modern, functionally differentiated society, the built environment develops from a state of vernacular tradition to one in which it is advanced by the specialized function system of architecture/design. However, the crucial, primordial substrate of sociocultural evolution—the capacity of spatial and artifactual frames to order social communication on ever-increasing levels of complexity—remains vital. It has been taken on by architecture and the design disciplines as their unique responsibility, societal function, and exclusive domain of competency.

This implies a continuous upgrading of architecture/design’s capacity to order (organize and articulate) social relations and institutions. Architecture/design progresses via the evolution of styles as the indispensible design research programs of the design disciplines. The great epochal styles—the Gothic, the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classicism, Historicism, and Modernism—always encompassed all the design disciplines. In fact, these disciplines were only differentiated during the twentieth century. Parametricism is the most credible candidate to become the new, unified, epochal style for the twenty-first century. Its reach is already global, and its scope is universal, including urbanism, architecture, and interior design, as well as furniture and product design. During the last thirty years we have radically transformed into what one might call a post-fordist network society8. The attendant crisis of Modernism engendered a period of radical critique, experimentation, and theoretical confusion. Only recently, in the new millennium, has a new avant-garde movement gathered sufficient strength, coherence, and confidence to establish a global paradigm to succeed Modernism. The societal function of urban and architectural design is the innovative ordering and framing of communication. Parametricism articulates post-Fordist network society by increasing the complexity and intensity of spatial and artifactual communication. Parametricism implies that all elements of architecture and object design have become parametrically malleable, which in turn implies their capacity for adaptive affiliation and a general intensification of relations and communications. Post-Fordist network society is characterized by an increased diversity and complexity of communication scenarios. It is the latest/current stage of modern, functionally differentiated society. To remain productive within this society requires a new level communicative intensity from every individual. Everybody’s path must be continuously coordinated and updated within a complex network. The pertinent architectural expression of this is the field of simultaneity—in other words, urban spaces in which a rich variety of communicative offerings are presented simultaneously. The visual field is layered in all directions: in front, above, below. This rich manifold is ordered according to gradients and laws of correlation so that hidden layers can be inferred from visible ones. Navigation and orientation are key, as is the nuanced atmospheric priming of social interaction. This poses three key aspects of architecture’s task—organization, articulation, and signification, which together constitute architecture’s core competency. This leads us from modern space to parametric fields filled with swarms of differentiated and affiliated objects.


1 Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, vol. 1, A New Framework for Architecture (London: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), p. 371. Or to put it more precisely: The societal function of architecture is to continuously adapt and reorder society via contributing to the continuous provision and innovation of the built environment as a framing system of organized and articulated spatial relations.

2 In this respect designed frames are comparable to laws, i.e. the products of the legal system (another of the great function systems of society): laws are also communications that act as guiding premises for many (all) further communications. The same goes for the knowledge provided by the great function system of science.

3 These communications are attributed to the designer’s clients rather than the designers themselves, i.e., they are attributed to the occupying institution or hosts of the respectively unfolding communication events.

4 This is what the second volume of The Autopoiesis of Architecture, to be published at the end of 2011, will offer. Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture,vol. 2, A New Agenda for Architecture (London: John Wiley & Sons, forthcoming).

5 See Émile Durkheim, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: Le système totémique en Australie (Paris, 1912), published in English as The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (London: Allen and Unwin, 1915).

6 The term prop here means both support structure and equipment for the staging of communication.

7 See, for example, the chapters on social organization in Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 101–63.

8 Post-fordist network society is defined in contrast to Fordist mass society. Fordism is the socio-economic reproduction system established in the first half of the 20th century on the basis of the large scale assembly line mass production of a universal consumption standard including complex consumer durables like car, fridge, TV etc. This reproduction model experienced a crisis during the 1970s and since then phenomena like flexible specialisation, outscourcing, loosely couple business networks, alliances etc. increased the overall complexity and dynamism of social communication.


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