The Actual and the Virtual in Design

A Deleuzian interpretation of the design practice

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Our actual is shrouded by darkness with specks of the virtual forming our essential reality

The title of this piece could be rather misleading, especially if the reader happens to be acquainted with me or my work. To avoid confusion, this piece is not a discussion of the place of the tangible three-dimensional artefact against the place of the digital two-dimensional artefact as outcomes of the design practice. It is a discussion of the actual and the virtual as discussed in Gille Deleuze’s short and hurriedly executed piece in the book Dialogues(1). The choppiness of this text and the lack of the typical Deleuzian rigour of explanation affords a great deal of generative thought and interpretation to fill the ambiguous voids with.

This idea is best exhibited in our species. At our very cores we are just beings, like so many other visible and invisible beings that do the same things as us i.e; just exist. The virtual images we surround ourselves with are the image of “human”, the image of “male” or “female”, the image of “sentient” and so on.

Amidst the many other ways of interpreting Deleuze’s statement(2), I choose to interpret it with an analogous concept from the discipline of semiotics to make it immediately pertinent to the practice of design. In his “Elements of Semiology”(3), Roland Barthes speaks of the idea of denotation and connotation in relation to the signifier and the signified respectively. The essence of this concept is easily demonstrated with the following example. Imagine, I were to nail four pieces of wood along their edges and place it before you, calling it a frame. You decide to place a mug of coffee on it and call it a coffee table. The denotation of the wooden object was that of a frame while your connotation of it was that of a coffee table.

Now, as Deleuze proceeds to point out, there is no end to the creation of virtual images. Each individual virtual image has its own series of virtual images and this goes on for as long as a virtual image and its seed actual object are exposed. This gradual expansion of interpretability occurs on what is referred to as the plane of immanence (ontologically) by Deleuze and the plane of expression (semiotically) by Barthes.

Further, it is important to understand that each virtual image, in this infinite series, affects the actual object, slowly dissolving the object into a virtual image. This essentially distorts the clear demarcation of the actual and the virtual. The virtual however, is inconsistent and subject to change. It has a temporal inconsistency that is dictated by the ethos in which it is created and subsequently exists. I would contend that it is this sublimity that makes the virtual so much more alluring to us. If all of us acknowledged that our essence lies in the fact that we just exist, life would be pretty boring and we might just as well take the course of terminating it. The virtual helps me reinvent myself depending on where I am and how people respond to my presence. There is no commitment to the virtual image because we know that it can be erased.

To understand how the concept of the actual and the virtual is influential to our understanding of the design practice, we must acknowledge that the genesis and evolution of design itself is ephemeral and virtual. Design began as a form of applied art and, before we knew it, it had become a container for technology and quickly metamorphosed into a pseudo-business practice with a range of methods and four-letter acronyms(4). Ever since it entered our consciousness, design practice has existed in the realm of the volatile virtual.

There are two issues with the designer’s submissiveness to the virtual images of design praxis as discussed in the following passages.

Firstly, the actual object of design has never been discovered. One might contend that it has been discovered but there is no consensus on the actual; And there the contender’s argument collapses. The actual can only have two states of relationship with our consciousness — we are either aware of it or we are unaware of it. The existence of the actual is unquestionable because the virtual is inherently a product of the actual in interaction with other actual objects or virtual images. Our unconsciousness off the actual object of design questions the relevancy of our constructed virtual images. We are somnambulistically sauntering through a series of virtual interpretations of what design is. To put this in perspective imagine calling something a table without being able to see the table. There is nothing to establish the reality of our interpretations(5). As discussed previously, the actual and the virtual exist on the same planes of immanence much like the denoted and the connoted exist on the same plane of expression. The designer’s unconsciousness of the actual object of their practice leaves a boundless plane of expression and/or immanence. This is highly problematic especially for a practice like design that is applied increasingly to envisioning our transition from a present state to a future state.

Secondly, our virtual images are not selected by us as sovereign practitioners but by people who tell us which image we must represent. This is not limited to design but to our very condition as beings navigating strata of complex social constructs. It is our willingness to let others choose the virtual images of ourselves that have led to toxic ideas like “women should be temperamentally subdued and physically petite” “white is better than black” and “one’s aspirations should be at par with one’s means”. Within society, these virtual images are selected and sanctified by devices of the capitalists — politicised religious organisations, governments, advertising companies and the fictitious “law” to name a few(6). For us designers, the virtual images are selected by those who keep our jobs alive and those who continue to make us relevant — consultancies, institutions and the fictitious “user”(7). One might argue that we are all fighting a losing battle of survival and that drives us to accept the virtual images thrust upon us. However, we must be more conscious upon whom we bestow the power to make that choice and which image, from the plethora available, do we select to align ourselves with and, finally, question our choice continuously to identify ourselves, with accountability, within that choice.

Considering the actual and the virtual and their contextual application to design practice brings about a very relevant question — what is the need for design? Or, better still, what is the function of design practice? Some of us allude its function as being one of problem-solving. Others identify it with a sense of empowerment, others find it a medium of expression while still others see its function as a means to an end. These are all reflections of the virtual images that represent our own volatility in our practice. The virtual is not villainous. It is, indeed, the very thing that uplifts the actual. But a baseless virtual and a boundless plane of immanence can cause grave consequences that are a by-product of our somnambulism to critically discovering our practice.

Maybe, in the end, that is the very integral function of design… to challenge the ephemeral virtual images that are thrust upon us.


  1. Deleuze, Gille and Parnet, Claire — Dialogues, 1977
  2. To cite a few possible interpretations — Metaphysically, one could interpret it as the dichotomy of essence(actual) vs. idea(virtual) (from Baruch Spinoza in Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione). Linguistically, it is comparable to the difference between the meaning(actual) and the word(virtual).
  3. Barthes, Roland — Elements of Semiology, 1986 (Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith)
  4. For those interested in a comprehensive design history, I strongly recommend Carma Gorman’s “The Industrial Design Reader”. While it does take up the case of industrial design as an individual practice, the range of authors represented include more traditional figures like Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Raymond Loewy to very unlikely figures such as Richard Nixon, Nikita Khrushchev and an article from the Fortune. This breadth lends us a broader view of the general ethos and pathos of the designer as practitioner
  5. There is, what might seem like, a rather obvious loophole in this line of thought. I began this essay saying that we, as individuals attached to an identity, are virtual images. One might very well contend that if we are virtual images attempting to interpret the actual object of design, aren’t we not diluting the actual object. This would be an astute and accurate observation but not a loophole. It is this very phenomenon that essentially describes our condition of multiplicity. Deleuze supports my rationale here with his opening sentence to the essay “The actual and the virtual” — “[Philosophy] is the theory of multiplicities, each of which is composed of actual and virtual elements.” We know enough about ourselves to understand that the word philosophy, in the above statement, can very well be replaced by any other and preserve the logical correctness of the statement
  6. A few things are worth noting in this statement. I do not believe that religiosity is a detriment to our existence. Religious institution pollutes religiosity and spirituality as it becomes another device of the state that can be manipulated to further an agenda. Additionally, I refer to the law as “fictitious” because the law is a series of irrational ideals that give us the illusion of protection and false ideas of an objective judgement (something even God does not promise us)
  7. The word “user” is problematic both to the practice of design and to me at a personal level. The user, in most cases, is used by the designer as an alibi for decisions made and eventually as the subject of an experiment and the subject of miseries that we capitalise on

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Design Poet | Artist | Philomath

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