A holistic view of design and why it is so important

holistic view of design

We view nature and human activity as interrelated and interrelating. As designers, we believe that we need to view the world from the perspective of the whole. What do we mean when we say that a holistic view of design? What does it mean to design holistically? The term whole and derivative forms like holism and holistic, are used in diverse ways. 

The term whole is often taken to mean the entirety of existence, an all-inclusive perspective.  Some of the most common concepts share the trait of ‘claimed comprehensiveness’ The term whole is often used to imply an inclusive understanding of the relationship of everything. This definition arises from the scientific approach to the concept, where ‘wholes’ are defined as the study of comprehensive systems. The underlying assumption is that you need to know everything about a phenomenon in order to understand it. This comprehensiveness requires that everything with a relationship to the phenomenon of interest is included in its analysis. 

Luckily, holism can be viewed from a variety of other angles. One such perspective defines the whole as a comprehensive understanding of the world in metaphysical terms. The term whole is also understood, utilizing the spiritual concept of oneness, that all things are merely glimpsed reflections of a unitary reality. A permutation of this is the understanding that all things are connected or interconnected systemically. Whole can also mean the complete or comprehensive collection of things, whether abstract or concrete; visible or invisible; physical or metaphysical. In this case, the belief is that there is a whole from which everything emerges. A belief is the holistic character of reality, and this belief should become the first, and sometimes only, ordering principle for change. Sometimes, this is expanded to include the concept that each and everything in the world is a holograph of the metaphysical whole, reflecting the whole at every resolution of detail. Like the scientific approach to holism, this understanding of holism treats the concept of complete knowledge as the ideal. 

Everything exists in nature within a context. Everything depends on other things for something, whether it is food, protection, shelter, or other basic needs. Such assemblies of functional relationships lead to the emergence of phenomena that transcend the attributes and qualities of the things themselves. Ecosystems are one example of this. An ecosystem, as a community of living things in close interaction with one another, displays qualities that are experienced not only in the aggregation but also in composition. 

The human condition, both in a natural and historical context, is analogous when life is experienced as a flow. ‘Meaning making in human experience is dependent on being contained within this analog context. Things make sense only when connected and interrelated. If things occur without connection in a discontinuous way, there is no inherent meaning present. Meaning is only attributed to that which is put into relationships in context. Given that understanding of life is an analog experience and systems in society are interrelated and interrelating. Breaking our experience into digits has a successful strategy for the introduction of emerging technological changes into social and cultural realms. However, it has proven to be quite difficult or impossible to integrate digitized experiences back into the natural analog form of meaningful experiences of life. This means that a digital frame of reference allows human intention that is designed to be experienced and adapted to rather than engaged purposefully with meaning. The holistic view of design will consider the interrelated and complex social systems and analogous experiences of life with its associated knowledge and actions that provide the ability to engage in design/innovation purposefully and meaningfully.

If the designer’s intention is to create something new, then the approach should not just describe and explain, or predict and control, but also have intention to maintain the equilibrium in society and the betterment of humanity in order to add purpose and meaning to the design. That is why it is especially very important to take a holistic view not only from a comprehensive system view but also from a purpose and meaning point of view. 

The familiar Sufi story of blind men describing an elephant makes clear why this holistic view of design is very important. In this story, blind men are asked to describe an elephant, which they do by touching it at different places. The one who touches the tusk describes the elephant as a spear, the one who touches the trunk describes the elephant as a snake, the one who touches the elephant’s ear describes it as a fan, while the one who grabs the tail describes the elephant as a rope. Obviously, from a sighted person’s perspective, none of the descriptions are accurate, nor would a synthesis of their descriptions render a factual representation of ‘elephantness’ (the purpose). Patterns, systems, and synthesis differ from compositions in that they represent parts, and form and not a purpose and meaning.

Shallow Insan

We strive to break the barrier of the superficial form of thinking to understand and explain complex and interrelated designed events and systems.

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