How Smart do we have to Be to Become Smart?
Using Design to Turn Information into Knowledge


Using design to turn information into knowledge

The organisers of the conference suggested this title for the presentation addressing the discrepancy between the increase in information and the loss of meaning.

"A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth century England. "

(Murray, quoted in Mountford's article in Human Computer Interface Design)

We create more and more information, we create more and more tools to shape information, and we find out that we're left nowhere.

Should we follow Ivan Illich and call it 'specific counter-productivity'? The health system makes us sick, the educational system makes us stupid and the transport system immobilises us. The information systems make things meaningless. "We have met the enemy and he is us," Pogo would say.

Looked at it this way, meaning is not just a disembodied characteristic of some psychological trait, it is basic to our existence, socially and psychologically. Knowledge and learning have had this role for many centuries. Confucius' Analects start with "Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?" That was 2,500 years ago. His other work is called The Great Learning and places learning at the heart of Chinese culture, where it has had that position until this day.

The Dutch Design Institute says it deals with design in 2D, 3D and 4D: graphic design on paper, the design of things and the design of interactive products. Designers design information. But although we use design for information, it does not produce more meaning. It increases the quantity of information, but not the quality of it.

The question is: can we use design to turn information into knowledge? We can design information, but can we design knowledge? The question is valid, but it's not simple. And besides, is the meaningfulness we strive for equal to knowledge? The question needs to consider what information and knowledge are, and how we use design on them.

We design information: interactive multi media, new interactive television products, information services. What is it that we design?


We use the word information often for many different things. But when we want to use design to turn information into knowledge we have to be careful. What is information? There are more than 300 definitions of information! And then there are different kinds of information. Suppose we build a house:

Ideas are generated when I start to think about building a house. Initial sketches serve the purpose of making my ideas explicit. I use them as inspiration, playing with different alternatives, choosing and slowly converging my ideas. Drawings are possible when I know what I want. In the end one drawing shows my product. Building plans describe the house, all the materials and the methods used to build them. These are used to guide the construction. Building is done on the basis of careful planning, coordinating all the activities in the real world.






At every level the information has different characteristics. I do very different things: sometimes I want to generate as many ideas as possible and at other times turn to one idea. At any of the levels I design, I can use methodologies or I can support myself with information technology - but only if I consider the context it is being used in. The design factors are different for each of the different levels. Information is a many-sided thing, and needs to be considered carefully.

How does information turn into information? Bateson calls information "a difference that makes a difference": something that we can distinguish (a difference) that has meaning in relation to what we already know (creating another difference). It is the context that exposes the meaning of information. When we design information we design relationships; it is a network.

But until now we viewed information as a static product. And by ignoring its contextual relatedness we have surprised ourselves: all of a sudden we lose its meaning. But when we look closely we see that the loss of meaning is not a decrease of something, but the opposite: the increase of possible relationships. It devalues the existing one. How are we to interpret something when many interpretations are possible?

The information age creates new contexts for information. But what makes us feel homeless is that it de-constructs the old contexts of information.

We used WANG computers. When something didn't work we'd open it up, determine what the problem was, and if we couldn't fix it we'd call up their desk to report the problem so somebody could come to fix it. They would use a completely up-to-date database. The conversations would be bizarre and go like this:

Hello, this is so-and-so from company X. I'd like to report a burned out PAX123 terminal screen. One of the resistors blew out and we need a replacement for it.

What is your number?

- My number!?

What is your client number?

- You have my name!

I need your support number!

- Where can I find that?... OK... Hold on (get the contract...)

- Ok, my number is ...

What is the number of the part?

- How do you mean?!

I need the number of the part.

- But it's a simple terminal screen!

I can't do anything without the number.

- Where can I find it? On the back of the screen? Let me call you back.

(Walk to the user's desk, get the number, call again)/

- OK: here is the number.

Well, I don't have that part listed here.

- What!? What does that mean?

If I don't have the part listed we can't repair it.

- I'm looking at it, so I guess it's your problem.

Well, I need the number.

Oh wait a minute, here it is.

Yes. I see. You're so-and-so company, you're located at such and such address, you have a PAX123 terminal screen and there is a malfunction with it.

- Yes, that's what I told you to start with!

Thank you sir. We will send one of our people.

In the afternoon a guy would come, look at the screen the way we did, determine the fault the way we did, conclude that he didn't have the right parts with him and leave. Two hours later another guy would appear with the right replacement.

How did we handle information before? Our standard context for information was people. People not only kept information, but integrated it and gave it meaning through the context they brought with them.

The development of computers de-constructed the human context and constructed a disembodied machine context. Information lives in machines. And since machines don't think or anticipate we have to do that ourselves, a task we are not used to. The implicit context is gone and we need explicit context management. The information age means is the availability of information in machines, not the availability of information for people.

Information technology dis-connects and makes things re-connectable in many ways. It moves things out of their known context and places it inside information tools to create new contexts. We never did that. We were used to one context that developed slowly and were never context hoppers. Look at our newspapers. They supply us with information and assume context. Reading the paper gives you information but doesn't give you enough to decide for yourself. Few people writing for papers place their contributions in context: they report events.

Meaning does not dis-appear; we have to identify it and make it real by ascertaining it. We have to choose the context that fits us. It's the problem of post-modernist (dis)integration. That brings us back to the title of the presentation: can we use design to restore meaning?

Context makes information meaningful. But if it means something to me, does that make it knowledge? There is a difference between knowledge and meaning. A work of art may carry great meaning for me and not consist of reasoning or give me a model of reality. It is not discursive: it cannot be expressed in any other form than itself. Artistic products are not discursive, they are evocative. They call forth meaning from the feeling heart. When we ponder meaning we should take both the heart and the mind into consideration. When we think about knowledge, we think about discursive systems and reasoning.


Knowledge turns up when we infer models from all our experiences. We recognise consistencies in our perceptions from which we can create models about the world. From these we can make predictions about that world that allow us to act.

We develop knowledge by examining our perceptions, categorising, inferring patterns and refining models about the behaviour of the things we perceive. We relate information to other information, and develop the patterns that emerge so that they are stable representations of the things we saw. We shift levels of abstraction. No longer are the individual chunks of information important, but the relations between them. These models then determine the way we look at the world and develop more knowledge. We cast them as a net onto the world and harvest our perceptions. The knowledge we have determines the knowledge we get.

When we talk about knowledge we tend to favour the knowing something. But 'knowledge' is not a single thing. We can distinguish different kinds of knowledge:

Knowing why something happens differs from knowing how to do something. Knowing whether something will happen is different from knowing something about something. We favour a context that is technological and disembodied. It makes us think in terms of propositional knowledge where 'true or false' carry greater weight than 'good or bad'.

To know why

To know that...

To know something

To know whether

To know how

Jerome Bruner distinguishes different 'mentalities' following the work of Piaget. He calls them enactive, iconic and symbolic and shows that doing, seeing and thinking each have their own kind of knowing. Following Bruner, Alan Kay coined the phrase "doing with images makes symbols," and used it in his designs for user interaction. We learn through these different 'mentalities'. So there are different dimensions with regard to knowledge and information. There is a difference between 'true and false' and 'good or bad' or 'effective or ineffective'. So while the meaning of information comes from its relatedness to other information, we must also distinguish different kinds of context. And on top of the above, we'll have to realise that with most of our knowledge we can distinguish a conscious and an unconscious or tacit part, of which the latter is far greater than the former.

So, just like information, knowledge is not a single thing. Using design to turn information into knowledge seems to turn into many different things. But there is an important remark we can make here: when I have knowledge it seems to be the result of a personal process. It is the knower that turns information into knowledge. It is an activity more than a product. Learning is of existential value: it gives us a great feeling of exhilaration to learn something, to know something and to be able to exercise the power to create something. Developing knowledge gives meaning to life. The process of knowing revolves around perceptions, categorisations, inferences, and models. But more important, wanting to know is an attitude. It is a highly personal activity that is based in my own motivation to want to learn.

We can ask different questions on the subject and ask what is knowledge, why do I want to develop it, how do I want to do it, what can I do with it and where am I right now? Each of these questions places my endeavour in a different context. As with building the house, the developing of knowledge starts with the reason why.

interpretive       why does it happen?

goal oriented       what can I do with...?

descriptive       what is this?

procedural       how do i do this?

navigational       where am I?


Designers have experience with the design of information in 2D and 4D. Do we have any experience with the design of environments for learning and knowledge? Certainly. In the last centuries our churches, school systems and cultural institutions were designed with that in mind: the cultural revolution in China, social engineering in Russia, or the 'new math' revolution in education. All of them large scale designs that deal with learning, knowing and meaning. And all of them are having problems. And it's not the content of any of the components as much as the fact that the form seems no longer conducive to motivating people. It seems that they do the right things for all the wrong reasons: specific counter-productivity?

Asking the question whether we can use design to turn information into knowledge places us in this 'universe of discourse': the loss of context seems to pervade much of our activities. Education, organisations, government and churches are all growing towards new ways of knowing and being. It is not a simple problem within the confines of information technology. It is not a simple design problem in interactive multimedia. We're actually creating new environments on several levels at the same time. That's the reason these things seem so elusive: we cannot solve the problem by simply borrowing context from another field. We're recreating all the fields at the same time.

Technology does not really seem to be the problem. Each of the different aspects of knowledge can be supported by technology. It is what we want with the technology.

One of the basic issues in design is the balance between freedom and constraint: the freedom that is necessary for the process to unfold and the formality that is required to get to work with the models and materials that will be used. That frail balance seems to be changing in information technology, education, religion and culture. It shifts the relationship between past and present, between tradition and innovation. We require more freedom, but cannot do without existing form. Building a house starts with an idea but can only be realised with fitting materials and methods. Learning starts with the initial desire but only succeeds when we accept existing experience. Well designed environments trade between the old and the new, the past and the future, reality and dreams. They provide the change to create over and over again, without destroying the integrity of the initial pursuit or the existing we're using to attain its goal.

In the process of gathering knowledge we observe, distinguish, categorise, integrate and infer models. We test our models in their application. For the process of knowledge we need to design four contexts: the material, the models, methods and the larger context that supplies my reason for learning. These are close to the process of design. One definition of design is that it is the process of developing plans or schemes of action, usually with 4 limiting factors: materials, methods, parts within the whole and function, and appearance.

knowledge       design

material       materials


models       parts within the whole

meaning       function and appearance

Basic material for knowledge is the process of perception and the resulting information. Technology gives us all the auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory amplifiers. These sensors are our receptors for more data.

If we create information, what would its criteria be? Since its meaning resides in relations, it needs to be connectable. We can no longer create information for a single use or design systems or structures that serve one purpose. They have to be able to incorporate change without losing their consistency, to exhibit stability through flexibility. Communication drives the process, and models serve as collectors for the results.

Information is compared, decided upon, fitted and refitted constantly in new patterns.

How do we do that? Models supply us with the patterns we need: structures that can act as catalysts for new information, affirming or discrediting it. We can use metaphors or analogies, taking them from one field of experience and applying them somewhere else.

Knowledge environments supply us with a store of models that may act as relation templates to aggregate information. They teach us how to apply these: how to judge, how to fit, how to adjust.

The form of information has to enable this kind of use. How do we design information so that it fits many models? Its form is more abstract, and less specific. But if we do so, it becomes more meaningless in itself. Is that not the very situation we try to counter? Yes and no. The information is designed for communication. When static it is meaningless, when relating it acquires meaning. New information environments are dynamic, and in their constant movement, meaning is established and reestablished. Meaning is a changing thing. Nothing seems permanent: post-modernist information.

When described in this way, it seems as if meaning comes into focus through connections, the same connections that will make it change. The paradox is solved by the user. S/He determines the network of relationships and s/he does that by knowing why s/he uses information. All information becomes situated and will need a reason why. Good knowledge environments enable people to relate information and knowledge to the larger scheme of things. When change increases we need a meta level that provides consistency of meaning. New knowledge environments provide us with that contact with meta information. They keep our local information islands placed in the greater sea of things, enabling us to change viewpoints and approach the known from new angles.

These more abstract levels of reflection are being developed throughout society. In the preceding decades new models for education have been developed, doing away with schools and making the learner self sufficient. New models of religion are being developed doing away with traditional structures and making the experiencer self sufficient. New models of organisations are being developed, and virtual organisations make workers self sufficient by placing them in supporting infrastructures. New models of health care are being developed by supplying new infrastructures for health and opening up new dimensions. In all of these we see the same developments: more material through rapid dissemination of information, the availability of different models that may be tried or applied, more communications and new structures for relationships and the appearance of new dimensions of judgment, not only more abstract but also of a different order such as ethical and spiritual. Designers of knowledge environments will equip people with the tools to browse these developments, be inspired and learn from them, so that they in their turn may contribute to the quality of future developments.

What are the qualities of a knowledge designer? Designers always need an intimate knowledge of their methods and materials, and a clear vision of the goal of their endeavour. To use design to turn information into knowledge, designers need to understand what knowledge is, what it does and what it can do. They need to understand the different kinds of knowledge, be it knowledge from feeling, thinking or action. They need to be able to translate that knowledge into the form, content, behaviour and structure of information systems. Designers turned psychologists when they designed 2D graphics. Now they turn philosophers using their epistemologies to design.


updated 1993