Ten Thoughts On Design

Design has a lot of definitions, some more representative than others.

Design has evolved with changes in societal values, it has responded to socioeconomic conditions, it has been symbiotic with technological change, but more than anything it has advanced deliberate change in the world — both good and bad. Broadly, design is a transdisciplinary agent of change that seeks an improved state. Design methods, planning, and action can be applied to just about anything, from products to environments, statecraft to bionics. Design is an expression of human intent. Definitions that box design in as a purely creative endeavor, aesthetics, function, or designer egoism miss design’s most impactful contributions to society through its broad inquiry.

The primary material of the designer is the problem itself.

Before plastics, screens, and A.I., designers deal in problems, framing, approach, and decomposition. Pathways towards a solution are rarely clear, hence the iterative, critical, and comprehensive nature of design process. Designers use methods to frame and untangle problems with the goal of finding new perspectives on what might otherwise be “understood.” Good design honors complexity and understands that simple problem-solution vectors aren’t usually fair. Design is more about the conception of new possibilities and putting them into the world for testing.

Design is a process-oriented field, not a recipe.

In design, there is just as much emphasis on the pathway as the solution. There is no formula for good design and no template for innovation or problem solving — despite what design thinking workshops might tell you. Experience can be a guide. So can the iterative, exploratory, and generative methods of design teams that help them find direction towards a future state. The iterative approach helps suss out new ideas within a multitude of perspectives, many of which are in conflict with one another. Eventually, the designers and stakeholders can synthesize a direction and put the right pieces together. Success is dependent on an open-minded team, fully informed, free of blinders, a willingness to question everything, and giving the process the time it deserves.

The value proposition of designers addressing complex problems is their mindset.

What sets good designers apart is the mindset and disposition they bring to the work. It’s key to addressing wicked problems: balancing part-whole relationships, carrying a deep concern for the human condition, thinking and working laterally, always questioning, always offering constructive criticism, putting down preconceptions, comfort with ambiguity, understanding that things can always be improved upon, and always starting with a “beginner’s mind.” These traits are what designers bring to the table before they begin framing, prototyping, modeling, and researching. They help turn a complex, arbitrary, and dysfunctional space into a manageable, clear, and organized one.

Nothing is designed or exists in isolation.

Whole-systems designers see everything made and every nudge forward as a part of a broader, interconnected world; that one seemingly small change can conceivably affect everything. There are enormous consequences when designers think in isolation. While it’s hard to anticipate ripple effects with precision taking an informed, iterative, and prudent approach can help. A systems-minded designer looks not just at data, objects, people, and environments, but on the connection points, triggers, trimtabs, the layering of nested systems, continuüms of scale, situated intelligence, and the flow of history.

Disciplinary boundaries counteract abilities to address complex problems.

Solving higher order problems in the 21st century requires discipline-free approaches. Design is no longer a set of specialty tools; when designing for and designing with communities of use, impact and innovation depends on designers to lead facilitation and translation — leading the process and people while translating the languages and perspectives of stakeholders. Furthermore, synthesizing the total problem space is crucial in dealing with complexity. Specialization makes it harder to integrate elements into cohesive wholes and disciplinary labels in design can hinder broader impact. Designers of the 21st century should position themselves as conductors, inviting subject matter experts, disciplinarians, and real world people to collaborate on stage together.

Design is an argument for the future.

Since design is rarely about creating absolute solutions, analytical methods aren’t ways to design or to evaluate. Rhetoric serves as the core of design creation and evaluation. Answers aren’t binary but ‘more appropriate’ and ‘less appropriate’. It hasn’t always been this way: the high modernists were seduced by engineering’s attitudes of efficiency and certainty. They created ‘universal solutions’ and imposed their will absent of contextual understanding or human need. The rhetorical approach respects wide perspectives on reality, histories, cultures, and ecosystems. In a post-modern, post-structural world, design, too, has become pluralistic in nature, adept at forming arguments that are relevant to situation, place, and rapid change.

‘Design thinking’ is best approached through… Aristotle.

The measure of good design is the balance between what’s useful, useable, and desirable. It’s one of the oldest frameworks in design and a modern interpretation of Aristotle’s Appeals and the Vitruvian Triad. To be useful is to create intellectual substance in a design. The outcome has to have purpose and relevance to people and communities. Usability is about crafting clear, self-evident functionality. Desirability is the voice in which the design speaks to the user and to its time and place. For Aristotle, logos, ethos, and pathos were a matter of coexistence rather than a paradox. For designers, their work and ideas succeed or fail on the equal and tenuous balance of these three dimensions.

Designers are stewards of the relationship between people and technology.

While the arts serve to make connections between fields and ideas, design transcends fields as inventor and curator. And as technology advances, design is alongside it to create value, to humanize it, and to give it voice. Design is the liberal art of the technological and information age. From smart contact lenses to entangled megalopolises, designers will bring new technologies into the human experience and be those ones to question, criticize, and shape the direction. Seeing the impact design and technology can have on society and the human and planetary condition is clear. Further disruption lies ahead on an even greater scale. What kind of a world will we make? What kind of a would should we make?

There is an ethical dimension to everything that’s designed.

Design is in constant service to people and the planet and it must be practiced with intent, integrity, and critical thought. There is an ethical dimension to everything we design and how we design it, not just in the product itself but in its ripple effects. This is especially evident in complex domains where designers have a direct influence on human and ecological systems — autonomous vehicles, urban landscapes, behavioral change, social programs, algorithms and AI. Remember, just because it can be made, doesn’t mean it should. From the dawn of industrial production to the integration of technology into our lives, designers are on the frontlines of ethical matters — sometimes the only ones considering them — and therefore must be vocal advocates for the interests of people, society, and the planet.

by Alexander R. Wilcox Cheek (2019)

Places in Design

The Four Orders of Design is a framework for the practices of design and its inherent ability to shift perspectives. It’s “design thinking” before design thinking sought to operationalize the practice. Developed by Richard Buchanan, the four orders is an aide for “repositioning” — the idea that design invention comes from shifting perspectives on the problem space at hand. Repositioning dates to Cicero’s Topoi (Greek for ‘Place’). By shifting how you view a problem space, you shift the questions you ask and the solutions you create. These aren’t categories or disciplines of design — categories and disciplines are about what is; “places” are for finding what can be. It is a foundational principle of rhetoric in how new arguments are invented.

Places made the leap from rhetoric into the artificial world with Richard McKeon’s Creativity and the Common Place. It allows an architect, for instance, to shift their lens from the physical space itself to, perhaps, the interactive nature of how people might use it, or the communicative aspects of a form might be. Or a communication designer to broaden their scope to understand contexts of use. Or a user experience designer to make connections across the human experience and think more like a service designer. The orders, in many ways, create a more fluid movement between the traditional, siloed disciplines and open the spaces of inquiry of design to the most complex, dynamic systems in our world. It helps designers make the case for more integrated problem solving, which ultimately helps everyone address the complexity and wickedness of systems-level problems.

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences. Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design. (While science is concerned with how things are...) Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with how things are but with how they might be — in short, with design. — Herb Simon

Richard Buchanan Four Orders of Design theory framework

First Order

The first and second orders represent the tangible world of design. The first order is the 2D world: information, written and spoken words and narratives, visual and graphic artifacts, as ink, pixels, lights, sounds — any channels that communicate. But before information and communication gets crafted into a form comes data. Data are the “lowest level of abstraction from which information and knowledge are derived.” In other words, data is the raw material of information. Take data, pair it with a claim of fact (making it an argument), and information is what results. Designers take raw data and craft it into strategic messaging, information graphics, interface patterns, identity systems, audio alerts, chatbots, voice assistants, and more. Over the years it has been called graphic design, graphic art, commercial art, and visual design. “Communication design” is most suitable to today’s applications.

The origins of the first order trace back through centuries of artists and painters who explored form, color, and composition. Their work later informed commercial artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. There were two key moments in the history of communication design: first, Gutenberg’s printing press which led to mass communication, type setting as a discipline, and commercial printing; and the Bauhaus, which formalized rules around the practice in typographic clarity, visual hierarchy, communication through graphic form, and grids that created a systematized approach to page layout. The Bauhaus and Swiss Modernist approaches to visual clarity and order extend to this day in great interface design and typography. I like to describe communication design as being about how to organize, clarify, and visualize information in strategic, appropriate, compelling, and relevant ways. For a designer in this space, it’s all about knowing audience, context, and purpose, and creating shortcuts for understanding.

“My work has continued to be motivated by respect for, and empathy with, users of software. I believe that good icons are more akin to road signs rather than illustrations, and ideally should present an idea in a clear, concise, and memorable way.” — Susan Kare

Second Order

The second order is about the 3D world: tangible artifacts big and small. Designers talk most about the mass-produced products we have in our homes — a chair, an iMac, a kitchen appliance, a tool, or a car. Architecture is a second order concern as well — not the experience of architecture but the tangible forms themselves. For some architects, it’s quite literal. In the case of products we hold in our hands and in modern architecture, you can see their origins in the crafts and sculpture — the hand giving form and creating utility. Industrial design became formalized in the industrial revolution, the rise of mass production, and the advent of engineering. At the Bauhaus, they formalized the study of materials, manufacturing, human factors and ergonomics. They saw their moment as the true melding of art and industry for the masses.

The way to approach designed objects is to study whether its useful (does it have a reason to exist in my life?), usable (can I use it intuitively and reliably?), and desirable (does it have a voice that speaks to me, in my time and my place?). This triad originates with Aristotle, whose appeals serve as the basis for rhetoric: logos, ethos, pathos. For architects, the Vitruvian triad is comprised of utilitas, venustas, and firmitas. Use any of these lenses and you’ll see a heuristic to study “goodness” in design. Find a balance between all three, and we might agree that it’s “good design.” Timeless products and architectures dissolve into a participant’s life, humbly performing their purpose or surrounding a person without obstruction.

A myth of power, and a myth of origins: whatever it is a man lacks is invested in the object…Since blood, birth, and titles of nobility have lost their ideological force, the task of signifying transcendence has fallen to material signs — to pieces of furniture, objects, jewelry, and works of art of every time and every place.” — Jean Baudrillard

“We designers have been working to stimulate people’s souls and minds. But in reality, I’m not thinking about this pen when I’m writing with it. Rather, it’s when you least think about it that the pen can be held most naturally. I developed the ability to find this world, made only of actions that human beings make subconsciously, without thought. Design needs to be plugged in to natural human behavior. I like to say ‘Design dissolving in behavior’.” — Naoto Fukasawa

“It is well, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coalbins, barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth…The used surface of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things — all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized…In them one sees…the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.” — Pablo Neruda

Third Order

The third order focuses on the relationships between people, objects, information, architectures, and how designers shape interactions and behavior. “Interaction design” is an extremely broad term: interactions can be designed between people and people, information, products, interfaces, devices, services, environments, systems, and more. Industrial designers think about behavior with their products; communication designers consider how wayfinding might trigger a certain movement, but in the third order, interactions are the explicit focus. A service experience on a banking app, with a government service, in a great hotel, with an airline, or a car sharing. For agents in these experiences, it’s all about flows and seamlessness between touchpoints. Experiences must have arcs, cohesion, and fulfillment. For service providers, it’s all about choreography between front stage and back stage.

Let’s not confuse designing artifacts with designing experiences or interactions — designers can only design for interactions and experiences to unfold on their own. Designers, however, can get pretty close: Disney World comes to mind, where every aspect of the environment is designed from the method of trash removal to the actions of the staff. No two participants experience anything in quite the same way and with so many moving parts, everything takes on a living quality to it. The focus of the designer in the third order is the pathway but each pathway is part of a system, which brings us to the fourth order.

“Fundamentally, interaction design is about how people relate to other people and how products mediate those relationships. It matters little whether the product is a document, an artifact, a computer or a computer program, a service, a business activity, or an organizational environment. All of these classes of products and their specific families of products are open to design thinking that is based on facilitating the relationships among people to reach specific goals and objectives.” — Richard Buchanan

Fourth Order

The fourth order of design is a leap. It’s about systems, and systems can be designed or emergent, and it’s the complex, nested, and emergent ones that are of most interest in this order. A system could be a building system that a team of engineers can plan and construct and contain in their heads, but many levels-up are urban systems, environments, cultures, and whole earth systems — systems where the designed and natural world come together in interconnected ways. From the Ancient Egyptians to the Army Corps of Engineers, humans have imposed order over the natural world through design and engineering, some cases more successful than others. Statecraft is a fourth order discipline: the earliest census and modern urbanism are key examples where humans first sought legibility, and then to explicitly design societal systems. Honoring the complexity of systems is to recognize the nested layers of systems and how their complexity blend together. The modern engineering mindset sought to understand systems like a clock: break it down into its constituent parts and study how the parts work together. Whole earth and intricate human systems can only be understood like clouds: studying the raindrops and how they act with one another is reductive and doesn’t really tell you anything about the whole; the whole can only be understood as an organism of its own. And to understand systems on this level requires analysis to understand the parts and synthesis to understand the whole, two different cognitive modes. That’s why it’s so hard for humans to grasp large-scale systems.

So if systems are emergent, where does design come in? Human systems — megalopolises, cultures, and governments emerge from the collective process of designing our world. It is often asked if we can truly design in the fourth order. And, yes, of course we can design those smaller-scale systems through careful planning, governance, and distribution of power. And we can always frame first, second, and third order challenges through the lens of systems. But Buckminster Fuller and the “design outlaws” sought to nudge whole earth systems through design. Fuller described the “trimtab effect” where nudging one small thing nudges another and creates an amplification effect. Changing one thing changes many things, and sometimes can change “everything.”

“Design can be thought of as the physical embodiment of a worldview. Good design depends on this.” — Terry Irwin

“Design is the patterning and planning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end…any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life.” — Victor Papanek

Wicked problems exist in all orders, and wickedness depends on how you frame the problems at hand. A toaster that’s difficult to use is more of a tame problem: do a usability study and the designer will see that all they have to do is change the button or knob until it becomes usable. Identifying the problem essentially identifies a probably solution. To frame the toaster as wicked, introduce social and environmental elements. If it wears out in five years and is designed for disposal, then expected to rot in a landfill for five hundred years, therein lies a wicked environmental concern that you can trace back to the design itself. Wicked problems in the third order abound because the designer never really knows how users will behave — social media platforms and their struggle with disinformation is a good example of this. The situation has spiraled so far out of control that “solutions” are disagreed upon, causes are unclear, and the situation is merely a symptom of broader global dynamics at play. It’s the vastness that makes it a fourth order concern: disinformation isn’t just about the individual interactions anymore but the aspect that feels so much bigger than one social media platform alone.

One way I like to think of designers as addressing wicked problems is through Buckminster Fuller’s trimtab approach. The WIPP Sandia Report describes the wicked problem of nuclear waste storage and protection where the unique difficulty was in maintaining security of the waste for 10,000 years into the future. The committee made proposals that spanned all four orders: signs, symbols, and physical structures to communicate the danger, and pacing of the participant through an intricate environment to prevent entry. Not one of those solutions could we comfortably say would work, but the best shot at it is to tackle the challenge from many design approaches and perspectives.

Shifting the orders to find new arguments — or invent new futures— is an exercise in re-framing: how is an object part of a broader environmental system? What are the interactive qualities in a dynamic long-form newspaper article? Within a complex, living urban environment like New York, what are the architectures, communicative devices, objects, services, systems, and cultures? How do the orders synthesize and become a whole that is other than the sum of its parts? The Buchanan framework has its roots in ancient philosophy, but brings articulation to the broad field of design whose many disciplines have often times struggled to connect. It empowers designers to work at a higher and more strategic level, and drive solutions to the most wicked of problems.

“Whether its objective is to produce a smaller, more user-friendly smartphone, a loftily ambitious project to reduce carbon emissions, or a makeshift shelter for someone who has lost their home, design will continue to be, as it has always been, an agent of change that can help us organize our lives to suit our needs and wishes, and wields immense power to influence them, for better and for worse.” — Alice Rawsthorn

Alexander Wilcox Cheek Origins of Design Disciplines Theory Design History

by Alexander R. Wilcox Cheek (2020)

The Design Disposition

Design is a values-based practice and at the core of every good designer is a particular disposition. While the designer’s day-to-day might be research, framing, facilitation, visioning, strategy, or production, ultimately every design outcome from cultural artifacts to dynamic systems is an expression of values and mindset. These outcomes, subsequently, touch the lives of everyday people and can cast wide-reaching effects.

1. The designer can think and act laterally. In fact, disciplinary thinking can be a hinderance for designers as they are liberal artists at heart and not bound by rigid practices or ideologies. This enables the designer to be clear minded in priorities and capturing needs rather than be confined by traditional modes of thought. It allows the designer to come to every scenario with “new eyes.” Liberal mindedness is the key to designing for intertwined, intractable problems.

2. The designer, though a powerful facilitator and lateral thinker, typically possesses certain concrete skills and disciplinary expertise. That in mind, the disciplinary expertise is best applied at the edges of those disciplines, or entirely removed from them, practicing and playing in other sandboxes.

3. The designer is a relativistic thinker where new knowledge gained gives them a new perspective upon which to act. The relativistic designer sees things not as good or bad but better or worse. It’s a sophisticated position, “one that recognizes a plurality of points of view, interpretations, frames of reference, and value systems.” (based on William Perry)

4. The designer would not be a designer if he or she were not a maker. This can be traced back to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and his articulation of techne (what we might call “craft” or “know-how”). And they can be obsessive over the details. It’s usually the difference between a good solution and one that truly resonates with an audience. Sometimes the perfection leads to things so good that they disappear into the background. Other times they become objects of art.

5. The designer possesses a strong sense of empathy, enabling him or herself to conduct ethnographic inquiry with a sensitive and ethical approach. This is intertwined with the designer’s deep interest in understanding and making better the human condition. It’s different from sympathy which creates a relational hierarchy between designer and subject.

6. The design disposition is a rhetorical disposition that advocates for solutions that are appropriate to audience values, environment, context, and individual and collective goals. The rhetorical stance also enables appropriate evaluation of the product or outcome.

7. The designer has a polysensorial awareness, or deep engagement with his or her surroundings — engaging all senses. This includes visual and tactile aesthetics, understanding discursive experiences, as well as hierarchies and relationships. (based on Kamil Michelwski)

8. The designer balances both insight and intuition on the pathway to change. Even in research-driven work, intuition serves a strong role. Good designers know when to rely on intuition over insight and vise versa.

9. The designer should approach each situation with a “beginner’s mind” (from Zen Buddhism, shoshin, 初心) with an attitude of openness towards understanding and interpreting, and a lack of preconceptions about the subject matter, people, and context.

10. Designer minds unify thought and action, thinker and maker after centuries of being regarded as separate. Some designers thinking by way of making, prototyping their way through problem solving. Others might employ a non-linear process where planning, prototyping, and problem framing all happen in a mix.

11. The designer envisions a future, though not always clearly; they are comfortable with and motivated by the totally unpredictable future, the very future that everyone, especially designers, will shape.

12. The designer visualizes and prototypes to advance stakeholder conversation about change, to break down boundaries between stakeholders, and clarify and reveal their latent and explicit needs and desires. It’s to show what’s possible. This is done through abstract forms: verbal, visual, and tactile.

13. Designers are naturals and finding and creating order in arbitrary, unclear, and unfamiliar spaces. They take inputs, quickly act to make sense of them, and create new possibilities. While they often rely on subject matter experts, part of what gives them nimbleness and clear thinking is the their outside perspective.

14. Designers seek legibility: the patterning and order of information, interactions, environments, and organizations. This comes at with a risk, as the high modernists learned. When scientific order and simplification is imposed on complex natural and social systems, it makes everything more brittle. Good designers recognize this; they allow systems to behave with their natural order and work with those systems — not against them — to create change. (based on James C. Scott)

15. Designer focus should always remain on people with sensitivity to ecological systems. The designer should always serve as an advocate for users, people, groups, future society, and the planet. As Dieter Rams once said, “Indifference towards people and the lives they lead is the only sin a designer can commit.” Design is a humble profession and in constant service to others and to society. (based on George Nelson)

16. The designer is a scalar thinker and sees situations holistically; parts and wholes, separate and together, studying the connections and interactions, conscious of the consequences of narrow-minded approaches.

17. The designer employs abductive reasoning, a form of synthesis, or, the “logic of what might be” (based on Roger Martin). This is what might otherwise be called “the designer’s leap” where the creation of new ideas and knowledge is the result of logical premise, the designer’s life experiences, and leaps based on inconclusive data. This runs counter to the misconception that design invention is “magic” or comes “in a flash.”

18. The designer works collectively and leads collective action. The designer working solo in his studio is a practice of the past and is unhelpful in addressing complex, systems-level challenges.

19. The designer has total comfort with being wrong. Designers are comfortable with just “having a go” and is constantly re-evaluating process and result.

20. The designer is a constant critic of his or her surroundings, thinking of how everything could be improved upon, and that there’s always room for change. A contradiction: the designer should refrain from criticism of all kinds, employing an “empty mind” so as to gain insight on what the designer does not know or understand, namely cultures and values different from his or her own.

21. Good designers democratically distribute their tools and perspective, empowering others to shape their part of the world in human-centered, holistic ways. Designers do this by creating platforms, translating the languages of subjects and participants. This could also be seen as a form of distributive justice and civic mindedness, bringing the benefits of clear thinking and design process to a wider audience.

22. The designer designs with a goal of dignity in the human experience. The designer helps people find their natural place in the universe through tools and knowledge shaped to suit their goals and objectives (based on Richard Buchanan).

23. The designer constantly asks questions of ethics and rightness: What kind of a world are we making? What kind a world can we be making? What kind of a world should we be making? (Liz Coleman)

24. All of design begins with a basic sense of curiosity about the world, about environmental surroundings, about people and how they live their lives, about things and how they came to be, and about a diversity of ideas. Human-centered and systems-minded designers think everything is interesting and everything has value and these exposures contribute to his or her library of insight.

by Alexander R. Wilcox Cheek (2014)