The Threat of Hylomorphic Design Thinking

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Note: This is my latest in a series of posts on innovation theory inspired by the philosophy of Levi Bryant.


For a few years now, I’ve been obsessed with critiquing the notion that the great creators bend reality to their will. Some think that Steve Jobs, ignoring naysayers and customer feedback, changed the world to fit his vision. But in actuality, no leader is powerful enough to manipulate materials and people as they want. It’s always a negotiation. And to take things a step further, our creations design us as we design them.

The idea that designers can frictionlessly bend materials to their whims connects with the ancient philosophical tradition of hylomorphism. Rooted in the thinking of Aristotle, many Western philosophers describe matter as existing independent of form. In this model, it requires a “designer,” god or human, to add a meaningful structure. Levi Bryant explains:

The term “hylomorphism” comes from the Greek hyle signifying “matter” and morphe denoting “form.” Under this model of fabrication, the artisan first has a sort of blueprint of what he wants to produce in his mind (the form), and then imposes that model on matter giving it form. I first have a mental model of the knife I wish to produce in my mind and then set about fashioning the materials of the world about me into that form.

Bryant continues:

Yet when we look more closely at the actual activity of fabricating a work of art, tool, or technology, we see that something very different takes place. To be sure, the artist has some sort of intention to produce something like shelter from the elements, and this intention can involve a more or less elaborated model as in the case of an architect’s blueprint, but this is where the similarities to the hylomorphic model end. The problem with hylomorphic models of how artifacts are produced is that they forget both the time of production and engagement with the materials of the world. What attentiveness to the time of production and engagement with matter reveals is that the production of any artifact is much closer to a negotiation than the simple imposition of a form upon a passive matter. And as is the case with all negotiations, the final outcome or product of the negotiation cannot be said to be the result of a pre-existent and well-defined plan.

Bryant contends that all things, ranging from computers to mud, have their own structure that we must contend with. It’s easy to concede the unpredictability of inserting a new invention or product into complex social systems. But it’s tempting to think that, in confined domains, artists can have their way with the materials in front of them. However, Bryant argues that all materials have their own structure that they impose on us. He writes:

Take the sculptor working with marble. They might begin with a vague idea of what they want the marble to become and even select specific pieces of marble to execute this local manifestation, yet as they begin to work the marble, encountering its grain and veins, they’ll talk about how the marble “wants” to become something else.

Movements in software development such as agile and lean startup reflect our society’s letting go of hylomorphic design thinking. These methodologies involve incrementally poking the world to see what happens, before getting too far ahead of ourselves.

But we still have a long way to go towards appreciating the hidden powers of our own creations, and the implications are severe.

Take the invention of a clock. Did the creators of the first clocks intend to create a world where functioning socially and economically demands synchronizing with others according to a fixed absolute schedule?

The creators of internet-driven social networks like Twitter and Facebook had idealistic visions of democratizing information and “making the world more connected.” They did not know that their invention was going to, in turn, create Trump and tribalism.

The first car manufacturers did not know that they were creating a culture where humans, even with knowledge of climate change, would be so dependent on cars that they can’t stop polluting.

In web development, when we’re unsure of how the world will respond to a design change, we can A/B test it and then remove the change based on the measured effect. But with other design “innovations,” it’s not so easy to put the genie back in the bottle. The largest human creative endeavors are like going to war in Iraq with no exit strategy.

We need new frameworks to anticipate the second-, third-, and fourth-order impacts of the things we create.


Want to get better at anticipating the impact of your creations? Try Double-Loop. It’s not going to prevent climate change, but it’s a start.

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