Fourth Order Design

The landscape of design has been shifting for some time, with design educators, theorists, authors and practitioners exploring the role and contribution of design. Professor Richard Buchanan is credited with naming the shift in the challenges Design is applied to, in his 1992 paper ‘Wicked Problems in Design Thinking’ [75], where he outlines four orders with growing scale and complexity.

Various responses have been offered to the ‘Four Orders’ over the years, with key contributions from VanPatter & Pastor [76] which identified skills needed in the different orders of design, and Golsby-Smith in his 1996 article ‘Fourth Order Design: A Practical Perspective’ [77], which challenges the idea of domains, and focuses on the way in which designers work and how they take accountability for the success (or failure) of their actions.

Golsby-Smith claims that culture and community are the subject matter of fourth order design and adds that the Designer’s role is to widen the scope of enquiry to better achieve success:

“the fourth order designer moves the boundary of the task out to encompass the issues of "Why are we doing this task?" and, in answering this question, "What does it tell us about our identity and value?". Similarly, the fourth order designer also will move the scope of the task out to encompass connected systems and activities; to achieve integration so that the product does not operate as a fragment in the world, but within useful and viable patterns. Finally, the fourth order designer widens the scope of this practical task to include the people involved in creating and using the product (i.e., the product decisions are not taken in isolation; nor are they driven primarily by the creative lone voice of the designer; but are developed in discussion with a sense of growing purpose and commitment.”

Tony Golsby-Smith

As The Design Collective (a collective of highly respected Design theorists) highlight in their positioning paper ‘DesignX’, the contribution of design to the wider world, beyond products and services, could be that “when combined with the knowledge and expertise of specialized disciplines, these design methods provide powerful ways to develop practical approaches to large, complex issues” [78].

As I became more active in fourth order design work, I found both power and limitations in how human-centered design (HCD) methods (Norman, 1988 [79]; Rouse, 1991 [80]) had come to be practiced in industry. Whilst there was a strong need to better understand the experiences and needs of humans and to center them in the services and systems I was designing, I found the HCD methods to be overly reductionist of the complexity which they were being used to understand.

The drive of HCD methods to isolate problems and solve them, is characteristic of the Western problem-solving mindset (solutionism) which has enabled so much progress, and caused so much destruction - much of which the environmental conservation sector itself is battling with.

“When we set out to produce solutions, we tend to narrow our field of view in a way that makes us blind to underlying causes, and blind to the seeds of something better that already exist in the situation. They offer the chance to feed the possibilities, which is much different than fixing the problems.”

Marc Rettig, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University

In adapting my own practice to better acknowledge the complexity of the world we operate in, I worked with the insights and methods associated with complexity science (Boulton, 2015 [82]), systems thinking (Meadows, 2015 [83]; Taleb, 2014 [84]) and social change (Kahane, 2010 [85]; Hassan, 2014 [86]; Manzini, 2015 [87]; Brown, 2017 [88]).

Carnegie Mellon University defines Design for Social Innovation as “the design of new products, services, processes and policies that meet a social need more effectively than existing solutions” [89]. In recognising the breadth and depth of this definition, I identified the emerging practice of Strategic Design (Anna Meroni, 2008 [90]; Dan Hill, 2014 [91]; Helsinki Design Lab, 2014 [92]; Nesta, 2017 [93]) as a subset of Design for Social Innovation, and an area of my practice which is my strength when it comes to bringing projects to life.

Anna Meroni, Assistant Professor of Service Design and Strategic Design at Politecnico di Milano, posits that Strategic Design practice is about Problem Setting and Problem Solving, during which Product-Service-Systems (PSS) are developed in the context of a changing world. The demand for these new solutions comes from the recognition that destructive, extractive patterns of past systems, will not be appropriate for the societies of tomorrow.

“A PSS is a mix of products, services, communication and people; when conceived to answer a specific need, it is what we call a solution. The strategic design of Product Service Systems shifts the innovation focus from product or service design to an integrated product-service design strategy, orientated to produce solutions.”

Anna Meroni, ‘Strategic Design: where are we now?’ [94]

In applying designerly approaches to the challenges faced in the environmental sector, I recognise the need to integrate with a wide variety of disciplines, geographies and cultures which already co-exist in order to be successful. Through this research, I found this in the work of the Systemic Design Research Network (SDRN) [95], which is attempting to develop a systems-aware design practice. They are developing practice which is rooted in design, that is actively conscious of the complexity of systems that are subject to this practice, not using systems thinking methods grafted onto HCD practice [96]. The SDRN traces lineage of the practice to Buckminster Fuller’s Design Science [97] (an attempt to blend science and design), and the Ulm School of Design (experimental multidisciplinary design).

As SDRN co-organizer, Peter Jones puts forth in the 2017 paper, ‘The Systemic Turn[98]:

“The objective of systemic design is to affirmatively integrate systems thinking and systems methods to guide human-centered design for complex, multi-system, and multi-stakeholder services and programs across society.”