Wow, that’s been quite a break.
I’m going to call this Season 2 of 1992. Thanks to those of you who stuck around, and welcome to those of you who signed up since the last issue.
Remember the huge craze for design thinking a few years ago? It was everywhere, initially driven by Tim Brown of IDEO and his TED talk and book.
I was an academic when “design thinking” began to break out into the mainstream. Design academics were a bit mystified by it because while it was gratifying for people to be talking about design it all seemed a bit divorced from how designers understand what they do. The ways that design academics talk about design thinking is not the way that Tim Brown does.
In 1992, Richard Buchanan wrote a paper for the journal Design Issues called “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”.
I must have read this paper 25 times since 2006. It’s long and it makes a complex argument.
I’m going to structure this issue around the sections of the paper. It’s for my benefit; I get lost in Buchanan’s argument.
Buchanan says that no-one has really been able to define design as it keeps “revealing unexpected dimensions in practice as well as understanding”.
Spoiler alert: Buchanan is saying that understanding design is a wicked problem. The paper is Buchanan’s attempt at solving the wicked problem. Like all such attempts, he’s not totally successful, but in his attempt he makes it clearer how to solve it next time.
we have seen design grow from a trade activity to a segmented profession to a field for technical research and to what should now be recognised as a new liberal art of technological culture. (Italics in the original)
Later in the paper, he says:
The history of design is not merely a history of objects. It is a history of the changing views of subject matter held by designers and the objects planned and produced as expressions of those views. One could go further and say that the history of design is a record of the design historians views regarding what they conceive to be the subject matter of design.
A lot of design history is at the “trade activity” and “segmented profession” level. It’s why people can make jokes about the design literature mostly being pictures of chairs.
In this paper, Buchanan is trying to say that design thinking has escaped the academy and it’s become something else: a new liberal art.
For something to be a liberal art, it has to be an “integrative discipline” for understanding communication and action. It has to “connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike” to understand the “problems and purposes of the present”.
The idea of “integrative discipline” is key to Buchanan’s argument that design is a new liberal art.
The word “new” in “new liberal art” is an explicit reference to the writing of American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (not to be confused with the Dewey Decimal guy). John Dewey wrote in the late 1920s about the difference between old and new liberal arts. The old liberal arts were about subject matter expertise. The new liberal arts are about integrative and experimental thinking.
Dewey uses the term “technology” as a synonym for “experimental thinking” which is what you can do when you’re a philosopher.
Buchanan links this idea of experimental thinking, ie technology, to design. Because technology – things we have made – are so much a part of everyday life, Buchanan says that design is something that shapes everyday life. But then he says that just because we say that design is something that shapes everyday life, that doesn’t mean we know what design is.
Buchanan says that design is moving ideas around between four “orders”. The four orders are:
Signs are often associated with graphic design, but Buchanan says it’s also scientific illustration, and any two-dimensional communicative medium, including film, TV, and “computer display”.
Things or the design of material objects tends to be seen as industrial design but also includes clothing, tools, instruments and vehicles.
Actions is the design of activities and organised services. We’d understand this today as service design and also logistics. Buchanan says this area is one where design thinking can be applied to make experiences more “intelligent, meaningful and satisfying”. (He footnotes Lucy Suchman’s Plans and Situated Actions and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow here.)
And the fourth area is the design of complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning. This is obviously architecture and urban planning but also systems engineering.
Given the number of visualisations of what’s come to be called “Buchanan’s Four Orders of Design”, a lot of people seem to get this far when reading this paper and stop. But Buchanan says that while “it is tempting to identify and limit specific design professions within each area” that “would not be adequate”!
because these areas are not simply categories of objects that reflect the results of design. Properly used and understood 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. (italics in the original)
And he says:
There is no reason to believe that parts and wholes must be treated in ascending or descending order.
(Which means that most of those “four orders of design” graphics are wrong!)
Buchanan says that the four areas “are not only interconnected, they also interpenetrate and merge in contemporary design thinking with surprising consequences for innovation”.
Buchanan explicitly says that “innovation comes when the initial selection is positioned at another point in the framework”. He gives an example from a “large retail chain” which realised that people had problems navigating their stores. They tried to solve this with larger signs, but found “the larger the sign, the more likely people were to ignore it”. After observing how people moved through the store they concluded that people navigate by looking for “the most familiar and representative examples of a particular type of product”. The store put the archetypical products in prominent locations and people could now navigate the store effectively.
In this example, Buchanan shows how instead of using an explicit sign, people were trying to use the meaning of a thing to tell them what action to take. The design solution was to make the semantic use of products easier.
Buchanan says that this simple example shows how innovation isn’t about categories but is about placements. Innovation is about moving between signs, things, actions and environments.
Categories have fixed meaning. If the retail chain thought their problem was one of signage, they could have never found the solution. Placements are not rigid, though they have boundaries that can limit meaning. The boundary of a placement is a way to give an idea some context.
What this means, according to Buchanan, is that moving something around between the four orders (ie signs, things, actions, environments) can create a “new possibility to be tested”. He says that placements are where new ideas come from. Placements are they key to Buchanan’s idea of experimental thinking.
This part of the paper suddenly veers off into a new direction. Buchanan introduces “wicked problems” and explains them in depth before bringing it all back together.
While scientists share in the new liberal art of design thinking, they are also masters of specialised subject matters and their related methods.
This creates one of the central problems between scientists and designers, because the problems addressed by designers seldom fall solely within the boundaries of any one of these subject matters.
Buchanan calls this problem of understanding between designers and scientists “an excellent example of a wicked problem of design thinking”.
Horst Rittel proposed the idea of wicked problems in the 60s “when design methodology was a subject of intense interest”. Rittel was trying to find an alternative to the then popular linear model of design. A linear model of design will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the double diamond. There are two steps: problem definition and solution definition.
Buchanan is not a fan of the linear model.
He says that while “such a model may appear attractive because it suggests a methodological precision” and seems logical, it’s ripe for criticism.
Some critics were quick to point out two obvious points of weakness: one, the actual sequence of design and design thinking is not a simple linear process; and two, the problems addressed by designers do not, in actual practice, yield to any linear analysis and synthesis yet proposed.
Instead of solving linear problems, Rittel said that designers tend to address wicked problems. Rittel:
wicked problems are a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values and where the ramifications in the whole system are throughly confusing.
Buchanan calls this the difference between determinate problems and indeterminate problems. In determinate problems, the designer’s job is to understand the conditions and work to a solution. For indeterminate problems, there are no definitive conditions or limits to the problem.
It’s too easy to stop here and say that design problems are wicked problems, or that design is for solving wicked problems. Buchanan goes further. He asks:
Why are design problems indeterminate and, therefore, wicked?
His answer is so clever. Design problems are wicked because design has no “special subject matter” of its own, apart from what the designer decides. Design thinking can be applied to any problem, but in doing so, the designer must “discover or invent a particular subject” out of the specific circumstances.
At this point, Buchanan brings the idea of placements (signs, things, actions, environments) back to the argument. He says placements are how a designer shapes a situation and “turns it into a working hypothesis for exploration and development”.
The placements the designer chooses are how they create a hypothesis suited to the particular circumstances. They create what Buchanan calls a principle of relevance for knowledge that originated somewhere else.
The idea of finding the principle of relevance is what Buchanan was setting up back in the beginning of the paper when he wrote about design as an “integrative discipline”.
By this point, Buchanan has resolved the “liberal art” part of his description of design as “a new liberal art of technological culture”. In this last section, he addresses what he means by “technology”.
Many people continue to think of technology as its product rather than its form as a discipline of systematic thinking.
He says that doing design is creating an argument. The argument is about how to integrate knowledge to address the particular circumstances of the design problem at hand and how to apply that knowledge to make something.
This leads Buchanan to say that design is a way to think about, and argue about, the four areas he identified earlier: signs, things, actions and environments. He says that design has an advantage over “mere verbal” argument.
Argument in design thinking moves towards the concrete interlace and interconnection of signs, things, actions and thoughts. Every designer’s sketch, blueprint, flow chart, graph, three-dimensional model or other product proposal is an example of such argumentation.
Back when he was explaining Dewey, Buchanan said that technology was “integrative thinking”. For Buchanan, design is a way to think about signs, things, actions, and environments, all at the same time. It’s a way to pick and choose what’s relevant from everything currently known to solve the particular problem in front of you.
Remember the spoiler? Here’s what I wrote:
Buchanan is saying that understanding design is a wicked problem. The paper is Buchanan’s attempt at solving the wicked problem. Like all attempts, he fails, but in his attempt he makes it a little more clear how to solve it next time.
The paper isn’t an argument that design is for solving wicked problems. The paper is an attempt to solve the “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”.
There’s less “design thinking” about these days – it doesn’t seem to be something that’s interesting in and of itself any more. It’s not now (was it ever?) something that practicing designers say they do, when they’re designing. When I encounter it, it’s something that people say they’re doing when they use workshops to collaborate on a solution, usually with post-it notes. This is better than one person deciding on a solution and a team of people being directed to uncritically produce that solution, so I’m ok with that.
More broadly, I think this 29 year old paper shows how uncritically we accept easy narratives about how (design) work gets done. A linear process feels, as Buchanan wrote, logical and suggests a sort of methodological precision. It looks good in a business proposal. In Buchanan’s version, we know that when we try to design something truly new, we tend to proceed in a piecemeal way. Each move we make shows us how wrong we are. It doesn’t feel like making progress – and projects are managed and assessed by how much progress they make.
It’s a much harder thing to write in a project plan, but we might get better design outcomes if we try more placements and less categories. Designers who put themselves into the category of UI/UX designer limit their ability to address situations by thinking through signs, things, actions, and environments.
Finally, there’s an unstated danger in this paper, or maybe an unreflective overconfidence. Buchanan says that design can be applied anywhere, and it is up to the designer to set the “principles of relevance”. A lot of bad design has happened that way. In 2021 we know, or we should, that it shouldn’t be up to the designer to set the principles of relevance. The principles of relevance should be set by the people who live and work in the situation at hand.
If we really embrace the idea that understanding design thinking is a wicked problem, we’ll give ourselves more permission to accept that we can’t solve any problem. We might even let ourselves admit that design thinking can’t be applied everywhere.
Buchanan might also be responsible for the feasible, viable, desirable Venn diagram. Or rather, misreadings of Buchanan might be.
He says that effective design relies on the ability of designers to integrate:
But then he says that you can’t treat these three things as “isolated factors that can be added together” or “as isolated subject matters to be studied separately and joined late in a development process”. (I think Buchanan thinks of these three areas as industrial design, engineering and marketing anyway not the hated three “-iables”.)
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5. https://doi.org/10.2307/1511637