Design’s Ontological Transition

Designing Transitions
3 min readJul 2, 2020


The following is an excerpt of a dialogue between Jon Osborne and Kirsty Moegerlein about the need for a shift in our understanding about design, prompted by Kirsty’s PhD on desining transitions.


Transition (noun)
the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another

The above definition of transition has a smoothness — a kind of implied movement from one thing to another, that masks the reality of transition in practice. In contrast, in this research I have attempted to depict the winding and messy aspects of ontological transitions. I have traced the key insights that emerged through my search for an expanded practice. This has not enabled me to discover solutions to the ecological crisis that we are facing, rather it has provided me with a way of reorientating my practice and travelling with others, in the pursuit of different ways of being-knowing-&-doing. In doing so, this PhD research seeks to provide a practice-orientated methodology for documenting and analysing transitions in practice that are concerned with ways of designing and ways of orientating oneself in relation to others and the broader ecological crisis. I refer to this process of transition as designing in transition.
(Moegerlein 2019, 134)

Jon: I agree — a transition is not a linear, blended process of change between one state and another. A transition involves the search for an expanded practice, a reorientation of our practice and a reconfiguration with others. In transition, we pursue different ways of knowing, being and doing which lead to a reorientation to our practice, others, and the world.

Design, then, is not a process or methodology to learn, or a framework to apply. Design describes an ontological transition. It’s not an adding on to the way we see the world, a coping strategy or a technique to improve our effectiveness. Instead, it involves the generation of new perspectives.

This involves learning, which can be defined as the taking on of new perspectives. What is the source of these new perspectives?

One helpful interpretation is provided by Humberto Maturana and his work on the biology of cognition. His research suggests that we live as self generating, independent bodies that can only exist in networks of relationship with one-another. Independent, and reliant on connection. All learning, according to Maturana, is a reconfiguration of our nervous system which, from a biological point of view, generates new ways of seeing. Key to his claim is the realisation that from a biological point of view, the world cannot be “seen” in the objective sense, but only perceived according to the configuration of our own nervous system.

Based on Maturana’s interpretation, learning predisposes us to observe in new ways; to see things it was not biologically possible to see before. True learning literally causes us to develop new abilities to see. As a result of learning, we are able to see things that previously we could not.

New seeing requires an ontological reorientation. This involves embracing and engaging with the new world disclosed to us. We use the term Ontological Design because we presume a level of agency in producing a new way of seeing. Not only agency, but also responsibility.

Let’s talk some more about Ontological Design. You can get in touch with us here or here.

Moegerlein, K. 2019. Designing in Transition: Towards Intimacy in Ecological Uncertainty. PhD Dissertation. RMIT.

Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francesco. The Tree of Knowledge.



Designing Transitions

Joining the dots — marks made from a dialogue between Kirsty Moegerlein & Jon Osborne on ontological design – designing new ways of being, doing and seeing