Different levels of design complexity
Peter Jones (@redesign) recently posted an excellent, considered conversation about different levels of design engagement, drawing on Richard Buchanan’s “Wicked Problems in Design” and GK VanPatter’s “four orders” of what we’re “designing for”. He links to a great (long) interview with GH VanPatter (of the NextDesign Leadership Institute), from which he pulls this essential quote:
The NextD framework of D1, D2, D3 is in essence a complexity scale. It is a post-discipline view that is process, not content focused. As a field of knowledge design is an amorphous time warp that exists across several time zones or paradigms simultaneously.
I particularly like how VanPatter considers different levels of design complexity, depending on what what you are “designing for”. I hadn’t read VanPatter before, and this classification immediately rang true with my experience.
Design 1.0 Artifacts and communications (traditional design)
Design 2.0 Products and services
Design 3.0 Organizational transformation (bounded by business or strategy)
Design 4.0 Social transformation (complex, unbounded)
Readers of this blog will be familiar of my critique of “design thinking”; that it is ill-defined, over-sold, and under-delivered due to overblown expectations and an inflated sense of self-worth. I completely agree with Peter in his view that, “the very notion [of "design thinking"] has been conjured and defended by non-designers for non-designers to more credibly borrow from the universal patterns of designerly action.”
Why is the design community suspicious of design thinking?
In your views, does the design community remain leery/suspicious of design thinking?
I would say absolutely yes, and for the reasons Peter and VanPatter outline above. But it depends on who you mean by “the design community”, as I discuss below.
The whole “design thinking” buzz which exploded in 2008/2009 resulted from D1.0 and D2.0 practitioners trying to apply their methods to Design 3.0 and 4.0 problems. Business saw the value of creative approaches to product design and marketing (D1.0 and D2.0) and thought, “maybe this will work for more complicated problems,” so they turned to firms like IDEO for higher level consultancy services.
D1.0 and D2.0 practitioners love this (and therefore love “design thinking”), because it helps them move up the corporate ladder towards more money, more respect and more influence. And in truth, some really good stuff has come from this collaboration.
The problem is that D3.0 and D4.0 problems are fundamentally different from D1.0 and D2.0 problems and therefore require different skill sets and experiences. This can be seen in the fact that there are already entire disciplines and specialists which have evolved over decades to deal with D3.0 and D4.0 problems, and that these experts and practitioners have spent lifetimes developing the tacit skills and knowledge about how to solve them (see footnote on my background, below).
So while D3.0 and especially D4.0 designers may draw from a similar set of core processes as D1.0 and D2.0 designers, the reality is that these challenges involve a fundamentally different set of skills and competencies than product or software design.
D3.0 and D4.0 problems require different skills
D3.0/4.0 problems are far more social, far more political, and tend involve many more people with vested interests and different goals. The role of the designer is much smaller, as well. The sociologist Manuel Castells summed up the contested, political nature of D3.0/D4.0 problems in his definition of urban design:
“We call urban social change the redefinition of urban meaning. We call urban planning the negotiated adaptation of urban functions to a shared urban meaning. We call Urban Design the symbolic attempt to express an accepted urban meaning in certain urban forms.” (Castells, 1983)
It’s like music. While a successful techno DJ and a successful orchestral conductor might both perform using the same basic tonal systems and musical theories, I challenge any conductor to rock a club in the way a skilled DJ can, or vice versa. Abstract knowledge about core processes does not translate to tacit knowledge about how to execute it.
The same is true with different levels of design. I’m a killer facilitator and business strategist, but my web design skills are fairly feeble. I can do it, but I wouldn’t expect to be hired as a professional web designer. Why should a web designer expect to be hired as a professional strategists then, in anything other than web design strategy?
“…limited powers with heavy responsibility…”
Getting back to Helen’s question, I find that D1.0 and D2.0 practitioners love design thinking for all the whuffie and attention it gets them, but D3.0 and D4.0 practitioners who have been slogging it out in the muddy trenches of this different world tend to find “design thinking” pretty shallow.
In a recent post (“The Coming Boom and Bust of Design Thinking”), I wrote that D1.0 and D2.0 designers hired on the back of the “design thinking” buzz are likely to encounter bitter disappointment as they bring their D1.0/D2.0 skills to the world of D3.0 and 4.0 problems. Social and strategic problems are more about political influence and social power than any given design solution. Navigating these waters requires an entirely different set of skills and awareness. Applying one to the other is like “promising ecstasy but only being able to deliver enthusiasm,” and will result in disappointment in most cases. This is what produces the kind of suspicion that Helen alludes to, in my opinion.
This is not to say that wonderful surprises and innovations will not result from this mash-up of design disciplines and problems. D3.0 and D4.0 methodologies could stand a shake-up as well, so a lot of incredible things have and certainly will continue to result (Design for the Other 90% and social games like Urgent EVOKE are just two examples which come to mind). But on the whole, I think Confucius said it best, “Weak character coupled with honored place, meager knowledge with large plans, limited powers with heavy responsibility, will seldom escape disaster. ”
NOTE: Although I got my start in architecture and web design (D1.0/D2.0), most of my professional life has been spent as a designer providing strategic planning and public policy advice to governments and business (D3.0 and D4.0). I also happen to be a techno DJ and yes, I know how to rock a club.