Michael McDonough | Architect

Hyperdesign: Design Theory and Computing Culture in the Hyper information Age

By Michael McDonough

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This article originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Rana. An updated version appears here. Copyright © 1996 by Michael McDonough

In the mid-1990s, for the first time in history, designers came of age having discarded the tools of the generation that trained them. Slide rules, tracing paper, lettering templates, drafting boards, and colored markers had evolved over decades as the tools of choice for the entire profession. Overnight, replaced by computers, both these tools and the people who had mastered them had all raced into obsolescence…

I. The Information Age: Design and Information Overload

The generation that came to maturity in the last decade of the twentieth century did so in a profoundly altered world. Life became “e-Life.” The age of entities has given ‘way to the age of information, our “Information Age.” Linked by instantaneous electronic communications, dominated by mass-media, and dense with ubiquitous computing environments, the psychological landscape of day-to-day existence had shifted tectonically. Within this world, despite the rapid change of pace, certain facets of the designer’s task remained what they had traditionally been: to create objects, images, and environments appropriate to the time. But when everything is in flux, what is appropriate? Does the designer support the pace of change? Does the designer, in fact, fuel the pace of change? Does the designer resist? And if the computer is a constant companion, how does one relate to it? Who is in charge, the user or the used, the addict or the dealer? Or, as William Burroughs, Jr. suggested, are both involved in a symbiotic dance of death? Is this set of circumstances inherently good or benign? Or are there consequences of these shifts that the design community needs to be conscious of going in?

There is a basis for evaluation: A significant body of informed opinion holds that computers and the Internet-based communications they afford are doing us more harm than good. We not only got the information age, the theory goes, but information overload to boot. This Luddite strain has appeared both in computer culture and in popular culture. Writers such as Clifford Still, an early Internet proponent, for example, have lamented information technology’s limits and decried its effects. Hate groups flourish online. And when a high school kid guns down his classmates in Colorado, its the Internet that did it. In the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic — based on cyberpunk novelist William Gibson’s short story — earth’s population is afflicted by an information overload plague comprising blackouts, convulsions, and disabling physical pain. In January of 1996, USA Today began a daily series offering advice to overwhelmed and unhappy computer owners, the vast majority of whom are dissatisfied with their machines. “Computer Rage” —the uncontrollable urge to react violently toward your computer — is now as much a part of our contemporary landscape as “Road Rage.”

While the problems with these constantly evolving machines may be unique to our age, the problems associated with discerning the differences between the information they dispense and the knowledge distilled from it are not. Writing in the Tao Teh Ching over two thousand years ago, Lao Tzu described humankind’s prosperity for confusing information with wisdom, and ignorance with knowledge.


To realize that our knowledge is ignorance,
This is a noble insight.

To regard our ignorance as knowledge,
This is mental sickness.

Only when we are sick of our sickness
Shall we cease to be sick.

The Sage is not sick, being sick of sickness;
this is the secret of health.

—Tao Teh Ching

Echoing Lao Tzu, in Johnny Mnemonic William Gibson describes the complexities of knowledge and ignorance in terms of sickness. While Mr. Mnemonic found a cure for that ailed him in the baldly simplistic device of killing the bad guys, Lao Tzu’s prescription is more daunting: we have to live with them.

Only when we confront sickness, he observes, shall we be rid of it. Whatever is good or bad resides in computers is simply a reflection of our own strengths and weakness as we create, deploy, and use them. Whatever upheavals we face in the shift in the technological future, whether from drafting board to digital desktop or some other as yet unknown innovation, they will be resolved in us.

Our ability to cope, to establish boundaries, to resolve any conflicts, to make our place in the information age resides within our profession and its historically evolved structures. Like Pogo in the Vietnam War Era comic strip, we designers have met the enemy, and it is us.

II. Social Responsibility: Design and Hyperinformation

Consider the term “hyperinformation” as a constructive approach to the contradictions of the Information Age. In and of itself, the prefix “hyper” simply implies excess; ergo, “excess information.” But if information is the problem, how can more of it be the solution? The answer comes from within computing culture, where hyper has a different meaning. It means “linked.” For example, “hypertext” provides multiple pathways through data, enabling the user to link related items in a non-linear, or random access manner. In turn, “hypermedia” are those in which a variety of on-screen, object-oriented tools link different output — animation, sound, music and typography, for example. By extension, “hyperinformation” allows multiple pathways through any body of complex information, all the while encouraging maximum flexibility, creativity, and efficiency.

Hyperinformation can be the positive aspect of information overload’s negative consequences. Hyperinformation can be chaotic (or “sick” in our lexicon) but its chaos can also be an opportunity for health. How? By forcing us into the fray. Abundance of information is no panacea, but neither is paucity of information. In times of rapid change and social uncertainty increased consciousness is, among those who shape the world and its objects, our obligation. As the writer Tom Wolfe reminds us, our ideas have consequences — ignorance is never an option.

Whether in graphic design, industrial design or architecture, we shape, deliver, house, and otherwise design the objects of the age in which we live — all of which have profound effects on the lives of those who use them. As Stephen Kurtz noted in his 1973 book The Wasteland, designers are the “soft police,” unconscious enforcers of the existing order, and collaborators in preserving it. In the shadow of the Vietnam War, Kurtz was speaking of he American designer’s influence on national culture. Now, as post-industrial, information age, Internet-based designers, our creative reach is instantaneous and global.

Just as we have acquired tools allowing us a planetary power, our own acceleration into the information age has created a vocabulary of threat; design firms are “downsized” by hundreds of employees at a time, with permanent “structural” unemployment in some sectors of the market estimated at 50%. Entry level position criteria for the design professions have changed. Computer literacy is a must; experience is negotiable. After all, anyone who can open Form-Z can make a building. And as the principal of a globally based architecture firm explained to me, “We sell the rendering to the client, and just shoehorn the actual plan in afterward.” Our traditional client bases have gone elsewhere. Graphic design, building design, interior design are now in the hands of anyone who can by a shareware program and an iMac. As Dr. Johnson, the eighteenth-century essayist, gadfly, and philosopher noted, nothing clarifies the thinking like the immanent prospect of one’s own hanging. Our potential obsolescence is instructive — we can be sure of little, save this: design theory as it was historically is a reference point, but only one of many such reference points.

What we nee now is a new, constantly evolving, dynamic, future-oriented design theory. And it needs a name.

III. A Modest Proposal: Hyperdesign

Imagine a new design theory based on computer culture and its global data base. Call it “hyperdesign.” Encouraging us to confront our information age demons — our Frankenstein’s monsters — hyperdesign incorporates the benefits of the hyperinformation model. It allows us to chart a new course, even as we recognize the chart must constantly be revised. It redefines office, work, client, and design services It integrates unanticipated responses to dynamic and chaotic circumstances. It integrates distance learning and encourages multi-cultural perspectives.

Hyperdesign is an extension of computing culture generally and hyperinformation theory specifically. It, too, can use multiple pathways and random links through any body of information. Using hyperdesign, we can proactively redefine any design problem, enabling us to seek problems and solutions in new ways.

Hyperdesign, using hypertext, hypermedia, and hyperinformation as conceptual models:

IV. The Difficult Connections As A Matter of Course: Hyperculture

The United States is a hyperculture, a culture in which sub-cultures both maintain their individual identities and are synthesized into new collective identities. In Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco has written about the peculiarities of this American culture, where artificialities are constructed to be more intense that the originals. Comprising numerous ethnic groups, unencumbered by the weight of history, in love with artificiality and abundance, dominated by emergent technologies, and weathering the economic and social dislocations of accelerated market-capitalism, America is a beta site for the future.

As the caveman accepted the tundra and the mammoth, the unencumbered American accepts the reality of modernity. Much of the world burdened by history, must strive toward a thoughtful, existential modernity. Americans are blessed an cursed with an impulsive, reflexive, primitivized modernity. To paraphrase Lawrence Weschler writing on the war in Bosnia in The New Yorker: In Europe, “It is history” means “It is everything.” In America, “It is history” means “It is nothing.”

Hyperdesign learns from American culture, appropriating its dynamism and diversity. It embraces history when appropriate; it just as easily forgets it. Importantly, it embraces modernism while generating coping mechanisms. it is unembarrassed at excess, and integrative of pragmatic reality.

Some of the most enlightening aspects of American hyperculture are found at its most humble levels: Naive, Outsider, and Folk Art cultures. For example, the visual art of Southern folk culture; the music of Mississippi Delta blues; the consciousness of style and artful expression of the urban and therefore modern condition in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Chicago; the dance, language and dress of overlapping West African slave and European (particularly poor Irish) immigrant cultures.

Often in this century, such hybridized combinations have surfaced brilliantly. Much of what we know of as contemporary American music, painting, literature, fashion, popular culture—the elasticity of the American language itself — has its roots in these happenstantial combinations. its untutored methodologies, spontaneous combinations, and reflexively expressive imagery offer lessons for hyperdesign. Its useful maxims (or, perhaps, anti-maxims) are:

Design in the twentieth century has all too often been exclusive, fascinated with what theorists termed “purity” of form. In the early part of the this century, buildings and cities were to be based on hermetic theories of geometry and industrial metaphors. One of the most famous modern architects, Le Corbusier, described a house as “A machine for living.” He also suggested demolishing all of Paris (except a single, token structure, La Cathedrale de Notre Dame) and replacing it with high-rise housing projects set in vast parks. Information about the way people lived, their taste-cultures, their history, and their most basic needs were excluded in favor of less and less information about the imagined importance of grids, squares, and circles, and the imagined need for replication of form. While this often remained in the realm of the small-scale or theoretical in Europe, in the U.S. it was applied at enormously large scales. As Chrissie Hynde (with The Pretenders) sang so poignantly in “My City Was Gone”:

I went back to Ohio
But my city was gone
There was no train station
There was no downtown
This whole town had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
Ay, oh, where did you go, Ohio?

American architecture’s failures in the 1950s and 1960s stand as an object lesson for the consequences of lack of proper information management and lack of humility. In 1972 architect Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe Housing for St. Louis, Missouri was deemed unlivable and dynamited to bits by the city who commissioned it. This same project had won the prestigious American Institute of Architects award when it was designed in 1951. Boston’s Central Artery — built over its demolished North and West End neighborhoods in the 1950s — is now itself being demolished and placed underground in the hope that the city can recapture a portion of its lost vitality. Some of New Haven, Connecticut’s most livable neighborhoods were demolished and replaced with high-style parking lots and vacant plazas, places where crime now flourishes and people are afraid to go. These failures offer lessons to all design professionals as to the consequences of ignoring extant cultures, or excluding, essentially, information.

During the same period as the misguided design exploits cited above, in in contrast to them, some designers advocated the inclusion of diverse information, including the opinions of neighborhood residents. This became known as advocacy design, and Jane Jacobs in New York and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown in Philadelphia were perhaps its most articulate enthusiasts. Originally an urban planning philosophy, advocacy design’s “include and synthesize” rather than “exclude and purify” approach is now a model for some of our most consistently successful architecture and products. Here, difficult connections are made as a matter of course. From the ergonomics of Herman Miller’s Eron Chair, to the preservation of the Cast Iron Historic District in New York City’s SoHo, the idea that inclusion rather than exclusion is the guiding principle in design, and the idea that the user, the community, counts, ring true. A progenitor of hyperdesign, advocacy design is totally consistent with its goals.

Looking toward the future, hyperdesign would offer computer-based models for thorough problem analysis, allowing a cyber-democracy of information and design content. Hyperdesigners would welcome information , understanding that our problem is not too much information, but inadequate information management and resource allocation. In his book, The Physics of Star Trek, Lawrence M. Krauss observes that “all the information in all the books ever written would require about ten-to-the-twelfth-power, or about a million million, kilobytes of storage.” That, however, is “one ten-millionth of a billionth” of what is required to store the information patterns of a human being. If we want technology to assist us in continuing to produce design on a planet with overstressed resources and burgeoning population, we will have to confront these proportionalities. Humans are complex. Period.

The tools we need to manage these new realities will inevitably be informed by ideas outside of design. In other words, advocacy design and other historical models are good, but they are not sufficient. Dr. Michio Kaku, in Hyperspace, describes the current understanding of the universe as inexorably linked to experimental high mathematics. It is in only the rarefied realms of imagined mathematical dimensions — describable by a witch’s brew of intuition and theoretical equation — that thinking about the origins of the universe makes any sense. In order to function in these circumstances, scientists must posit multi-dimensional spaces that cannot normally be perceived. That is, they must actively exist in places that do not exist and cannot be described. Remarkably, at least ten such spaces already have been experimentally demonstrated.

Kaku describes these multi-dimensional realities as hyperspace, space that exists beyond what we can experience. He described the processes by which scientists work in this space, incorporating a kind of blind faith that allows them to actively explore its properties. The example of scientists working in these conditions provides a model for designers that encourages us to think beyond what we know (or can see), and demonstrates the power of well-reasoned imaginative leaps. If scientists can imagine the origins of existence, dear reader, designers can imagine a better management model for the information overload. Hyperdesign is the first step toward this management model.

We must embrace the information age fully, or it will eat us alive.

There is no room for hesitation, or nostalgia.

The future is now.