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both/and communications design

In fashionable jargon, Communicating By Design would be described as a “strategic communications consultancy.”

But we’re not all that fashionable around here, and as principal of Communicating By Design, I have a different, more eclectic take on what it is we do: both/and communications design.

While today the term “communications” usually conjures up images relating to telecommunications — fiber-optic cables, or the latest hand-held, high-tech gadget with which we call one another and access the Internet — I use the term here in a more traditional sense, referring to the communications in which human beings engage by way of symbols. A symbol is anything that stands for or represents something else beyond it, most often feelings and ideas. Objects like flags and crosses are symbols; so are words; and so are gestures like an open hand, a warm smile, a clenched jaw. When symbolic communication is consciously designed, it becomes what scholars sometimes call “purposive communication”: a human expression, crafted on purpose, with some aim in mind, some message to convey.

A great deal of human symbolic communication is not consciously designed, nor should it be. There is as much merit in a spontaneous expression of love or friendship as there is in the thoughtful gift, carefully packaged and presented according to longstanding traditions of gift-giving.

All of our symbolic communications have meaning — for ourselves and for others — whether they are designed or not, and this holds for the group as well as for the individual. Within a business, all communications — from the company sign in the parking lot, to the bilingual Braille-English button labels on the elevator panel, to the most mundane form for tracking product inventory or recording a telephone message, to the more exalted presentation delivered by a company CEO before the board of directors — convey meaning.

How much we can control those meanings with our designs is a matter of ongoing dispute. But there is no question that we know how to design in some meanings, while designing out others, and here we cross into the area of those who specialize in “strategic communications.” This covers everything from logo design and “branding” to the sort of radical organizational restructuring promoted by management consultants Lowell Bryan and Claudia Joyce, of McKinsey & Co., whose ambitious book, Mobilizing Minds, outlines a new strategic vision for corporations in stasis seeking success in the new “knowledge economy.”

Communicating By Design offers similar services — communications audits, needs assessments, “whole communications plans,” “identities,” new and revised communications products, even organizational designs and redesigns — but on a smaller scale than the typical management consultant. We’ll work with you in the trenches, not dictate strategy from above. We will produce for you — or together, help you to produce for yourself — “purposive communications” that achieve what you need them to achieve. And if you’re not sure what that is, we can help you there, too.

Above all, we’ll take the same integrated, both/and approach to your communications projects that we take to our own.

Both/and is a concept borrowed from the literary critic Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895–1975), from contemporary “social constructionists,” and from cultural studies scholars, all of whom view it as a model alternative to either/or logics which assume and reproduce “a Manichean Universe of absolute opposites” (McLaren & Leonard, Paulo Freire 81).

All of us are familiar with either/or thinking, which relies on “hierarchical, binary oppositions” and posits

the bifurcation of reality into mutually opposed elements, one of which is privileged and identified with Self, the other of which is disdained and designated as Other.

(Susan Bordo, “Feminist Skepticism”)

It’s a cognitive style known by several names, the most familiar probably being “thinking in black-and-white” and “ignoring the gray areas” (or as social commentator Richard Rodriguez reminds us, the many brown areas).

Because we often refer to either/or logic as “binary thinking,” it’s now commonplace to confuse the sort of black-and-white thinking all of us tend to with the binary logic of digital communications. Those of us who philosophize about such things will casually assert that the engineer’s digital representations of an analog world ultimately reduce that world to something that is inanimate, static, rigidly categorical and bipolar. Even if this were true (and I’m not at all sure it is), either/or-style dualistic reasoning — with its false unities and unequal terms — is not really the same thing as the software engineer’s logic of zeros-and-ones. Not even the Boolean EXCLUSIVE OR superimposes a values hierarchy on its oppositions.

Either/or logic is most pernicious when applied to the lifeworld, where it promotes reductionism (reducing the complex to the simple), dissociation and stereotyping, all of which blocks group learning and limits opportunities for transformative communication.

Others who study and work with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) have observed that binary thinking is

powerful to its adherents because all evidence against one extreme appears to confirm the other, when the real problem is simply that it cannot conceive other alternatives.

(Phil Agre, 16 June 1999 post to RRE list)

At Communicating By Design, we are all about conceiving alternatives and redesigning the ways in which we represent and communicate with one another.

This is not the same thing as seeking the middle ground between extremes.

It’s not about designing consensus, but about embracing dissensus.

It’s about stepping outside our own partiality by fully engaging with difference.

Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependence become unthreatening....

(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider)

It is about serious creative play in the realm of both/and.

more about some of the
both/and concepts that
undergird what we do
and how we do it ...

Sources & Influences

I include key influences along with sources below because I find that lists of “Works Cited” usually misrepresent one’s network of intellectual influences, even when citations are carefully chosen (as were mine here).

When it comes to my own thinking about — and work with — ICT, and symbolic communications in general, my debts are too many to acknowledge fully here, even if it were possible to remember and isolate all the contributions of particular individuals over time. Some of my most important intellectual exchanges are with 17th-century figures conjured up by my scholarly imagination, and these cannot be easily documented here. Moreover, many of my most important professional influences are attributable not to books, but to experience and intense conversation (much of it conducted online via e-mail) with clients and colleagues around the world. Communicating By Design owes its very being to such — sometimes quite difficult — dialogue.

As Mary Crawford aptly states, we construct ourselves — and by extension, our businesses — “in reflection, relation, and in resistance to the other.” Such dialogue with the world around us, and those who inhabit it, forms the core of our experience, and is a multi-dimensional, lifelong process. The tangled web of mutual influences which results does not reduce to a single list of readings.

Nonetheless, I’ve tried here to do just that. I have added to my short list of works actually cited in the paragraphs above several titles which silently influence what I say here and elsewhere throughout the Communicating By Design website.

It is always difficult to winnow scholarly bibliographies to a manageable list of titles. In five cases (authors Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, bell hooks, Richard Lanham, and Michael Polanyi), I have had to select just one publication, from the many good ones available, based on which title most influences my work in communications research & design. And because “post-modern theory” is now the bete noire of so many professional communicators, I have limited myself to no more than one author who might be so categorized: Pierre Bourdieu. Admittedly, Bourdieu’s books are hard to read, especially if you are unaccustomed to this sort of thing, but his theory of humans’ use of symbolic power and his research on forms of socialization associated with “habitus” (the set of culturally-acquired dispositions which incline us to act and react in certain ways) are useful for all of us who must deal with groups of people in our lives and work. Whatever his faults as an author (and I don’t personally think they’re all that many), Bourdieu does not belong to the tribe of postmodernists criticized by David Burnett:

Much modern and post-modern literature, moreover, emphasises form rather than content; its response to the disorientation of the modern world is a preoccupation with form, with means rather than ends. Content, however, also matters, as [the 17th-century philosopher of science and technology, Francis] Bacon exemplifies. Clarity likewise is important and is, indeed, a necessary condition for work in which substance matters as well as style. The recursive structures and fragmented narratives, the dislocations and discontinuities, the multiple and shifting perspectives, the widely varying registers of language and tone, the deliberate and undifferentiated medley of fact and fiction, as well as the evasive ironies, the enigmatic and often merely personal allusions, and the plastic, polyvalent and problematic meanings of much modern literature and art may astonish and divert but also confuse and darken counsel. Instead of modernity, we confront too often the smoke and mirrors of an enchanter’s palace in which the superficial, the naive, the grotesque and the merely irrational or sensational as well as a palimpsest of ambiguities jostle for our attention. Bacon is otherwise and, as such, both salutary and exemplary.

(David Burnett, A Thinker for All Seasons 49)

There is nothing superficial or naive about Bourdieu.

No matter what the yardstick we use to judge, the following list will be deemed imperfect. But as a partial record of external voices influencing the development of Communicating By Design, it doesn’t need to be perfect. Just true to the intellectual territory it attempts to chart.

S E L E C T E D   B I B L I O G R A P H Y

Phil Agre’s home page and Red Rock Eater (RRE) News Service page

Albrecht, Lisa, and Rose M. Brewer, eds. Bridges of Power: Women’s Multicultural Alliances. Philadelphia, PA and Gabriola Island, BC [Canada]: New Society Publishers, 1990. (ISBN-10: 0865711844 and ISBN-13: 9780865711846.)

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. by Michael Holquist. Translated from the original Russian by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. 1981; rpt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. (ISBN-10: 029271534x and ISBN-13: 9780292715349.)

Bauer, Henry. Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method. 1992; rpt. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994. (ISBN-10: 0252064364 and ISBN-13: 9780252064364.)

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. (ISBN-10: 1405112379 and ISBN-13: 9781405112376.)

Bordo, Susan. “Feminist Skepticism and the ‘Maleness’ of Philosophy.” In Women and Reason. Eds. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Kathleen Okruhlik. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. 143–162. (ISBN-10: 0472102206 and ISBN-13: 9780472102204.)

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated from the original French by Richard Nice. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, no. 16. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. (ISBN-10: 052129164x and ISBN-13: 9780521291644.)

Bryan, Lowell L., and Claudia L. Joyce. Mobilizing Minds: Creating Wealth from Talent in the 21st Century Organization. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. (ISBN-10: 0071490825 and ISBN-13: 9780071490825.)

Burnett, David. A Thinker for All Seasons: Sir Francis Bacon and His Significance Today. Durham, Eng.: New Century Press, 2000. (ISBN-10: 0948545070 and ISBN-13: 9780948545078.)

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated from the original French by Stephen Randall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. (ISBN-10: 0520236998 and ISBN-13: 9780520236998.)

Chabris, Christopher, and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. New York: Crown Archetype, 2010. (ISBN-10: 0307459667 and ISBN-13: 9780307459664.)

In an opinion piece for the 7/25/2010 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Chabris & Simons extended their arguments in The Invisible Gorilla to online communications. In summary: “Ignore the alarmists. Our ability to think, focus and learn won’t be destroyed by spending so much time online.” To read Communicating By Design’s HTML transcription of their op-ed, click/tap here.

Cocks, Joan. The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique and Political Theory. London: Routledge, 1989. (ISBN-10: 0415032067 and ISBN-13: 9780415032063.)

Cranz, Galen. The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. (ISBN-10: 0393046559 and ISBN-13: 9780393046557.)

Crawford, Mary. Talking Difference: On Gender and Language. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995. (ISBN-10: 0803988281 and ISBN-13: 9780803988286.)

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000. (ISBN-10: 0465077145 and ISBN-13: 9780465077144.)

Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment. 2006; rpt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. (ISBN-10: 0674032292 and ISBN-13: 9780674032293.)

Hacking, Ian. Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science. 1983; 7th rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. (ISBN-10: 0521282462 and ISBN-13: 9780521282468.)

Halpern, David. The Hidden Wealth of Nations. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity, 2010. (ISBN-10: 0745648029 and ISBN13: 9780745648026.)

Hariman, Robert, ed. Prudence: Classical Virtue, Postmodern Politics. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. (ISBN-10: 0271022558 and ISBN-13: 9780271022550.)

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. (ISBN-10: 0896084337 and ISBN13: 9780896084339.)

Huff, Darrell. How to Lie with Statistics. 1954; rpt. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1982. (ISBN-10: 039309426x and ISBN13: 9780393094268.)

Huws, Ursula. The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 2003. (ISBN-10: 1583670882 and ISBN13: 9781583670880.)

Ihde, Don. Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. (ISBN-10: 0253205603 and ISBN13: 9780253205605.)

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. (ISBN-10: 0226468852 and ISBN-13: 9780226468853.)

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984. (ISBN-10: 0895941414 and ISBN-13: 9780895941411.)

McLaren, Peter, and Peter Leonard, eds. Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. (ISBN-10: 0415087929 and ISBN13: 9780415087926.)

Needham, Rodney. Counterpoints. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1987. (ISBN-10: 0520058356 and ISBN13: 9780520058354.)

Polanyi, Michael. Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi. Ed. by Marjorie Green. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. (ISBN-10: 0226672859 and ISBN-13: 9780226672854.)

Quartz, Steven R., and Terrence J. Sejnowski. Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are. New York: William Morrow & Co., 2002. (ISBN-10: 0060001496 and ISBN-13: 9780060001490.)

Rodriguez, Richard. Brown: The Last Discovery of America. 2002; rpt. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. (ISBN-10: 0142000795 and ISBN-13: 9780142000793.)

Rose, Steven. Lifelines: Biology Beyond Determinism. 1997; rpt. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. (ISBN-10: 0195150392 and ISBN-13: 9780195150391.)

Said, Edward W. “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.” The Nation 283.12 (17 Sept. 2001): 27–36.

This article is available online for a fee. Subscribers to The Nation have free access.

Slim, Hugo, and Paul Thomson. Listening for a Change: Oral Testimony and Community Development. Philadelphia and Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1994. (ISBN-10: 0865713049 and ISBN-13: 9780865713048.)

Stanley, Autumn. Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1993; rpt. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. (ISBN-10: 0813521971 and ISBN-13: 9780813521978.)

Toulmin, Stephen, and Bjorn Gustavsen, eds. Beyond Theory: Changing Organizations Through Participation. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub Co., 1996. (ISBN-10: 1556198264 and ISBN-13: 9781556198267.)

Trimbur, John. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English 5 (1989): 602–16.

Valian, Virginia. Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. 1998; rpt. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. (ISBN-10: 0262720310 and ISBN-13: 9780262720311.)

Weinberger, David. Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008. (ISBN-10: 0805088113 and ISBN-13: 9780805088113.)

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