<aside> ℹ️ An essay on the role of designers in solving difficult problems, where I introduce briefly my concept of *****-shaped people (contrast to T-shaped).

This article was initially published as “Inevitable Indiscipline: the Final Escape from Disciplinarity” in The Journal of Design Strategies, Vol.5, “Transdisciplinary Design”, 2011 guest edited by Jamer Hunt, p.62


<aside> ✂️ Abstract: Transdisciplinary Design is only new by name – it had been the norm for centuries before cultural history piggybacked the scientific revolution on a scenic detour through the labyrinth of disciplines. Human nature had been craving it. After basic attempts during the 20th Century, a brandable paradigm reaches critical mass at an expected moment in history.


Part 1: Aby Warburg Geek and Designer

9/9/99, beyond being a pretty date, marks the first ever publication in English of Aby Warburg’s immense “The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity”. The German father of cultural iconography had died exactly 70 years earlier, and his work had been relegated to dusty academia since. But at the turn of the century, the time was finally right for his precocious vision to become mainstream.

Aby was a geek. At 13, he gave up his right as eldest heir to his family’s banking empire to his little brother Max in return for a promise that he would buy Aby any book he wanted for the rest of his life. The pact was kept and his eclectic bibliomania became the core of one of the world’s most intriguing collections: the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, or KBW.

According to Warburg’s biographers, as a child the visual power and information overload he found in these thousands of books and images was confronted to his family’s conservative religious zeal. It catalysed his later search for the primordial energies and memes that inevitably crossed cultural and disciplinary borders.

As an adult art historian, Warburg’s project started with his attempt to bridge the gap between so-called “high” and “low” art, between classical art and popular cultural production. He needed to break down disciplinary boundaries to allow meaning and ideas to flow freely across academic and ethnic cultures, across geography and history, and particularly, across value systems.

He wanted to share and change the world and the KBW was to become the content and the tool. To ensure its continuity, what was a private personal library became a semi-public institution in Hamburg in 1921.

He designed the KBW as a non-classical library, where images and texts lived in a dynamic ever-changing order, where connections and relationships emerged between data items based on their position vis-à-vis one another at a particular moment (of time, of study…) more than on a top-down hierarchy.

In it he worked on the never finished Mnemosyne Atlas – a set of around 80 panels covered with around 2000 images from the collection. He used these to tell stories and constantly moved the images around to create connections and themes. They were conceptual mood boards that helped him design and test his theories.

Warburg and his two co-founders, Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing (did her name inspire Microsoft’s search engine?), eschewed the classical categories and devised taxonomy systems that allowed multiple tagging of each library item.

For 10 years, they kept an annotated 550-page diary of their daily work on the KBW. It reads like a 3-pen startup blog peppered with short tweets and comments left to one another in the margins.

Data hoarding, adaptive user interfaces, flexible disciplinary boundaries, horizontal value systems, relational interactions and emergent meanings, logged collaboration and short messages, icons and taxonomies, social responsibility and experimentation… Warburg’s 100-year-old story is rife with themes from today’s digital culture.

Warburg died in 1929 aged 63 in Hamburg. In 1933, 60,000 books and 20,000 photographs where shipped to London and away from the rise of Nazism. Today it lives on as the Warburg Institute of the University of London – a respected but less open and dynamic project.

With the original founder gone and the KWB a full-fledged British institution, the extraordinary vision was forgotten – until now.

Part 2: the Survival of a Temperament

Warburg had an initial intuition that culture was becoming too atomised, too segregated into mutually exclusive disciplines – and its understanding too formal and too formalistic. He felt that any work on the survival of memes across art history, through the notion of a collective human memory, would force the crossing of cultural and disciplinary boundaries.

That intuition is relevant again – and more pressing than ever. Today, on the other hand, all the right tools are here to support such a trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural vision.

The revival/survival of Warburg’s ideas vindicates him: central to his theory was the concept of “Survival” of images and motifs – of memes and global symbols – across cultures and civilisations.

Aby Warburg was a renegade for his time, but today he would fit perfectly in a culture of founders/designers. While not at all trained as a designer, it is clear that his KWB is very much a designed project that remained in “perpetual beta” until his death.