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    Monday, January 26, 2009

    Fourth Order Design? What Do You Think?

    Lately people started talking to me about the "fourth order design" or systemic integration. The person who comes up the most in this discussion is Richard Buchanan.

    And I found these articles from Jeff Howard:
    Buchanan Keynote
    Kip And Jamin Interview
    I found this and this
    And than there is this very informative website

    That's about it...

    I would like to form an opinion about it and need more information. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

    And let me know what your thoughts are about the subject.
    (ps: getting some great feedback. Please go to 'comments')


    Jeff said...

    Hi Arne,

    Richard Buchanan developed this schema while at Carnegie Mellon University. He was former head of the School of Design and taught there for seventeen years before moving to Case Western.

    The orders of design roughly correspond to the domains in which design has been perceived to apply, gradually expanding over the course of the 20th and 21st century. The orders of design are:

    1) Symbol
    2) Object
    3) Action
    4) Thought

    These orders roughly correspond to the disciplines graphic design, industrial design, interaction design and system design.

    Buchanan uses the cross schema to organize these four orders. The fourth order of design goes on top of the cross. CMU alumni (and Buchanan himself) refers to this as the "cross of pain," an inside joke referencing the trouble many first year design students have grasping the concepts in his design seminar.

    The cross schema is used in many ways throughout the seminar (and in his other classes) to organize other aspects of design. For instance, it is used to organize four different prisms through which people tend to perceive interaction design. Objects, people, environments and cosmos. That is: humans interacting with objects, with other humans, with environments and with the cosmos.

    Fourth order design is a shorthand folks from the CMU tradition use to talk about the increasingly intangible problems with which designers are wrestling. Wicked, systemic problems of the human condition.

    elliott said...

    Hi Arne,

    I'm sorry that you went to looking for answers. As said in the previous comment, the fourth order is thought or system. When visualizing the four orders, the fourth goes at the top, so now the website should make a little more sense. I graduated from CMU last year and put up that website as an inside joke to other CMU students, I never thought a non-CMU student would find it.

    I took the class with Buchanan right before he left for Case Western, and if you want to chat or get a syllabus let me know. I love talking about my time at CMU, design, or what I or any other designer is currently working on.

    One correction to the above comment:
    The different "prisms" through which people perceive interaction design would be referred to as the four "modes" of interaction, and I don't think they are to be confused with the four "orders" of design, although some CMU students might disagree.

    Garrick Wood said...

    Hi Arne

    There is a good summary by John Body in his article "Design in the Australian Taxation Office", Design Issues, Winter 2008, Vol. 24, No. 1: 55–67 (available from MIT Press Journals)

    Body states:

    "Professor Buchanan also talks about four orders of design. The four orders may be summarized as:

    1 Graphic design looks at visual symbols, and is aimed at communication in words and systems. The purpose is to get people to think by making a persuasive argument.

    2 Industrial design produces tangible artifacts, usually mass produced, to provide a physical experience.

    3 Interaction design is concerned with how human beings select and use products in daily life. While the profile of interaction design has been lifted by the rise of digital
    products, the concepts of interaction go back further than this and apply to all types of products. Interaction design is about people and how they interrelate with the product or
    service. It allows for a customized experience.

    4 The fourth order of design is concerned with systems and environments. The systems that designers are concerned with at this level involve humans, not about material
    things. There is a recognition that people cannot experience a whole system, but rather experience their personal pathway through the system."

    I once attend a design facilitation course run by John Body and was introduced to the four orders at the time. It was good hear his insights and I seem to recall that he and Buchanan collaborated for a while at the ATO.

    There is also a good article by Ria van Zyl at Design Management Institute.

    Kyle said...

    It would also be worth seeking out Tony Golsby-Smith's article "Fourth Order Design: A Practical Perspective" from Design Issues 12, number 1, from 1996.

    It offers some more insight into how Buchanan's notion of a fourth order can play out in context.

    Kip said...

    Hi Arne,

    I would like to add and emphasize that the value of the four orders comes from their ability to find the places of invention (what the Greeks called topoi, or topics). Although the orders roughly correspond to the disciplines mentioned by Jeff, their value comes in their ability to shift places.

    Dick [Buchanan] explicitly states this potential entrapment in his essay, "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking," where he writes:

    "Reflecting on this list of the areas of design thinking, it is tempting to identify and limit specific design professions within each area - graphic designers with communication, industrial designers and engineers with material objects, designers-cum-managers [before Dick started using interaction designers] with activities and services, and architects and urban planners [systems design] with systems and environment. But this would not be adequate, because these areas are not simply categories of objects that reflect the results of design. Properly understood and used, they are also places of invention shared by all designers, places where one discovers the dimensions of design thinking by a reconsideration of problems and solutions" (p. 10).

    So, the value and design activity/thinking is found in questions like, "what would this service or action be if reconsidered as a symbol? or an object? or a thought?" It's all about relationships and interconnections.

    Dick actually gives a clear example of this shifting in the "Wicked Problems" essay using the discipline of Industrial Design:
    1. Some have considered material objects communicative.
    2. Others have placed material objects in the context of experience and action.
    3. Some are exploring material objects as a part of larger systems.

    So, the inquiry concerning "fourth order design" is how "thought" can be reconsidered in terms of the other three orders to reveal novel inventions in this developing discipline of design. At least that's one part of it.

    Kip said...

    A good place to also look at is a book on Richard McKeon, Dick's mentor. The following books are in-depth discussions on the "Cross of Pain."

    1. Walter Watson's _Architectonics of Meaning: Foundations of the New Pluralism_
    2. George Kimball Plochmann's _Richard McKeon: A Study_

    Arne van Oosterom said...

    Thanks Jeff, Elliott, Garrick, Kyle and Kip.

    This is great stuff.Through another channel I received a paper (and a summary) from Guido Stompff (océ Technologies).

    Here's the summary Guido send and posted on LinkedIn:

    He added (CAPS) some examples by means of the iPod.


The framework of the four orders of design (R. Buchanan 1995, 1998, 2001, Breslin 2008, Body 2008) is based (1) on the abilities of designers (inventing, judging, deciding and evaluating), thereby elegantly circumventing the classic differentiation between design disciplines (as graphic design, interaction design or product design), and (2) the goals of designers. What goals a designer pursues has not so much to do with the skills associated with a specific type of design, but more with the ‘forethought’ of the designer. “Forethought in making is a kind of universal art, in the sense that it is independent of any particular art of making and therefore, able to range over all potential considerations and subjects that may enter into the making of this or that kind of product” (Buchanan, 1995, pg 31). It is precisely this premise that makes possible a model which integrates all the disparate sub-disciplines of design. The assumptions which a designer has (“a product fails if it is hard to be used”) does not depend so much on what specific skills the designer has (e.g. graphic design), as there are many options to consider , such as ergonomics, crisp clear graphics, intuitive interface concepts or even the functionality. 

The four orders are in short: 
1. Signs and symbols (such as logos, icons and manuals). Design at this level aims at communication, either to explain (user-oriented) or to persuade (consumer-oriented).


    2. Artifacts (products). This is the area of ‘classic’ product design, aiming at tangible products, focused on the embodiment of technology. THE IPOD ITSELF 
3. Action. This concerns both (1) the interaction between humans and products and (2) what actions are possible by means of the products. The first category is not restricted to the design of interfaces, as all interactions with the product are meant. The second category is about what a product can mediate (P.P. Verbeek, 2005), i.e. what people can and wish to do with it.


4. Systems and environments. Design at this level concerns the environments, systems and organizations in which humans act or with which they interact: how people achieve ends and goals.


    More information on Guido:

    Arne van Oosterom said...

    I got some more input for Natalie Ebenreuter.

    She is Design Researcher associated with Swinburne University of Technology

    From my understanding interaction design can be interpreted through four different modes: entitative, existential, essential, and ontological. Forth order design refers to the ontological mode of interaction design. Interaction in this sense is largely concerned with interconnectedness between all the elements of the design situation.

    This can be graphic signs and symbols, material objects, activities, services, organizations, environments or systems. What is significant in the fourth order of design, for designers, is the active participation of these elements with one another as an organized integrated whole. Following this line of reasoning a design solution should allow a variety of people to use a product with relative ease.

    A product should give its audience (or users) the freedom to choose how they may fulfill their goals rather than being forced to accomplish a task via a limited system of interaction. This is where the idea of participating or communicating with a product, service or system is much greater than its physical manifestation and transcends the materiality of a product. This is because of the focus of fourth order design and the notion of an organized integrated whole that interconnects people with their environment. When all the parts of a design solution are connected, everything is in harmony.

    With this in mind it is not difficulty to understand why sustainability is also a key concept in ontological design.

    For more information on Natalie Ebenreuter go to

    Julian Jenkins said...

    I work with Tony Golsby-Smith in Sydney, Australia, as part of Tony’s firm 2nd Road. We are not designers in the traditional sense, but management consultants who use the principles and practice of design

    Just to help make a few connections, Dick Buchanan has been a mentor to Tony and friend of 2nd Road for many years. Tony has been a visiting professor at CMU and Dick has spoken at 2nd Road conferences in Australia. 2nd Road has also employed a series of graduates from Dick’s program at CMU to help apply design thinking into organisational environments. Incidentally, John Body is a protégé of Tony’s, dating back to work they did together in the Australian Taxation Office, and I think John has also spent time with Dick in the US.

    Dick’s concept of the four orders of design is one of a number of key heuristics that we regularly use in our work to help explore the nature and scope of the design task. As a firm, 2nd Road has set a goal of specialising in third and fourth order design. We don’t do much in the way of traditional graphic or product design, though a number of our staff have skills based in these areas. We mainly design organisational processes and systems, both from an internal point of view and also in terms of how customers interact with organisations. At different times we play in areas like service design, system design and also in more traditional consulting areas such as strategy, which we generally reconceptualise as an exercise in organisational design.

    For my part, I specialise in information design – which is perhaps the one area where we do get involved in second order design, in that we design documents that may be used in the corporate world – from reports to business plans to manuals to internal and external communications. However, even here, we generally come to the task with third order “eyes”. Whereas many people who get involved in designing documents come from a graphic design background and focus on layout, typography and structure, these elements are necessary but not sufficient for our purposes – we generally find that designing any one document inevitably involves us at looking at the whole system of interactions that surround the document – both in terms of producing the document and in using the document that has been created. So much of our work is actually third order design.

    Perhaps it is helpful in this context to give a brief overview of how the four orders of design work out in practice in terms of information design – or rather, how the focus shifts in terms of scope:

    1) First order – typography and layout
    2) Second order – document structure and usability
    3) Third order – the system or process in which the document sits eg the organisational planning system, the application process for an insurance product
    4) Fourth order – the structures, values and cultural elements of the organisational environment that impact upon how the way that system or process is designed or implemented

    What we often find is that designing a second order information product gives us a great opportunity to identify the third and fourth order issues that sit behind it, and thereby to undertake transformative interventions that go much further than just the document itself.

    One interesting element of our work is very much directed at the fourth order, and that is helping organisations to shift their environment and culture from traditional command-and-control, analytically driven management approaches to embracing design and introducing design capabilities and DNA into the wider organisational environment. You could call this a trickle down approach, in that we start at the fourth order in the hope that the design thinking will trickle down and eventually produce new thinking and approaches at the third and second orders in particular. We have worked on installing these sorts of capabilities in several large organisations and have a good range of experiences and learning to draw on – though with something as broad in scope as fourth order design, there is always much more to learn.

    If you want to explore some of the practical issues that arise in undertaking fourth order design, you could refer to my recent article “Creating the Right Environment for Design” in the Design Management Review, Vol 19:3 Summer 2008, pp. 16-22, in which I discuss a range of cultural issues that we have encountered in the course of introducing design processes and thinking into organisations.

    maurolicious said...

    Hi Arne,

    Apologies for posting so late, but I haven't been keeping up with your blog (sorry!)

    One of the things that struck me in the image was the question "Why can't organisations innovate effectively?".

    I met a couple of folks here in A'dam who believe that this problem is not due to lack of ideas, but rather the organisations' inability to create teams that work effectively in a goal-oriented way.

    They have developed a method to help organistions build such teams based not on competencies, but rather core values. Their system is based on organisational psychology research that was carried out at the University of Twente.

    By creating a personal "scorecard" out of a dozen or so carefully formulated questions, they can identify the kind of role you adopt in a team environment and thereby can recommend the other types of people needed inorder to have a "balanced" team.

    As you can imagine, this tool also has a great predictive aspect for existing teams.

    Here is their URL:

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