The 4 orders of design

Dick Buchanan postulated at CMU and in his writings that there are 4 “orders of design”, based upon product type and dimensionality (as well increasing complexity level and scope of influence). These orders map closely to the traditional commonplace labels ascribed to design disciplines, like graphic design or industrial design.

  • 1st Order: signs and symbols >> graphic design/2-D products
  • 2nd Order: objects >>industrial design/3-D products
  • 3rd Order: services and activities >> interaction design, service design/4-D (time or motion-based) products
  • 4th Order: systems and environments >> architecture, urban planning, organizational design, systems architecture, etc. (N-dimensional, multiple axes of concerns and change including society, government, community, public policy, law, natural ecologies, etc.)

For starters, it’s important to not get hung up too much on these labels, but instead to take a “topical” approach to what these orders may mean, as conceptual places for interpretation and invention, towards understanding their potential, both intellectually and professionally for the various design disciplines. There is no value judgment as to whether one order is “better” than another order. It’s simply a way to organize an ever growing and complicated field of activity.

What’s really cool is what interaction design and subsequent fields mean as places for design activity with post 3-D situations, dealing with people, time, motion, change, etc. Interaction design in particular is at a crucial nexus, as a novel and transitional field. There is a controversial (maybe for some folks) mix of principles and techniques from “yesterday’s design fields” (graphic design and industrial design) and “tomorrow’s emerging fields” (service and systems design).

For instance, typography, color, imagery, grids, layout all still matter greatly when crafting the well-formed engagement with a digital interface, whether it is a website, cell phone app, or your car GPS or even an electronic toaster. Those elements shape the message of the product and communicability of the interface to the user, just like a speech composed for an intended audience, swaying them towards some specific action or attitude.

In addition, high-level issues of social relationships, touchpoints for brand identity, feedback loops via customer service, overall architecture and flow through a system, must be considered just as important when designing a piece of software or other form of technology interaction. Increasingly, issues of public policy and organizational process “design” are taking on flavors of interaction/communication, within broad contexts of business and government–trending towards designs of the immaterial, shaping people’s relationships, behaviors, and values rather than distinct “products” per se on the shelf at your local electronics store.

It is this fascinating and provocative potential for interaction design thinking (with its inherent concepts and methods) borne from rhetorical traditions that i find the most exciting, in addition to the cool sexy rich interfaces and interactions, of course :-) Not just limited to websites or software or gadgetry, but influencing larger spheres of activity concerning people and their problems, in other contexts.

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