Fourth Order Design Talk

I’ve heard “fourth order design” thrown around a lot lately. The more I hear it, the more I would rather hear what the the person is really talking about. It makes me wonder whether the term helps clarify anything or actually muddies design. Can we not call design “design”?

To a degree, I think that’s what the Down with Innovation article was saying:

“Design is now so important, it seems, that designers can no longer be trusted with it, and to make it absolutely clear that control has moved into someone else’s hands, design needs to be given a fancy new name. Call it design thinking. Call it innovation.”

Is fourth order design along these lines? Perhaps not now, but it has potential. I wonder if it would be useful if it was a widely used term, or if it would be as meaningful as innovation.

Speaking of which, this wonderfully illustrated piece coming out of Adaptive Path’s recent MX conference contains the “I” word. Reading it, I wondered why innovation was mentioned at all. Could we not replace “innovation” with “design”? Would it make more sense?

I’m a bit against what I’m about to do, but let’s compare the definitions of innovate and design. Let’s start with innovate, which in Merriam-Webster only has one useful definition.

innovate (transitive verb) to introduce as or as if new

Design, on the other hand, is much richer, with lots of definitions. For brevity, I’ll only pull the first.

design (transitive verb) to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan

Given these two definitions, innovate does not work in the above piece: “Why innovate? To create better solutions, organizations, and world.” Introducing something new is no guarantee of better. This is the problem with innovation as a goal. If I were betting on better solutions, organizations, and world, I would put my money on design.

Personally, I would like to see designers call design by its name. That goes for business folks as well. Calling design something else so that it’s not scary will not help the discipline. Fourth order design, at least, contains the word design.

A concern I have for fourth order design is that while it may encapsulate some ideas about (new?) ways to think about design,  it may also splinter design by alluding to a hierarchy. Fourth is better than first, second, and third, assuming higher is better. Though I could see businesses feeling more comfortable dealing with design that is perceived to be on a higher level.

We have a hard enough time being on the same page when talking about design. Throwing around fourth order design does not make it any more clear. To make my point, I purposely haven’t defined fourth order design in this post.