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Intelligible design: the origin and visualization of species

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This talk is based on the premise that design thinking was key to Darwin formulating evolutionary theory. Design thinking – the invariably messy and uncontrolled time-based visual ideation process – helped Darwin shape his revolutionary ideas about evolution. Designers don’t just make things; they work to formulate outcomes that both embody and communicate abstract ideas. In The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, philosopher Donald Schön chronicles how designers work through processes of ‘reflection-in-action’ in which thinking and making and the environment in which design happens are integrated. Schön describes ‘on-the-spot’ visual experiments where the materials the designer produces and uses (rough models, sketches, drawings) ‘talk back’, often in surprising ways, and where the ‘naming and framing of the specific problematic or puzzling design situation are important activities’. Schön’s portrait of design thinking corresponds to Darwin’s thinking that can be followed in his sketches.

Darwin sketched ‘tree-of-life’ diagrams to help him determine the nature of evolutionary processes. He used sketching, information visualization, and graphic representation as mechanisms for both externalizing his thoughts while he refined them and for communicating his ideas to the public. In this talk, I analyze how Darwin used rough ‘thinking’ sketches as a brainstorming method. I then discuss the diagram he published in The Origin of Species as an evolutionary infographic whose communicative effectiveness was delimited by his visual vocabulary of 19th-century tree diagrams. I next discuss how Darwin’s ideas presaged new information structures that were established in the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, I investigate how contemporary evolutionary infographics, which developed from Darwin’s ideas, have changed in response to new information in the field of molecular evolution.

Sources: Binder, Thomas, Giorgio de De Michelis, Pelle Ehn, Giulio Jacucci, Per Linde, and Ina Wagner. 2011. Design Things. Cambridge: MIT Press.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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