The Four Orders of Design

With the surge of new concepts in design revolving around Design Management, Organizational Design, Systems Design, and the like, and the seemingly lost articulation of that domain set forth by Richard Buchanan, I thought this would be a good time to revisit the concept of Fourth Order Design, and lay out the orders and their origin in one coherent text.

Four Orders of Design

Dick was the first to describe design disciplines in four domains of activity: symbolic and visual communication or graphic design, material or industrial design, activities and organized services or interaction and service design, and complex systems or organizational design. A detailed description of these domains is in Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. The four orders are meant to describe design as a whole that expand beyond what we normally consider design, and move it into a new liberal art. By that, Dick meant “a discipline of thinking that may be shared to some degree by all men and women in their daily lives and is, in turn, mastered by a few people who practice the discipline with distinctive insight and sometimes advance it to new areas of innovative application.” By expanding beyond our concepts of traditional design disciplines we can see that all people design, from laying out the seating arrangement in a classroom, to preparing a holiday dinner with all the logistics and associated prep work. Everyone designs, only some do it well and do it well enough to make a career out of it. Design is everywhere as it is used whenever a person creates something that didn’t exist previously in this world, and so with that definition, it becomes more important to understand this fundamental aspect of human existence. As Herbert Simon mentioned in The Sciences of the Artificial, “The proper study of mankind is the science of design, not only as the professional component of a technical education but as a core discipline for every liberally educated man.”

The power in the Four Orders of design, lie not only in their clear articulation of design disciplines but also in their malleable nature. The Four Orders are places of innovation and not merely categories. Categories are used to describe what is, but places are used to create new concepts through the repositioning of problems. This concept of a place was described, to my knowledge, first by Richard McKeon in Creativity and the Commonplace, and was explained to me in Grad Seminar 1 at Carnegie Mellon by Richard Buchanan. A simple example of repositioning a design problem would be to take an architectural problem and then shift it into a communication design problem. This allows the architect to ask a different set of questions. Instead of merely describing spaces and routes to those spaces, an architect can ask “how does this space communicate its purpose?” and a project that was originally about material can be shifted into a rhetorical problem, having objects make arguments for their purposes. A more detailed example exists in Tony Golsby-Smith’s article, Fourth Order Design: a Practical Perspective where he takes a simple documentation problem and asks himself how he can ask larger questions that effect the systems that reside in support and creation of those documents.

Fourth Order of Design

When designers shift their problems into problems of systems rather than posters and toasters, they seem to move out of the typical designer described fields, and step into what is now being called Systems Design, Organizational Design, or Design Thinking, where the object of design is much larger than previously, and which is much more elusive to describe and display. Unfortunately because of this elusive nature of the object of design, terms such as Design Thinking have arisen being seemingly devoid of an object of design. Currently, Business Design seems to be the new meat for both the Management field and Design. For Management, it is a new process for the creation of business models and organizations, for designers this new field provides a new object of design to apply their process. Designers understand the process of creation and have gotten much attention through Harvard Business Review and its interest in innovation. Businesses realize that in the current economy, the old solutions offered by management consultants revolving around issues of efficiency are no longer keeping companies competitive. In the current fast passed world, the creation of new value for customers is king, and businesses are turning to designers for those innovative solutions and for their process of design thinking to foster innovation within larger corporations. So now we have designers working outside of the first three orders and moving towards the fourth, and business is getting interested. It’s unfortunate that designers could not rally behind one name for this field, but when designers can barely agree on definitions for Interaction Design and Interactive Design and who constantly argue about their inane differences, it makes sense that a discipline such as business would be the first to coin an appropriate term and stick with it.


In the current form of the four orders of design, there are four subject matters that designers focus on: signs, objects, interactions, and systems. These are the places where designers do their work. Richard Buchanan has often made a 4x4 array placing these subject matters across the left axis and those same subject matters across the top as well. This involuted formation always perplexed me until I dug a little into the history of the form, in class it was never clearly explained. These four areas can be seen as subject matters, but also as specific perspectives. As described earlier, if Tony Golsby-Smith were thinking of a document design problem as a systems problem, his subject matter would be signs and his perspective would be from a systems point of view. So placing his project in the array, it would be in the first row and the fourth column.

The following section tries to outline a few major contributors into this theory of the four orders of design, but i’m quite sure it’s incomplete and hopefully I will fill in more as I come across more information about this topic. This short history is also meant to be a list of pointers, a starting point for investigation rather than an expansive explanation, as that would be a lengthy set of posts and would most likely shift too far away from design anyway.


If you know Richard Buchanan, you would know that much starts with Aristotle. In this case, it begins with Aristotle’s Metaphysics among many other places. It seems as though philosophers, like designers, create frameworks/heuristics/sets of terms in order to explain and order this world just like us. Plato’s Sophist describes name-definition-thing, Kant describes knower-known-knowledge-knowable, Dewey had expression-communication, and probably from Aristotle, there is things-ideas-words. A whole list can be found here which is also where I learned most of this stuff.

Richard Mckeon

Mckeon, to my knowledge, seems to be the main contributor to the four orders of design. He wanted to create a system of philosophy where instead of arguing on topics or terms or perspectives, each would be related to the others in a systemic manner and would be based on a set of variables or starting points and from each starting point, a philosopher could explain all other philosophies through his own eyes and his own system. Instead of arguing over sets that philosophers previously used, there needed to be a way to connect all those sets and show that each are valid from each perspective. The first variable McKeon noticed was a re-occurring focus from being to knowing to meaning in philosophic epochs. You could imagine Aristotle’s list being derived because of his focus on being rather than having a semantic or epistemic focus.

With the realization that each of the philosophic epochs could be considered a philosophic approach and also a subject matter, McKeon started teaching a 3x3 array in his classes around 1938 and Plochmann and other gifted students luckily wrote this down as I can’t find much in McKeon’s original texts about the origins and mutations of these thoughts.

So now we have a 3x3 array describing philosophic variables of approach and subject matter by dividing each into things, thoughts, words. I would say that even though McKeon wanted to connect all philosophies, he certainly had a love for Aristotle which describes why his ordering set looks more similar to Aristotle’s than any other.

John Dewey

There seems to be a nice lineage from John Dewey to Richard McKeon to Richard Buchanan. McKeon was a student and huge admirer of Dewey (and Buchanan of McKeon), and because of that admiration possibly, McKeon noted Dewey as being the first in four thousand years of philosophy to introduce a new epoch of focus: action. The act of one thought/object/word on another could be a starting point to see the world, and so McKeon added that to his ordering set, so we know have words, things, actions, thought. Following that addition, a 3x3 turns into a 4x4.

Richard Buchanan

Changing Philosophic Approach to perspective and subject matter to domain of design, and we have the four orders of design as explained currently.

The genius is not in this one instance, but in that Richard Buchanan brought philosophy to design. He connected not only this system of pluralism of thought with a pluralistic approach to design thinking, but also connected rhetoric as the father of current design practice, and taught the tools used to craft well defined thoughts from philosophy to interaction design. And it is this same set of tools of thought that has propelled designers from posters and toasters into the world of business. It is the rigorous philosophic thinking that is at the heart of design thinking and it is that noble heritage that has encouraged many designers to fight for a seat at the table amongst CEOs and the like.

February 09, 2009 |