Science for Designers: The Transformation of Wholes

The most commonly held and influential idea about design, that it’s the art of bringing unrelated parts into a composition, is not accurate.

The most commonly held and influential idea about design is that it’s the art of bringing essentially unrelated parts into a “composition” or an “assembly”. The funny thing is, from a scientific point of view, this idea is entirely wrong. A much better idea about design is that it’s the transformation of one whole into another whole. Not only is this definition more accurate, it’s also crucial for achieving an adaptive design. Let’s talk about the important implications of this distinction between assembly and transformation. Why is it scientifically wrong to say that design is the “composition” of essentially unrelated elements? Because nothing that works as a complete system is really “essentially unrelated” — though the sciences used to operate more or less successfully from that abstract premise, and much of technology still does.

By contrast, the sciences of the last century have taught us more and more about the essential inter-relatedness of the Universe, from the largest scales of the space-time continuum, to the push-pull world of the quantum. In the biological sciences, we’ve come to understand the multi-layered, historical interdependence of systems, especially evident in the web-like relationships of ecological systems. Wherever we look in nature, we find vast and intricate networks of connections. This “essential inter-connectedness” matters because it can have big consequences when it comes to complex systems like human bodies, ecologies, or cities. We can’t treat the parts of these complex systems as separate and interchangeable, without generating unintended consequences. (Think of a doctor who would do a heart transplant without bothering to find a careful tissue match!)

For the simplest problems, we can consider parts as if they were unrelated, and there is little harm in doing that. We profit from the procedural advantage of (over)simplifying our problems, and understanding them as made from separated and interchangeable components. But at a certain threshold of complexity, this useful little fiction starts to create a serious risk. At the level of a civilization, the risk becomes unacceptable. Then we have to start looking at other ways to deal with nature, and other ways to approach our design technology. That, in a nutshell, is where we stand today. So it is “technology” — the knowledge of making things — that’s really at the heart of the question.

We sometimes think of technology as powerful machines and big abstractions, but it is nothing more than our strategy to get natural processes to do the things we want. That’s true whether it’s striking the flint from an arrowhead, or sending a rocket to the Moon. From the very beginning, our species have interacted with nature to create tools that achieve what we want and need. For almost as long, it seems, we have struggled to conceptualize what was going on. At the birth of the Western scientific tradition, Plato and his pupil Aristotle posed questions about mereology, the question of how parts relate to wholes — and to what extent we humans create wholes by combining parts, or by transforming other wholes. It turns out that living systems routinely use transformation to make new wholes. In fact, one definition of life is simply this: “Life is the transformation of energy into information.” Solar energy captured on the Earth’s surface is converted into genetic information. Because of the impermanent nature of organic matter, this information has to be passed on to offspring through reproductive strategies. Each living entity assembles itself — and replenishes its worn-out components over its lifetime — out of chemicals.

Nevertheless, the crucial part of the mechanism is the genetic information and the complex organic structure that it grows and maintains — but note that the structure that is maintained is in the pattern, not the materials, which are constantly discarded and replaced. Furthermore, advanced life forms such as multi-cellular organisms don’t live from just any simple chemical elements, but require the ingestion of complex compounds for their metabolism. Plants need organic nutrients, and animals need proteins that can only come from other organisms. This means that transformation is key to the rich complexity of living structures — and an important clue for designers.

Certainly, we are arguing for the need to understand design in a manner that actually represents reality, not wishful thinking. Since this amounts to an entirely new theoretical discipline — and a very promising one at that, given our challenges — we cannot be haphazard about it. Looking around us at the vast production of the 20th and the 21st centuries, we see an overwhelming number of “designed” objects that show only surface effect. They focus on components and “style,” and not on essential wholeness, adaptivity, and function. Yet we find those latter, essentially “living” features produced routinely during the millennia of human inventiveness prior to modern industrialization. The question is, therefore, how can we integrate these more resilient qualities into our failing modern technologies? The answer is closely related to what we think of as “classic” design. As we have discussed elsewhere (see our essay “Science for Designers: The Meaning of Complexity”), a truly classic style arises when a product attains its highest point of adaptation and functionality — and this achievement has nothing to do with visual fashion or a predilection for any particular “look”. Here, then, are three key ingredients of such an optimal design:

  1. The transformations are not of “things,” but of patterns — that is, relationships.
  2. The patterns existed (at least in part) before the transformations.
  3. The transformations either increase the degree of order of the patterns, or decrease it (or in some cases, keep it about the same).

Generally speaking, as designers, we are more interested in the kind of transformation that increases the complex order of the pattern. We especially value the kind of transformation that creates more variety, but preserves an essential unity, or what we might rightly call (as some physicists do) “wholeness”. Wholeness in this context is not some vague mystical quality, but a definable characteristic of a system, just like the health of an organism. (And indeed, the two words share the same etymological root.)

We can see the evolution of complexity in the process of “embryogenesis,” where each multi-cellular organism (plant or animal) grows from a fertilized seed or egg through embryonic development. This process is definitely not an assembly of unrelated material, but is instead a transformation of the initial seed or egg through cell division and morphogenesis. The form-pattern at each stage of the embryo is transformed and further developed as it increases its complexity towards a final goal, the independent organism (which is encoded in its particular DNA). Nature re-uses and re-combines working wholes into new uses, which is the most efficient method of building novel applications. For example, the auditory ossicles (bones) of our middle ear were adapted from an older use as the gill bones in early fish. On another scale, organisms that are nearby on the evolutionary tree can be interpreted as variants of one basic organismic template. Members of such a family are simply morphological transformations of one pattern into another. This was beautifully explained by the pioneering mathematical biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Going further away in structural space involves more transformational steps, until the forms seem hardly related to one another. Still, the hugely diverse evolutionary tree begins with only a few common ancestors — and achieves its complexity through this transformation process.


Three examples of transformations. Left, geometric transformation of the external form of two different fish having the same internal wholeness, re-drawn from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s book “On Growth and Form” (page 1063). Center, crystal transformed into a skyscraper loses its wholeness. The crystal’s 3-dimensional atomic lattice gives it structural wholeness, whereas the hollow building’s supportive steel framework does not extend to its volume, or to the transparent curtain walls. It is fine as a monument, only meant to be observed at a distance. Right, banana slug (Ariolimax) transformed into a Museum of Contemporary Art — an example of informational collapse. None of the animal’s complex internal structure gets transformed. The building is just an empty shell, without any transformation of its internal structure.

Drawings by Nikos A. Salingaros

The first and second types of relationship we discuss here are themselves linked because during embryonic development, the animal goes through the morphology of earlier ancestors of related organisms before coming out into its specific type. In the embryo’s early days, a human is indistinguishable from a fish or a chicken. This is what biologists mean when they say “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” — the transformation of the embryo is a miniature version of the transformation of the species. Even in evolutionarily distant organisms, there exist additional spontaneous coincidences, called “convergent evolutionary features.” These design convergences reveal transformations of invariant patterns that evolved in parallel in unrelated organisms working to solve the same invariant problem. (We mention the example of the parallel but asynchronous development of the Shark and Dolphin dorsal fins in our essay “Frontiers of Design Science: Computational Irreducibility”.)

There is a fascinating conjecture about genetic information substituting its physical platform. The evolutionary scientist Graham Cairns-Smith discussed the possibility that a replicating code was itself first developed on exposed clay surfaces rather than by organic molecules. According to his hypothesis, nucleic acids simply took over the informational pattern from the clay, and life took off! Even though this is not the standard view in evolutionary biology today, it is an interesting hypothesis about the power of transformations in even “inert” materials.

The notion that an organism is assembled from “essentially unrelated” elements is undone by our understanding that the structural pattern was always there, and that life’s aim is, in a sense, to perpetuate the organic process for converting energy into biological information. The evolutionary tree linking single-celled to advanced organisms tells us that there are really not that many basic patterns of organisms, but those give rise to an almost infinite number of transformations. We can find the same hallmarks of transformation in the most advanced design work today. You may have heard the story of how the interface pattern of Douglas Engelbart in the Stanford On-Line System transformed into Xerox PARC and then into the Apple Macintosh. In that sense, the Mac did not assemble essentially unrelated elements. Taking a broader view, the vast majority of computers today also represent a transformation — certainly, a very sophisticated one — of the original machines that first applied the computer architectures of Alan Turing and John von Neumann. But this common evolutionary origin also embodies their fundamental restriction. In an article entitled “The Information Architecture of Cities” co-authored with L. Andrew Coward (reprinted as Chapter 7 of our book Principles of Urban Structure), one of the authors argued that a computer can never think, precisely because its architecture is distinct from that of the human brain. To make a thinking, and thus conscious computer, requires implementing a basically new computer architecture.

In product design, design theorist Jan Michl has argued — brilliantly, in his essay “On Seeing Design as Redesign” — that all successful design is a transformation of existing patterns, with much less innovation and assembly than is frequently realized. Thus, a mechanical watch represents a transformation of complex schematic mechanisms and partial solutions dating back to ancient Greece (for example, the Antikythera Mechanism from around 130BCE, despite a thousand-year gap when the science and technology were lost and had to re-evolve from scratch). It is not an ex nihilo creation. This interpretation of design was put forward by George Basalla, among other authors.

Thus we come to a core principle governing all design: the components to be assembled into the final product are not themselves the only things of importance; it’s the pattern of how the structure works as a whole that’s primary. This realization re-orients the designer’s focus from visual “design” defined by components, to the essential connective wholeness of a product. The issue here is the connections and how they facilitate its function and adaptivity. And those connections are a transformation of something that may well be just as complex.

Buildings and cities follow the same general schematic rules. Despite human arrogance (and ignorance) in wishing to create — or, more accurately, impose — artificial environments, the basic processes of design as transformation still rule everything we do. Whether we admit it or not, the best products are transformations of whole patterns. On the other hand, products that are created arbitrarily tend to be at best deficient, or at worst dysfunctional in practice. For example, much of the building stock erected during the 20th century has been a transformation of the concrete and glass cubes, planes, and cylinders of early Modernism.

Other kinds of product design have followed suit, adapting tools to an essentially industrial visual aesthetic rather than to fundamental human needs, or even to any genuine “functionalism”. Since only limited transformations are possible for the primitive geometries of cubes and the like, the result has been a limited architectural vocabulary with repetitive variations of the same result over and over again. Lately, the cubes have been transformed by squashing and twisting their sides, and even replacing their edges with spline shapes. Formerly glass walls now almost disappear by transforming into “trendy” wire meshes. Yet for all the apparent novelty, the result is still a transformation of a relatively primitive early industrial pattern.


Transformations of the Piazza San Marco in Venice that preserve structural wholeness over about 200 years, part of a larger series over 1,000 years as shown by Christopher Alexander in his book, “The Nature of Order” (Volume 2, page 254). At every step in its history, the city was a complete whole — not an incomplete set of parts waiting to be assembled.

To attain an innovative, adaptive architecture, therefore, designers have to abandon the old “geometrically fundamentalist” patterns. But like other kinds of fundamentalism, this way of thinking is extremely seductive. It’s difficult for practitioners and students trained in an ideology of “neophilia” within the Modernist typological straitjacket to recognize, or even accept, the value of transformation from older precedents. (We have discussed fascinating research that helps to explain this phenomenon in our essay “Architectural Myopia”.) This point bears emphasis, since it has important implications for sustainable design. It is ironic that many designers today (especially architects) believe it is automatically “reactionary” and “not creative” to use transformations from the vast pool of precedents before about 1920.

But as this discussion suggests, such a prohibition mistakes creativity for novelty. It does so on the basis of an almost century-old (and as we now see, scientifically unsound) theory of design. In fact, recapitulation is precisely the way that natural systems achieve their high degree of diversity, adaptation, and resilience in the face of environmental shocks. We suggest that the most radical advancement now, in an age of biological complexity, is to use the best precedents from any source freely, and then to apply the processes of creative transformation. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the greatest design renaissances in history did exactly this. And yet, contemporary design seems focused upon transformations that drastically reduce the degree of order — a contraction or collapse in mathematical terms.

Our world is full of examples: replacing dense 19th century urban fabric of four-storey buildings with “towers in the park”; “renovating” a historic urban space by inserting a “contemporary” pavilion, concrete benches, and a giant abstract sculpture; cutting down century-old trees to widen a road or lay down a parking lot; replacing thriving integrated cities with sprawling landscapes of mechanical, “composed” objects. The lesson is that if we want an environment with life — one that in turn nourishes our own life — we need new design skills and methods for transforming wholes, and, where possible, for enhancing the degree of complex order. This is the way natural systems “design” — and it appears, this is the way we had better learn to design too, if we want to be a healthy species in the future.

Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Currently he is a Sir David Anderson Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, a Visiting Faculty Associate at Arizona State University; a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Chris Alexander’s research center founded in 1967; and a strategic consultant on international projects, currently in Europe, North America and South America.

Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonioand is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in ItalyMexico, and The Netherlands.

Read more posts from Michael and Nikos here.

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