Communication Design

Some brief thoughts and notes on communication design. What is communication design? According to Tyler R. Harrison,

Communication scholars are constantly engaged in the process of design. For example, we work to create better systems for patient-provider communication, to improve interaction dynamics between romantic couples, to generate effective problem solving approaches in groups, and to set up systems to resolve conflicts in organizations. . . .

Design is first and foremost about creating, engineering, or critiquing approaches to communication that achieve specific goals or values. Design needs to be understood as both a process and a fact. The process of design is about the intentional creation of a communication interaction, system, or process. But elements of design may also emerge from interaction, or appear accidentally, and so design consists of particular elements of content, structure, and order that exist separate from the intentional process of creation, and thus exist as fact. In many cases it is impossible to know all of the goals and elements that were taken into account during the design process, and many elements may work in ways that go beyond our original intent, and thus, critique and analysis also become critical to communication design.

The second half of this is particularly interesting. Often design seems serendipitous. Elements come together by apparent chance.

Harrison offer four criteria for good communication design:

First, design should be about both creation and critique. Second, design is complementary to, and strengthens, theory (and vice versa). Third, design can be both unique to an intervention or context and iterative from previous designs. Finally, design helps us uncover unexpected and unintended consequences, uncovering hidden properties of communication and leading to opportunities for modifying and correcting communication practices. These unintended consequences and other design successes and failures provide opportunities for learning and creating better systems. . . .

Communication design serves as a lens that helps focus and redefine what is possible in difficult interactions. As such, a design approach acts as an integrative perspective for finding the relevance of theory to a specific site of intervention.

(Journal of Applied Communication Research, Vol. 42, No. 2, May 2014, pp. 135-149)

I’m interested in communication design as it pertains to autopoietic systems. I don’t think anything can be designed from the outside. Design has to happen within systems; design cannot be imposed from the environment. All the environment can do is irritate a system.

Communication–and thus communication design–can only happen within systems. For instance, language can only connect with language; economy can only communicate economically; politics can only communicate politically; science can only communicate scientifically, etc.  Systems perturb each other and co-evolve, but this isn’t communication or meaning construction. Meaning is constructed by systems within systems; it isn’t transferred from one system to another system. Meaning is a kind of self-design.

The commonsense notion of communication is rooted in an outmoded ontology, which is an ontology of whole and parts, essences and accidents, reality and appearance. The conceptual difficulty seems to lie with the term communication. To communicate means to share or transmit, to impart, to make common. Diseases, for instance, are said to be communicable.  But nothing can be made common or shared between systems. Organisms, obviously, do not all responds to a particular virus in the same way. And meaning systems do not share meanings; they construct their own meanings with their own operations. People do not communicate meanings to one another; everyone constructs their own meanings; we all reduce complexity by making selections. Meaning is always contingent. Other meanings are always possible.

How does communication design work in practice? One example would be when a couples therapist tries “to improve interaction dynamics between romantic couples.” But the focus cannot be on the human beings. The interaction system is only communication. The persons only come into play as topics of communication or maybe positions (ego and alter). Interaction systems are fleeting, real-time personal interactions, whether face-to-face or technologically mediated. But the flesh-and-blood people participating in the interaction are excluded from the system; they belong to the environment.  Voices and technology other media also belong to the environment of the system.

Communication design can also be applied to organizations, as when a consultant comes into a place of business to facilitate better communication within the company. But the key point, as in the couples therapy example, is that we aren’t dealing with an organization and communication, because the organization is communication. The human beings actually belong to the environment of the organization, which is why employees can enter and leave the company. No particular person is necessary for the organization to carry on its communication.

But communication design doesn’t just concern language, as in verbal and nonverbal communication. It concerns visual media, sounds, textures, etc. It can also concern something like the spatial layout of an office or home. For instance, is the kitchen closed off from the rest of the house, or is it a more open floor plan that facilitates more interaction?


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