Design’s (Dis)Orders & Transition Design
Designers have a range of psychological disorders.
Least disputable is their Obsessive Compulsiveness. This excessive concern for detailing derives from design’s craft origins. But where, as David Pye once noted [in The Nature and Art of Workmanship, 1968 & The Nature and Aesthetics of Design, 1978], craftsman celebrate the idiosyncrasies that result from each act of handiwork, including the inevitable imperfections, designers, being the makers of the models that would then be mass manufactured, are fastidious about perfection.
Less acknowledged but present at the very birth of modern design is Meglomania. Both the European origin story, centered around the Bauhaus, and the North American version, as expounded by the Streamliners, argued that modern styles of art derived from new machine forms and materials, when applied to everyday products and environments, could de-traditionalize people, accelerating them into more universal, efficient and rational ways of living. For this reason, everything should be (re)designed: total design.
Clearly, being Bipolar in this way, strung between material detail and metaphysical systems, leads designers to be insufferable Narcissists at some times, and Paranoids at others. They swing maniacally from naïve Optimism about their capacity to improve the quality of anything to hypercritical Pessimism in which nothing is ever good enough.
There is a serious aspect to this probably offensive diagnosis. Design is being called upon, by designers and by constituencies outside of design, to increase its scope of work. Whilst hopefully not a return to modernist design totalism, there is a fairly widespread sense that designing has a relevance and responsibility beyond the kinds of artifacts that these days get called ‘designer.’
There are many ways of conceiving of this expanded field of design though.
The most obvious concerns the scale of the things being designed:
When architects make claims about being capable of Gesamtkunstwerk, they talk about being able to design from doorknobs to streetscapes. The same logic underlies the Saarinen maxim, ‘Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.’
Expansion of design’s remit would then be literally extending the size of thing that designers try to design.
This version of scaling is deceptive though. When an architect builds a building, no matter how big, there is in the end only one building, whereas there might be a million of some product an industrial designer ‘makes.’ That building’s image might circulate widely, and perhaps thousands of people will visit such an iconic piece of architecture, but the number of people who get to experience the building as designed – living and working in it – is comparatively small. By contrast, it’s not just that there are a lot of iPhones, it’s the fact that people with iPhones have them with them almost every minute of the day, other than when they shower. Further, a graphic, designed for an advertisement playing during the Superbowl, will be viewed by millions. A typeface might get used for billions of words over a century. And of course digital platforms might have billions of Daily Active Users each day. In a different way, the design of a component, like an Allen Hex Key or a shipping container, HTML or a file compression algorithm, not only gets used a vast number of times, but becomes the infrastructure for whole industries or technologies.
There are significant differences within these examples of increasing numbers of users. To what extent does the number of users impact the designing? I might be designing a product expected to sell a million units, but the qualitative differences between those million users never enters my awareness when designing – my working assumption is ‘one size fits all.’ Or I might acknowledge that there are a range of people, but deliberately reduce them to one persona to make designing possible. On the other hand, I might try to deliberately design the variability of my target users into what I am developing.
In many ways, Design is the artful science of mass production and mass marketing, so scope widening in this case must refer instead to increasing diversity or time:
(The following all overlap.)
A different version of design’s increasing scope is the fairly well-known ‘Orders of Design’ expounded by Richard Buchanan.
At first, these seem to be scaled, similarly to the lists above, from small to large. There is in fact a vague historicity to the list, since one version of the Orders of Design was published as part of a response to Andrea Branzi’s explorations of what Design after Modernism (this is John Thackara’s phrase) entailed. The background claim is that design evolved from a decorative art focused on styling pre-existing proucts (1st Order), to the designing of the products themselves (2nd Order). In a postindustrializing postmodernist context, designers began to research the contexts of use of their products, with this realm growing into the activity-flow design of ‘user experience’ (3rd Order). The trajectory of this history seems to indicate that the concerns of designers will widen further, deploying soft systems thinking to design organizational and even (trans)national built environments and cultures (4th Order).
As this account indicates, along with the historical enlargement of designing, there is also a qualitative shift in how designing happens. Buchanan used a second axis that was modeled on Francis Bacon’s version of the rhetorical arts. The 1st involves invention or the discovery of persuasive argument; the 2nd involves judging the viability of a proposal to produce something; the 3rd, decision-making with a group of experts about process planning and service strategy; 4th, evaluating wider societal needs.
The version of the Orders developed by Tony Golsby-Smith, a collaborator with Buchanan, foregrounds that the different kinds of designing at each order involve larger scope for each design consultancy, requiring the designer to speak to more people, for longer – and so also, in the increasingly questioning ways that Buchanan’s rhetorical scheme suggests. In the first two orders, the focus of the designer is on the artifact, whether it is a communication or a product. There is a briefing from the client about the nature of the user, but the designer focuses on the mediating artifact. In the third order the designer spends more time on the problem rather than rushing to the artifactual solution, reframing the client’s understandings of the problem as a result of researching what is problematic for the projected market and/or how those people will experience the emerging design. The fourth order reframes the problem further, contemplating organizational change for the client and cultural change for the community.
The NextDesign Leadership Institute has a version of the Orders of Design that appears to be somewhat similar to Golsby-Smith’s:
The NextD scheme emphasizes increasing complexity rather than just increasing scope. There is probably a game of one-upmanship going on here, with claims that one person’s 4 orders are circumscribed in another person’s first 2 or 3 orders, so that the first can claim that their 4th order represents an even greater or more radical expertise.
Most of these models imply a qualitative difference between the first two kinds of designing and the second two. This ‘phase change’ was characterized by Horst Rittel and colleagues with the identification of ‘wicked problems.’ In general these are problems with multiple, conflicting and changing stakeholders for which, as a result, more than half the solution involves the politics of getting those stakeholders to agree on a temporary definition of the problem.
It is worth noting at this point Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, which is aimed more at technological systems management but is being used by Lean UX designers. Appropriately, this model is not linear. There is decreasing controllability in a counter-clockwise direction from the bottom-right, with disorder at the center; however, any project will tend to meander across the domains:
As the designer’s scope expands beyond the delivery of the solution to a well-framed problem, toward more dialogical and researcherly acts of problem-framing and even problem-finding, clearly the nature of the work that the designer does changes. Buchanan was one of the first to explicitly name this new realm ‘design thinking.’ True to form NextD will call its Design 3.0 and 4.0 ‘the other design thinking.’
Buchanan draws on his pragmatic philosophical background to insist that at these higher orders, the designer is attending to more fundamental issues. The increase in scale leads to investigations that also increase in depth or ‘weight,’ in the sense of profundity, or ‘height’ in a Maslowian hierarchy of needs sense.
Importantly, the argument insists that, whilst appearing more philosophical, these issues should still be approached from the perspective of design. There is an insistence that design has, if not in day-to-day commercially constrained work, in essence – as was indicated at the outset of this piece in regard to design’s modernist megalomania – always been about pursuing these more essential matters. Designers work at the level of the human condition, designing what conditions the human.
This is part of the insistence by Buchanan and others that design represents a 21st Century Liberal Art. Design literacy should be a core requirement of all education not for merely pragmatic reasons of enhancing citizenship (whether by being able to understand and argue multi-modally, or by being able to make better informed consumer choices), but because designing and designs are fundamental to what it means to be human. Clive Dilnot for example argues that higher order design comes from full recognition of the total artificiality that the product of designing. The ‘nature’ of humans, the environments they dwell in and depend on, are built environments, designed second natures. Design is then not something to add to previous versions of paideia or Bildung (a well-rounded aesthetic education); rather, it is Design as Logos, Ethos and Pathos (Buchanan), or Design as Liberty, Fraternity, Equality (Alain Findeli).
The more prosaic version of this argument reminds us that when designers move to higher order work, they do not stop doing the lower order work. As with the discussion previously, where a smaller scale design like product design appears to have a larger impact than larger scale design, so it can seem that the significance of lower order forms of designing increases as you undertake higher order design. A product designer must be able to visually communicate physical production and use scenarios. A service designer makes use of a variety of touch-points from communications through interactive devices and fashion (uniforms) to interiors. In situations of high complexity and chaos, sense-making, especially given current conditions of information glut, is a crucial skill. And so on.
Design Thinking at the level of wicked problems does not therefore refer to designers thinking more and differently, and so making less, but rather bringing the thinking that happens through designerly making, whether visual, material or interactional, to those more complex contexts. However, there must be something distinctive about such design thinking, otherwise the results are the sorts of solutionist brainstorms on ‘global challenges’ that have given #designthinking a bad name.
One response has been to insist that design at this level does not happen alone. Design, having matured into its own discipline, with its own research domain and methods, can now participate on an equal footing with other more established disciplines in responding to problems. One instance is the ‘Pathways in Social Design’ matrix which emerged from the 4th Winterhouse Symposium and was elaborated at the Art Center College of Design’s Leap Symposium. This adds an interdisciplinary axis to an axis of increasing scale:
Interestingly, the model looks hierarchical – many of these models imply in a Western base conceptual metaphor way, that you should be aiming to get to the top right – but the Pathways in Social Design models is more a tool for locating the scope of what you are doing – something useful pedagogically for tempering the hubris of novice social designers.
Related initiatives suggest that design is not just one amongst interdisciplinary equals, but in fact a source of integration by being transdisciplinary (Jamer Hunt, who directs the MFA in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design, talks of ‘design at scale’), or a-disciplinary (this has been Wolgang Jonas’ argument at times).
An important aspect of these maps of design in the expanded field that I have glossed so far is the issue of: change. Again, design has always been characterized as a deliberate act of change, making the future different from the present, hopefully in preferable ways as Herbert Simon famously defined it. At lower levels, design brings about those changes in the world by making things – communications, products, environments – that can be inserted into the world. However, this tends to be an only-ever-in-the-background ‘theory of change;’ most designers focus on merely improving existing lifestyles or ways of working. This is design as business-as-usual enhancement.
Consequently, another characterization of higher order design is that it is more explicit and/or more ambitious about undertaking transformation. Alain Findeli characterizes this as the difference between problem-solving design and design that seeks to shift System A to System B. Where the former presumes that the designer is in most cases extrinsic to the problem, being of service (as Nelson and Stolterman call it) to the client with the problem, the latter approach to design must begin with the acknowledgement that the designer is part of the system that they are seeking to change. This not only changes how the designer goes about designing, but it also must affect the disposition of the designer (returning us to the psychological disorders with which I began).
Change-oriented Design or Transformation Design is therefore inherently wicked – multi-stakeholder in changing contexts without stopping points. But it was hopefully apparent that the reverse is also true: to try to respond to a wicked problem always requires significant change; it will never be sufficient to make one thing-based design intervention.
So far, I have discussed claims that design is changing – either of its own volition, or because the conditions of the world it serves are changing. But since these models have tended to want to insist that design has always had the intention and capacity to operate at these levels, they are perhaps less instructive about how to design with an expanded remit. Some models imply that there is just more research involved, both more extensive and deeper. Others are based on the enhancement of the systems thinking aspects of designing.
It is worth noting that the expansion of design is not only something that has been occurring within the discourse of design but also something that outside fields, like systems thinking, have been advocating. Stafford Beer, Chris Argyris and Russell Ackoff are some of the more famous attempts to articulate what design at the level of systems entails. Whilst there are particular aspects of systems that each of these advocates suggest designers should work with, the design aspect tends to amount to ways of visualizing systems and prototyping-based processes for iterative modifications to those systems.
In current commercial digital design, whether device-based or purely information system related, rapid cycles of iteration are to some extent displacing the more systems-based approach to large-scale, complexity-riven designing. Maintaining their focus on process, but reacting against the restrictive management systems of Quality, Six Sigma, etc, software design teams have been deploying Agile and now Lean techniques to build and release multiple versions (these are no longer prototypes, since they are full-scale, real-time in-the-field ‘minimally viable products’) within disciplined evaluation frameworks. The result claims to be a way of changing systems from within, making use of emerging possibilities rather than the desire to have a total vision at the outset.
Since it involves materialized at-large iterations, this kind of emergently designed system change depends on:
a) the risks involved in ‘treating the world as a laboratory’
b) an abundance of resources to underwrite these exploratory developments.
In relation to the wicked problems associated with our ecological sustainability, neither seems to be the case.
It is in this context that The School of Design at CMU is developing another kind of orders of design framework.
There are two components. The first is a scalar model like those with which I began this article:
Note that the whole model is bounded by a limiting system called the ‘cosmic environment.’ All the previous models discussed were in some sense open-ended with regard to the expansion of the design-able. This model insists there is a finite set to what can be designed. (Though, as with the Daoist philosophy of 10,000 things, there is perhaps no limit to combinations within that set.) Beyond lies what resists being designed by being fixed in quantity and chaotic in relational consequences. This is often called ‘nature’ but it is called ‘cosmic’ here to bypass debates about the historicity of notions of what counts as natural, and to signal fundamental principles like the Laws of Thermodynamics. In this way, the model locates design implacably within the priorities of sustainability.
In the first order are the well-established material-based skills of communication design and product design. These are understood to be overlapping and interacting, both always within the ‘next larger context,’ which is some kind of environment – either a physical space (desk, bedroom, bus, garden, etc) and/or a digital realm (a smart phone, a website, a media experience, etc). Our built environments comprise these meso-level or human-scaled material culture artifacts and systems.
The next orders – the second and third – are not necessarily larger in size, but certainly involve more variables, those being people. As with Golsby-Smith’s scheme, people are obviously involved in the 1st Order of design, but they are more like the background for activities more focused on making useful things for those people. In the 2nd and 3rd Order, people are more directly what is being designed rather than just designed for. They are not quite the material that the designer is forming, and the designer still always proceeds by way of interactive things – the Orders are nested, the 1st persisting in subsequent higher Orders – but their more wicked variability is what is central to the design processes being deployed. These are the emergent domains of design for services (2nd) and design for social innovation (3rd). The difference between these orders of designing is that where the former (design for services) exists within current economic paradigms, innovating within business-as-usual, the latter (design for social innovation) adds to its list of variables innovating alternative systems of provisioning and values external to market-based economics.
This element of Change-oriented Design expands into the focus of the 4th Order, Design for Transition. The term ‘Transition’ references a number of discourses:
- ecosystems science, which describes the relationality that give ecosystems resilience, but which, beyond certain thresholds, can also result in cascading changes that wholly recompose the ecosystem
- sociotechnical innovation, which describes the technological infrastructure path dependencies that lock-in habitual everyday practices, but which can be transformed when new technologies and practices take hold in particular market niches at the same time that there are pressures – economic and/or political – on existing regimes
- life changes, which describes the (social) psychology that enable and accompany bodily changes that may be part of natural maturation, unforeseen ill health complications or deliberate transformations
The second part of the CMU School of Design’s scheme for an expanded Transformative Design is a model of Design for Transition:
This second model distinguishes this 4th Order from others I have discussed (one-upmanship?) by attempting to be explicit about how to go about designing at this scale and context. It recognizes that designing at this level is an outgrowth of designing at other levels. Being a form of designing, it remains based on the lower order material interventions that draw on the traditions and disciplines of communication and product design, within particular designed environments. But it is closer to the more recent higher order forms of designing engaging with the more wicked problems of service and transformational contexts of social innovation.
In the context of CMU, it also draws heavily on the forms of designing that are particular to interaction design in complex digital ecosystems. These are the processes mentioned previously, such as Lean, but also more at the craft end, the subset of interaction design, sometimes called ‘micro-interaction design,’ that focuses people to their transitions through different dimensions of complicated digital networks.
Perhaps particular to Transition Design is a foregrounding of the role of Visioning in Designing. Drawing not only systems thinking, but also more creative and critical instances of futuring, the argument is for motivating visions, as well as visions that can serve as measures against which to evaluate design moves, but also visions that are also modifiable according to the changing situation. This foregrounds an important aspect of this Order of designing that I will come back to, the fact that it has a strong temporal aspect – not just a linear slide into the future, but the idea of multi-phase change.
The model also demands that Transition Designers have explicitly identified hypotheses about why the moves they are making should lead to certain kinds of changes. Designing, as an outgrowth of art, has been proud to be considered an intuition-based expertise. As explained earlier, design has become more research-based. However, this research, into the problem from the client-sponsor’s perspectives and into prospective solutions from the customer-user’s perspectives remains either side of the moment of ideation. In Transition Design, where designers are taking responsibility for making changes in systems take place, that ideation must now have a rationale and predictions. The model does not indicate the Theories of Change that a Transition Designer must have, though I listed the fields from which those Theories could come earlier. As a Transition Designer, at this level of complexity, and proximity to cosmic limits and serious risks, models of what is being done are essential.
Finally, picking up on Findeli’s recognition that part of the difficulty of system change is its reflexivity, the fact that the designer is part of the system being changed, Transition Design foregrounds the (social) psychologies of being a Transition Designer. Much of the rhetoric around Orders of Design has been an exhortation for designers to show leadership, be more ambitious and yet also more responsible. For a model of higher order design to have traction it must acknowledge that these requirements of designers are personally difficult. Being a Transition Designer means adopting different values and perspectives. It is therefore a process of learning, but, for the same reason, a challenge. It requires designers to acknowledge the hypocrisy that comes from being a change agent toward a new system from within the old system.
In each of these four aspects of the Design for Transition model, I have emphasized a temporality that seems missing from all previous Design Order schemas. The term ‘Transition Design’ indicates a staged process, something that happens from a series of successive interventions. It does not suggest sudden change or gradual evolution, but a number of changes, after which new alternatives arise.
From this perspective, one of the disorders of (lower order) designers is what could be called their Serial Monogamy. They focus committedly to one project, working toward a completion. Within that project, designers do not in fact aim to ‘satisfice,’ as Herbert Simon claimed. They seem motivated by perfectability, the ideal that there is a once-and-for-all innovative solution to that situation. Invariably, time and/or money constraints end the project before the designer accomplishes that true completion. And then, invariably, the designer will move on to a different job. It is pathology that designers are quickly bored by the same type of job.
Staying with a problem – because there is no stopping point to wicked problems – must be a trait of a higher order designer, especially one whose ambition is to be a change agent. Consequently, what is unique about the Transition Order is that designers have the methods and theories, but also the (psychological) disposition, to undertake multiple changes within a situation over time. Transition is multi-level and multi-stage. The designer always recognizes that they will have to make many moves, many moves at the same time, but also many subsequent moves. They design with a view to the subsequent moves that need to be made. There is no perfectionism because from the outset every design intervention is already seen as only the first in a series of others. Subsequent interventions might need to be re-evaluated once the consequences of the initial intervention have played out. But there is never the sense that the initial intervention will be sufficient.
This is a very different kind of designer, one that cannot be meglomaniacal because the level at which they are operating is complex, wicked and at the edge of limits and serious risks. But this designer also cannot be compulsively detailed because there will be a need to quickly follow-up with a next move. Neither naïve nor cynical, this is design as responsible work, creative and critical, but no longer drifting through boredom waiting for inspiration.