Meaning making is the process through which people come to understand the world around them. There are many ways to approach how people do this, philosophical, sociological, psychological etc. with an extensive menu of hybrid theoretical forms and interdisciplinary thinking. My research suggests a designerly way of making meaning, or at least of establishing a set of conditions for a particular kind of meaning making. Cross (1982) makes the case for a ‘third culture’ to sit alongside science and the humanities. Design he says is different from these two knowledge traditions, it does things in a different way, one that involves modelling, pattern formation and synthesis. Science is analytic where design is constructive. Design is about the generation of new forms in dynamic relation with material contexts. Creating meaning through the doing of design, or by experiencing design involves ‘metaphoric appreciation’, an oscillation between material and non-material signs.
As a naturalistic pragmatist Dewey locates the creation of meaning at a similar point of synthesis. People experience things (specifically aesthetic situations) as they tend towards a coherence or unity of meanings. There is a coalescence of previous experiences, knowledge and circumstances (Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanance) that results in ‘an experience’ within which meaning is dynamically and continuously being made. Creative meaning making – the kind I’m interested in – takes place through ‘the intelligent use of materials and the imaginative development of possible solutions to problems issuing in a reconstruction of experience that affords immediate satisfaction’. The imaginative development of possible solutions is what designers are good at and what design is for. My research proposes using this ability to present participants with the same opportunity for creative reconstruction of experience. I’m less sure about how necessary it is for this to be immediately satisfying but acknowledge the requirement.
Activity theory suggests meaning making is similarly constructive. Meanings do not exist in the world independently of consciousness but are socially constructed through interaction with tools both cognitive and physical. Activity theory specifically emphasises internalisation and externalisation – key themes for my research. People learn things in specific social contexts (such as home, workplace or school) and over time knowledge becomes implicitly understood in the mind, specifically through the use of symbolic representation in communication. Vygotsky proposes that externalisation happens at moments of breakdown, (interestingly Latour also identifies ‘crises’, of modernity, of critique, of subjectivity, as the moments in which new meanings emerge) when we need to explain something to other people, or when tasks have to be shared out amongst a group. Since Vygotsky was a psychologist, he prioritises cognitive tools, mental reconstructions, and virtual processes. There is certainly an aspect of my research that uses this view – I’m interested in designing things that allow people to model the way they think about digital systems or experiences, but, existing in what Dewey would call dynamic relation, is the function of the physical artefact in the meaning making process. Sitting alongside this is a concern with context – sometimes divided into personal, physical and socio cultural.
Kazmierczak (2003) places design at the centre of meaning making. She distinguishes between intended meaning, constructed meaning and received meaning. Design is ‘the activity that directs the process and enables the correspondence between the three’. Received meanings engage the cognitive processes that determine how designs are understood, or how meaning is made from them. There are a set of semiotic relations that sit between how things are perceived and what they mean. Examining these relations means identifying the cultural codes embodied in the design. Designs then, are tools for thinking. Tools that allow for a reconsideration of existing knowledge, for the construction of social meanings, and the synthesis of experience. Designs are ‘semiotic interfaces’ interdependent with conscious (Dewey would say reflective) perception. They provide a locus for what Kazmierczak calls ‘diagrammatic reasoning’ defined as ‘a combining of visual syntax to induce specific inferences followed by subsequent behaviours’. I like the way this definition allows mental representations (diagrams) to sit alongside actions (behaviours), a neat synthesis of the semiotic and the phenomenological.
Meaning making for me involves a dynamic unfolding of interpretation over time, mediated by tools in the form of physical artefacts, that leads to new representations.