The Flat Earth

Object Oriented Ontology & Interaction Design

Fall-Spring 2013


My graduate thesis was spurred by an exposure to works by scholars trying to think about how we would need to fundamentally alter our ways of thinking about sustainability in order to deal with the prospects of ecological catastrophe and collapse. Pointing to the anthropocentrism and consequent turn to humanism that currently defines all current design practice, I argued that the disciplines preoccupation with the human leads to an insufficient grasp of both artificial and natural systems in all of their complexity, and thus to severely limited ways in which we think about how and what to design, especially in the wake of impending ecological collapse. I speculated: what could design be if it was not human-centered, but thing-centered instead?

To answer this, I turned to two different, yet related bodies of knowledge: The work done by philosophers like Alphonse Lingis, Merleau Ponty, and Don Ihlde’s on fields of perception and action and thingly mediation, and speculative realist philosophy, specifically the object oriented ontological (OOO) approaches espoused by Graham Harman and Ian Bogost. I proposed an outline of ontological design as a practice of exploring ‘the grammar of things’, where the particular aesthetic qualities of an object determine the possibilities and modalities of perception and interaction with the object, showing how this had important consequences for concepts in interaction design like affordances and verisimilitude in style. I ended by proposing that designers explore the perspectives of nonhuman actors interacting within systems as a way to better understand the ways in which they might mediate how we see and act.


For my practicum, I designed two sets of posters explaining my research, highlighting the key philosophers and theorists that I was deriving my concepts from, and linking to online examples of design and art projects that could be construed as illuminating those concepts.

For the second set of posters I also created a conceptual model of the key principles of object oriented design, like ontography, metaphorism, allure, and unities, and their relations to other theories informing systems and interaction design like cybernetics and affordances.

My first poster presenting my secondary research insights. The QR codes linked directly to articles and examples online.
The second set of posters talking about the key applications of OOO to design.

I also developed a toolkit of interactive videos and cards each of which took up an existing interaction or service design concept and redefined it in a object-oriented ontological fashion. Some examples of these concepts are:

Metaphorism: the study of how objects might experience reality by analogy to human experience. Metaphorism can take the form of constructing the umwelt of a device through a narrative, or in how an artifact might show its translation of human activity, as in the case of projects like Tableau Machine.

Ontography: Adapting the term from Graham Harman, the video game designer and theorist Ian Bogost coined the term ontography to describe the practice of creating sets of objects to show their interrelation and co-objectivity. Many different kinds of ontographs exist, from simple lists, to exploded view diagrams which expose the materiality of a unified object through all the parts that constitute it, to ontographic machines like the game Scribblenauts that expose the myriad possible interactions possible through through objects in a given situation.

Autopoiesis: An autopoietic system is one in which all the elements and actors in that system are engaged in interactions that realise the systems own self-perpetuation, where there are is nothing that is being produced in excess to give away to another system. We can consider technological systems as autopoetic in examples like cycling if we consider man and technology as a single entity (the boundary of the system) where the sum total of energy is being fed into the perpetuation of an activity, cycling (the dynamics of the system).

The cards that I used as educational tools. Each gives a quote by a philosopher, and an example, and links to an interactive video.
Some screens from the interactives each illustrating an example or explanation of an OOO concept applied to interaction design.