Imagine a concentric form somewhat like a solar sytem, or perhaps ripples in a pond. In the middle is where the flurry of events in the real world take place.

Closest to the middle is where living things react. It is direct, unconscious stimulus-response, taking in a stream of data and immediately doing something with it, like swatting a mosquito. Everything else about the environment is assumed, and everything happens very quickly — there isn't much time for contemplation.

Farther out from the epicentre, we encounter a place in which creatures can anticipate to an extent. This is a place of proactive execution. The data become information about which method to select, but the methods, objectives and epistemology are still taken for granted.

Farther still, and with enough economic abundance to afford to sit and cogitate, information becomes knowledge. An agent can take an inventory of materials and methods and combine them to generate new methods to bring novel forms into existence, but the what and the why are still assumed. This is engineering.

Beyond engineering, and padded by greater wealth and opportunity, knowledge becomes understanding. Here, an individual can refine engineered form to a precise fit — to consider every detail and remove all extraneous parts, yielding a potentially unprecedented result. Why these forms ought to exist, however, is still assumed. This is design.

Insulated at the apex of abstraction from the minutiae of the real world is when and where we can afford to contemplate what it means to do everything else. Understanding lends its way to wisdom. Meaning and purpose are established in the ruminations of philosophy.

As we gain more resources, we extend farther out into abstraction. It becomes necessary to put significant effort into the way deploy them. A visual representation of this system would probably look like this:

Diagram of concentric circles intended to represent increasing ambient economic wealth and concomitant abstraction from everyday affairs.

I am considering these terms not as roles but rather as states through which we all transit at one time or another. How far we can travel from the centre is mediated by ambient economic abundance. Simply put, the less time you spend worrying about feeding yourself, the more you can devote to more abstract pursuits. The less chance there is of your town being bombed or invaded, the more incentive there is to build longer-term structures. Note that this is ambient wealth rather than personal fortune — the general abundance in the vicinity. You only need to sequester just enough surplus to have, and then realize, an idea. Of these abstractions, design has scarcely been more universally accessible, and universally important, than it is today.

The historical connection between design and wealth shows up in our predilection toward associating design with decoration. For most of our existence, a fabricated object was the direct, end-to-end result of at least one person's labour. Greater wealth equated to more effort, so heaped-on decoration became a status symbol. Consider Gothic architecture or Chippendale sofas. By the time we hit mass-production and modernism, the object itself became the decoration. You purchased a designed object because it showed you could afford something more than what was merely engineered.

Now, however, we are up to our eyes in abundance. Design has shifted from the province of luxury to necessity. We can no longer afford to merely concentrate on the how; we have graduated to the what, and are rapidly approaching the why. Objects now have a life cycle — it matters where they come from and where they go. We no longer trade goods, but experiences. We are in no immediate danger save for the constant onslaught of information and stuff. Our true peril is ephemeral at present but carries terrifying inertia. Our safest bet is to proactively design our future.

This originated as a comment on GOOD, which I revised and expanded. I drew the associated image some weeks prior to writing this piece. The hierarchy of data, information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom came from a presentation by Dee Hock, resurrected by Linda Stone.