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AFTER "4 Orders of Design"

Updated: Jun 5

Making Sense of Design / Design Thinking

Humantific Cofounder GK VanPatter contributes to a peer review conversation in NextD Journal. The question: Is there an intervention geography beyond communities, countries, planet?

GK VanPatter:

We left the logic of "Four Orders of Design" back in 2005 2006...Find out why: Of all the various subjects that we have taken on as professional sensemakers, among the most difficult was the subject of design for rising complexity, which evolved 2005-2020 to incorporate design thinking. Central to us tackling the subject was understanding the 1991 framework, often referred to as “Four Orders of Design” created by Professor Richard Buchanan. We would not have been able to flesh out and explain the ecology of the subject without coming to terms with the strengths and weaknesses of “Four Orders”. We did so in 2005-2006 as practitioners rather than as academics.

At that time, it was not difficult to see that the magic thinking aspects of “Four Orders” was being used in numerous graduate academic circles as a quasi-rationale for not recognizing need for change. There were NO change drivers inside “Four Orders,” which seemed to well suit the academic community..:-)

Ultimately suggesting a need to move beyond “Four Orders of Design” was not an easy lift for us in 2005-2006 but essentially, we saw, from a practice perspective, that the subject had essentially moved on from what was described there.

With the “orders” concept being rather esoteric and a little murky it was not difficult to see that “Interaction Design” and “Environments Design” did not represent the boundaries of what was being depicted as the furthest extension of design, its ultimate “4th order”. That was essentially a dated straight-jacket, that no longer applied to where leading practices were already operating in 2005-2006.

Upon close examination other difficult oddities popped up in “Four Orders” that also flew in the face of basic practice knowledge. There seemed to be several elephants in that living room.

The suggestion that a “2nd order” consisted of “Problems of Construction” while a “3rd order” consisted of “Problems of Action” and a “4th order” was “Problems of integration” did not map to any real world understanding of problems or problem intervention that we knew of.:-)

To suggest that those were the distinctions that represented “orders” did not ring true to practice. All problem interventions contain construction, action and integration. We did not consider those to be “orders”.

In addition, “signs, things, actions, thoughts” could be/can be found in most problem types…so again, with all due respect, not differentiated “orders”.

Furthermore in “Four Orders” we saw no descriptions/admission of how methods change across the “4 orders”. Instead, the suggestion that design was/is a form of transcendent magic thinking, capable of spanning across all orders prevailed. As practitioners we recognized that was folklore, philosophy not actual methodology.

When we looked at the often-cited project examples in design literature using the terms “Four Orders of Design,” "4th order", and “wicked problems” we saw primarily routine product design projects…not fuzzy, high complexity and not wicked problems.

Difficult subject: There is probably no other design related framework that has created so much cascading confusion and resistance to design education change as “Four Orders.”

Having said that we did note in our earlier comments that seeding confusion and resistance to change was probably not Dr. Buchanan’s original intention. From our earlier origins post: "To be fair to Dr. Buchanan it seemed unlikely to us that he intended his 1991 Four Orders framework to be cited for decades by slow to adapt design educators as a quasi-rationale for why no meaningful strategic change was needed in design education."

From our practice perspective, not only did the 1991 “Four Orders” not hold water in 2005-2006 but it was then and is now adding many layers of disorienting, misleading time-change-clock progression confusion that was serving to block true understanding of where design and related graduate education actually was/is, thus acting as a barrier to change.

Among other things “Four Orders” depicted a design community already operating in deeply complex situations, with methods all in sync, backed up by graduate design education programs when that was clearly not the case. In short, “Four Orders of Design” was being used to convey a false narrative, primarily in the graduate design education community. "Four Orders" had become a form of Kool-Aid more so than a timely organizing ecology.


Since our book mission was in part to make sense of the subject in order to point out an emerging future, we determined that rather than adding a 5th “order” in 2005-2006 it would be more meaningful to rethink the logic and introduce a different, less esoteric organizing principle for viewing the community ecology.

Out of that realization and our practice-based interest in challenge complexity came the NextD Geographies Framework. It set aside the Kool-Aid of design as a form of magic thinking.

Its premise is simple: As challenges scale in complexity different tools, methods and skills are needed. In fuzzy, highly complex situations what the challenges actually are is not known at the outset. Not knowing has significant impact on the skills and tools needed. That simple shift, was a vastly different orientation away from the traditional design notion of “briefs.”

While “Four Orders” was widely interpreted to (conveniently) imply that no change was needed in design and related education, NextD Geographies made it clear that change was needed if/when the goal is to operate in the context of increasing complexity. At that time that picture conflicted with several streams of academic narrative. Some remain in conflict.

Without anyone’s permission, NextD Geographies Framework recast the geographies for design and shifted the emphasis away from folklore, acknowledging that the skills of Arena 1 are vastly different from those required in Arena 3, organizational changemaking and Arena 4, societal changemaking. In NextD Geographies Arena 4 is described as focused in the societal challenges of “communities, countries, planet”.

Due to its reformulation, NextD Geographies in essence lit the fire under graduate design education and made the various spinning narratives around product, service and experience design transparent. Not everyone was thrilled by that clarity but more seem to be getting it now.

Today NextD Geographies Framework is central to not only how we make sense of this messy subject but to aiding understanding of its progressions, setbacks, red-herrings and variations. Conversations on the subject of design tend to go around in circles without an ecology framework being present.


For those who might not have studied the subject closely, and or missed that fork in then road the 1991 “4th order” from “Four Orders” has been inside Arena 2 in the reformulated NextD Geographies since 2006.

The emerging practice community has been operating far beyond that particular "4th order" for at least a decade. Organizational ChangeMaking (Arena 3) and Societal ChangeMaking (Arena 4) is not “Interaction Design”, is not “Environmental Design”. Although we have been writing about Arena 3 and Arena 4 for more than a decade most of the traditional design community, including much of graduate design education remains in Arena 1 and Arena 2. Much of the online discussions regarding “Design Thinking” including on the wildly popular Design Thinking Group on LinkedIn assume Arena 2, product, service, experience design orientation and logic. To say that another way, most of those LinkedIn discussions do not reflect where the emerging practice community already is and has been for some time. In brief, with all due respect, if you want to understand where design is, where graduate design education is and isn't, set aside the “Four Orders of Design” magic thinking Kool-Aid. BIG PICTURE TODAY

At the end of the day what does all of that mean? To grasp the big picture of today its useful to imagine vastly different adaptive, time change clocks progressing at very different speeds in the various neighborhoods of design practice and especially in graduate design education. Some change clocks move rapidly, some very slowly, some don’t move, some go backwards. Many layers of adaptive time change clocks moving at different speeds, but not acknowledged, is part of the engrained, somewhat hidden complexity of the design community of communities. The subject being so huge it is never really just in one place. All of that helps us process and place Ai and other importations. While we celebrate the arrival and practical applications of Ai we do not get that confused with geographies. As earth shattering as it will no doubt become, Ai is not a geography but rather an approach, a set of automating tools that can be applied in different ways to Arenas 1, 2, 3 and 4. Similarly, sustainability, is not in itself a geography but rather an increasingly important consideration within all of the Arenas. Likewise for systems thinking, not a geography but rather an approach to be applied across the Arenas. It seems likely that various versions of Ai will become part of the skill-to-scale picture within each geography. Still in its infancy, right now we see a lot of Ai, being described/applied as a “game-changer” in the context of Arena 2, product option generation, as in; show me 100 different versions of a toothbrush/car. It is particularly good at framed divergence. How Ai is capable of contributing to the complex, human-oriented changemaking work of Arena 3 and 4 is at this point, less clear. Lots of folks are trying to figure that one out in real time that is now moving rapidly. In the context of complexity, some new skills will arrive and others will fall away. Being adaptive capacity focused, years ago Humantific connected SenseMaking to ChangeMaking so we are among the folks wrestling with how to make use of Ai in those consulting contexts, taking into consideration its various privacy and accuracy issues. Recently we have been looking at whether-or-not Ai is capable of the rather complex task of real-time, cocreated open challenge framing which is not straight forward divergence. So far, the jury is out on that one. We are looking at what Ai can and cannot do as an in-motion subject. DESIGN EDUCATION IMPLICATIONS In closing, returning to the possibility of and or need for a Design / Design Thinking Arena 5: Lets acknowledge that there is finally a general, already identified need to move design beyond the assumptions of product, service and experience design. In our last book we contributed a list of 25 shifts related to graduate design education and proposed a new model better suited to the complexity arenas.

However, one might choose to slice, dice and package up that shift, whatever ingredients you want to add, whether you want to talk orders, evolutions or geography shifts, the need for change, for more skills geared to complexity contexts in design is certainly there. Clearly retweaking "double diamond" is not going to get the job done. Multiple robust changemaking trains now exist. Many more will no doubt be arriving. Will there be Ai enhanced, sensemaking enhanced, sustainability enhanced, systems thinking enhanced, open challenge framing enhanced, life-centered enhanced versions of Arena 3 and Arena 4 practices along with related skill-building programs? Most likely many variations yes. Some versions have added one dimension referenced above. Some think adding systems thinking is the silver bullet. Other versions integrate multiple dimensions. How quickly that occurs more broadly in its many variations depends on the various adaptive, time change clocks progressions, or lack there-of. Already in motion in some neighborhoods, expect a lot of repeating starting points along the way. Expect lots of crossed signals, some competitive overwriting, some resistance, some hostility, some objections, some stonewalling, some big leaps, some hope and hopefully more clarity. Some of the present narratives around hyping Arena 2 as meta will likely, hopefully dissipate during such movement. More folks are starting to get there is no more time left for going around in circles with Kool-Aid and the spinning of Arena 2 methods. Time to get real as that big clock in the planet earth sky is surely ticking. Is there a geography beyond communities, countries, planet? Being big Star Trek fans, we penciled in the possibility of a country-less, galaxy spanning Arena 5 in our book but if we take the super slow community time clock progression around the current Arena 2 fixation as any indication, it seems likely that a galaxy spanning version of design is not likely on the near horizon. That does not preclude the exercise of thoughtfully thinking about what it might consist of. Let’s keep in mind that the planet itself needs our full attention at this time. Setting aside the Kool-Aid, the gap between the methods of Arena 2 and the increasingly complex challenges facing organizations and our communities remains significant. Lots of work still to do there. Strategic design requires significant progression, including Arena 3 and Arena 4 methods, if it seeks to engage the complexities that now exist. Good luck to all.

You can find the original conversation on the NextD Journal site: ADVANCING DESIGN FOR COMPLEXITY ORIENTATIONS: Other contributors included (in alphabetical order) Alan Arnett (UK), Steven Forth (Canada), Arvind Lodaya (India), Sunil Malhotra (India), Elizabeth Pastor (USA/Spain), Tiiu Poldma (Canada), Roger James (UK), Wolfgang Jonas (Germany), GK VanPatter (USA).

Previously Published Related:

NextD Journal: Islands of Coherence: How We Make Sense of Don Norman's Making Sense of Design


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