The cover of Design Unbound

Design Unbound

Designing for emergence in a white water world

by Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown

Emergence is a fascinating topic that comes up in lots of disciplines, and has been especially present in mathematics and science in the 21st century. Game theory, graph theory, ecology, urban planning, chaos theory, community building, all these fields have a unique perspective on and relationship to emergence.

Design is a skillset that suits any field where emergence — and its cousins chaos and complexity — pops up. This book presents design tools that anyone can use to grapple with complexity and design for emergence: rapid iteration, a flexible brief, critique, orchestrating ambiguity, and “whitewater skills.”

The book really shines in a few moments where it dissects case studies and applies the lens of designing for emergence. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The book drags when it’s bogged down in layers of abstraction and academic language (meta-narratives, autocatalyzation, nondecisions and semantic agendas). Part of design is communicating complicated ideas in a universal way, and in that regard, this book gets a C minus.