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Exformation (originally spelled eksformation in Danish) is a term originally coined by Danish science writer Tor Nørretranders in his book The User Illusion published in English 1998. It is meant to mean explicitly discarded information.[1]

In 2017, the concept was redefined by Kenya Hara (原 研哉, Hara Ken'ya, born 1958), a Japanese graphic designer who teaches Communication Design and Design Theory at the Design Faculty of Musashino Art University (武蔵野美術大学, Musashino Bijutsu Daigaku) in Tokyo. Hara first proposed the concept to his students, postulating the co-development of a novel method of communication through design, a communication method by making things unknown.[2]

In 2020, exformation was again reformulated by the Belgian educationist and learner experience designer Francis Laleman, who positioned the concept as exformative learning, a particular type of cooperative learning based on collectivized intuition, systemic exploration, and making things unknown.[3]

Exformation as proposed by Tor Nørretranders[edit]

Effective communication depends on a shared body of knowledge between the persons communicating. In using words, sounds, and gestures, the speaker has deliberately thrown away a huge body of information, though it remains implied. This shared context is called exformation.

Exformation is everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when, or before, we say anything at all - whereas information is the measurable, demonstrable utterance we actually come out with.

If someone is talking about computers, what is said will have more meaning if the person listening has some prior idea what a computer is, what it is good for, and in what contexts one might encounter one. From the information content of a message alone, there is no way of measuring how much exformation it contains.

Examples Consider the following phrase: "the best horse at the race is number 7". The information carried is very small, if considered from the point of view of information theory: just a few words. However if this phrase was spoken by a knowledgeable person, after a complex study of all the horses in the race, to someone interested in betting, the details are discarded, but the receiver of the information might get the same practical value of a complete analysis.

In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Misérables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote "?" in his message, to which his publisher replied "!", to indicate it was selling well. This exchange of messages would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. The amount of information (a single character) was extremely small, and yet because of exformation a meaning is clearly conveyed.

Thought, argues Nørretranders, is in fact a process of chucking away information, and it is this detritus (happily labeled exformation) that is crucially involved in automatic behaviours of expertise (riding a bicycle, playing the piano), and which is therefore the most precious to us as people.

— The Guardian, September 1998

Exformation and subtext[edit]

Intimately related to Nørretranders' concept of exformation is subtext: any content of a creative work which is not announced explicitly (by characters or author) but is implicit, or intuitively understood by the audience. While subtext exists hidden beneath and can be missed in conversational processes because it is internal to the speaker or writer, exformation is hidden alongside.[4]

Subtext is understood to require social skills such as empathy and active listening to figure out. In contrast, exformation requires systemic skills such as interbeing and associations.

Ex-formation as practiced by Kenya Hara[edit]

The Japanese designer and design teacher Kenya Hara started exploring the concept of ex-formation in Designing Design[5] before submitting the idea as a project to his students. In contrast to information, exformation describes how little we really know and thus becomes the starting point for any type of design. In Ex-formation (2015) Kenya Hara collects what exformation can look like in design practice and how this concept alters our classic understanding of information design. Following the path embarked on in Designing Design (...), Ex-formation continues to explore the void, absence and indeterminacy in contemporary design. Each year, roughly a dozen students come together at the prestigious Musashino Art University, joining Hara in an attempt to make things unknown. Ex-formation presents their collective efforts, resulting in a book of incredibly beautiful, humorous and thought-provoking design and writing.[6]

Exformative learning as described by Francis Laleman[edit]

In 2020, the Belgian, Singapore-based educationist Francis Laleman brought exformation to the education and systemic design fields, where it replaces the information-driven and instructional banking model of education and its focus on learning for the status quo (Paolo Freire, 1970)[7] with an experience-based design model, directed at self-realization and the exploration of possibilities as yet hidden in the unknown (Laleman, 2020). Exformative design, then, is a discipline explicitly driven by the love for exploring the unknowns in the context of boundless systemic interaction - and exformative action is immersion into the system and realizing an ever-changing, adaptive self at the inside of it.[8]

Resourceful exformation[edit]

In Laleman's work exformation is both a design practice and a facilitation method.

As a design practice, it replaces classic instructional design: Exformative design is ex-structional design. It implies transformation of the already known into the possibilities enshrined in the as yet unknown.[9] In practice, this means that the student learning objectives are either absent or formulated during the process by means of participatory design. Learning needs (formerly identified through training needs analysis or TNA) are recognized as temporary artifacts and replaced by a sequence of just-enoughs and just-in-times, or user stories at best. Learning is offered to learning groups (cooperative learning) with members as diverse and intergenerational as possible, in short iterations, each followed by a learning review and a retrospective. Learners act on invitation and voluntary participation, which leads to a high level of meaningful engagement. Exformative learning design has no learning agenda (expressed as nagenda); instead, a dynamic learning backlog is used—a concept taken from the Scrum framework for software development. In brief, exformative learning design is based on incremental iterations of structural activities, from which, at the end of each iteration, learning is extracted,[10] Exformation is designing for constant design - a concept taken from the Canadian designer Bruce Mau[11][12]

As a facilitation method, exformation implies the substitution of a teacher by a facilitator or practitioner of organizational facilitation - a practice taken from organizational development (OD). The facilitator's task is to be as invisible as possible, while creating the conditions to help the learning process be made easy (from the French facile). This is done by offering explorative activities, often based on the principles of play-based learning (Learning through play), and generally creating a sense of not-knowing, from which at the review stage (at the end of each iteration) learning outcomes are extracted.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nørretranders, Tor (1998). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. New York: Viking. ISBN 0-670-87579-1.
  2. ^ Hara, Kenya (2015). Ex-formation. Oslo: Lars Mueller. ISBN 978-3-03778-466-2.
  3. ^ Laleman, Francis (2020). Resourceful Exformation: Some Thoughts on the Development of Resourcefulness in Humans. Beyond Borders Publishers. ISBN 979-8-6244-6789-7.
  4. ^ Seger, Linda (2011). Writing Subtext. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Production. ISBN 9781932907964.
  5. ^ Hara, Kenya (2007). Designing Design. Oslo: Lars Mueller. p. 472. ISBN 978-3-03778-450-1.
  6. ^ Mueller, Lars. "Ex-formation". Lars Mueller Publishers. Lars Mueller Publishers. Retrieved 2023-12-05.
  7. ^ Freire, Paolo (1970). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.
  8. ^ Laleman, Francis (2022). "Confronting legacies of oppression in education: Narrative Patterns and Exformative Design in Cooperative Learning". RSD11 - Relating Systems Thinking and Design. 2022 Symposium, Brighton (UK) (RSD11 Paper 98): 14.
  9. ^ Laleman, Francis (2020). Resourceful Exformation: Some Thoughts on the Development of Resourcefulness in Humans. Beyond Borders Publishers. p. 30. ISBN 979-8-6244-6789-7.
  10. ^ Laleman, Francis (2020). Resourceful Exformation: Some Thoughts on the Development of Resourcefulness in Humans. Beyond Borders Publishers. p. 29. ISBN 979-8-6244-6789-7.
  11. ^ Laleman, Francis (2020). "Confronting Legacies of Oppression in Education: Narrative Patterns and Exformative Design in Cooperative Learning" (PDF). RSD11 - Relating Systems Thinking and Design. 2022 Symposium, Brighton (UK) (11): 8. Retrieved 2023-12-05.
  12. ^ Mau, Bruce (2020). MC24: Bruce Mau's 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in Your Life and Work. London: Phaidon Press Ltd. p. 375. ISBN 978-1-83866-050-5.
  13. ^ Laleman, Francis (2020). Resourceful Exformation: Some Thoughts on the Development of Resourcefulness in Humans. Beyond Borders Publishers. p. 55. ISBN 979-8-6244-6789-7.