Chapter 10. Clouds of Unknowing: Anonymous Works

It is said that the father of modern art, Wassily Kandinsky, started the movement he founded completely by accident. Coming home one day, he saw lying against the wall a very beautifully composed work, with suitable dabs and splashes of oil. He was very impressed and wondered who had left such a piece in his house, only to discover on close inspection that it was his own work put on its side.

One enjoys a similar experience looking at clouds: in them one catches beautiful patterns and perhaps even colors, and interesting shapes, some as if sculptures of things here below. My own experience looking at clouds and photographing them leaves me sometimes excited with un-anticipated-ly and un-anticipate-ably surprising finds. One recalls with a tinge of nostalgia days past when parents encourage you to see and spot shapes in these clouds. Besides these—now—childish thrills, there may be more serious silver linings.

The welcoming of the un-intended, un-anticipated, accidental, un-planned is something that Herbert Simon writes about in his Sciences of the Artificial—at least, in its latest, 1996, 3rd edition. Amongst other things, he suggests that design thinkers, engineers, and policy makers and analysts should be open to desirable unintended effects of their own plans, which suggest new interesting targets worth achieving. Simon calls this ‘designing without final goals’. Design is the process which seeks to achieve some preferred state of affairs through some means, and usually when we do this, we have an intended goal in mind. There is nothing wrong with that of course. However, the problem arises when we are so fixated on that particular target we are completely closed to other good things that can emerge. So Simon’s recommendation was that one should be open to new, previously unforeseen goals that could have (accidentally) emerged during the designing. Writing for what he called a “science of design”, or of the “science of the artificial”, which meant for him a partly analytical, partly empirical, but nonetheless rigorously debated and considered account of what design is all about, he suggested that the attentiveness to un-intended but welcome effects was part of this science. This idea he credits his collaborator James March, and is contrasted with what might be described as a typical engineering-design mentality that is very focused on a particular pre-determined outcome.

This fluid way of designing is significant to consider. Think of how we got the 3M post-it! Someone was designing for a super-glue, but while that original plan failed, something else emerged: a re-attachable glue. Without that openness to welcome unintended effects, perhaps the design might have been left at that: a failed super-glue design. This kind of fluid, entrepreneurial openness to unintended outcomes has been celebrated by prominent design theorists besides Simon. Donald Schön’s famous theory of reflective practice and professional thinking is precisely about that. Examining how professionals and designers in different fields think, he notes in his Reflective Practitioner how they often are attentive to new ways of formulating the issues and problems they are tackling, and this they do precisely by looking at the unintended outcomes of their original designs, seeing how these suggest new welcome goals to be achieved, and how this in turn means that their original “problem” and “projects” can be reconceived: no more as a quest to design for the previous old goals, but perhaps now as a derivative opportunity to achieve new and even radically different targets. This ability to creatively re-conceive and re-define one’s original task he includes as a vital capability of the professional whom he praises as the “reflective practitioner”.

Recently, scholarly design literature has also sought to remind designers and researchers of the value and uniqueness of such ways of thinking, and Nigel Cross in particular has insisted on the need to focus our attention detailing such forms of thinking typical of designers. These kinds of thinking, Nigel Cross labels as “designerly ways of knowing”. Such designerly ways of knowing, Cross believes, are different from other kinds of knowing, particularly the kinds of knowing in the sciences and the humanities. This is perhaps an interesting hypothesis. More certain, perhaps, is his worry that designerly knowings are neglected for other kinds of knowings. General education, through design education, he feels, needs to educate for these kinds of creative, designerly knowings. Indeed, because other forms of knowing is so entrenched, part of the burden facing educators is precisely to help students “un-know” these latter, more conventional forms of knowing, so that some mental space for designerly knowings can be created.

Before all that, perhaps just the mere exercise of cloud spotting could be an initiation into the thinking that constitutes such designerly ways of knowing. Tracking these completely unintentional formations, and being attentive to any welcome pattern, structure or effect mirrors the epistemology that Simon describes as designing without final goals. A pleasant afternoon capturing images of delightfully welcome and surprising but anonymously authored works in the skies is, with respect more conservative forms of thinking, certainly time contemplatively spent with clouds of unknowing.


Jude Chua Soo Meng, “Donald Schön, Herbert Simon and the Sciences of the Artificial”, Design Studies, Vol. 30 (1), 2009, pp. 60-68


A Face in the Sky