A DJ is not a conductor: Different design skills for different levels of complexity

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?

After Tweeting about Peter’s post (HT: Berend Jan Hilberts and Idea Hive), Helen Walters asked:

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.


  1. Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Excellent post Noah. The D1.0-D4.0 framework makes a lot of sense to me, and it helps me clarify some of the issues that I’ve had with ‘design thinking’ too (my experiences with people pushing that idea have been……. unsatisfying).

    The four tier approach reminds me of a similar framework that Umair Haque has put together for innovation, which basically climbs the same ladder. The main difference is that I’m not sure that we have gotten as far with thinking about innovation at the ‘higher’ levels. Which is interesting, and an opportunity too!

  2. Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Tim thanks for your comment. Do you have a link to Haque’s framework? Sounds interesting.

    The exciting and difficult thing about design (and innovation) at the higher levels is that it is much more social. Power and agency are distributed amongst more players, meaning the role of any designer is proportionally reduced. In my experience, it is more about coalition building, timing, and influence than about good ideas or attractive process. That said, the notion of small, “fail-safe” policy experiments and distributed cognition which Dave Snowden and others talk about has a lot of potential.

    I am really excited about the general perspective and energy that D1.0 and D2.0 thinkers bring to higher level problems. But I’m also sceptical (from bitter experience) that these kinds of skills and expertise will produce change on their own. But bring on the mash-ups! Lets just not bet the farm on them succeeding.

  3. Posted March 9, 2010 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    I think you’re exactly right in the middle paragraph of your comment Noah. It’s exciting and a bit daunting. I agree that small-scale experimentation is definitely an area of great promise.

    I’m not sure if Haque has written up the framework, but he explains it in a good amount of detail in the talk that I link to in this post:


    It’s an interesting one…

    Oh, and thanks for the kind words about my Innovation 7.0 post – I kind of like that one, and was disappointed when it seemed to slip past everyone. So it was great to hear that you liked it!

  4. Posted April 5, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    I largely concur with your analysis. See my recent book review of Lockwood’s “Design Thinking”: http://tinyurl.com/yk44h3q

  5. Noah
    Posted April 6, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink


    “When design simply parrots the brainless hyperbole that is so distinctive of much of the management literature it becomes bland and superfluous.”

    I like that turn of phrase. Thanks for your link and comment. I completely agree.

  6. Posted April 16, 2010 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    I’m late to the discussion, but I wanted to add: Noah definitely does know how to rock a club!

  7. Posted May 3, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Effing brilliant. right on the money. Take a look at Dave Snowdens work with cognitive edge, crossing complexity, knowledge management and organisational development.

  8. Noah Raford
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Grant. Good suggestion. Dave and I worked together on our effort to adapt Cognitive Edge software with an online scenario planning approach. Think you’d enjoy it.

  9. Posted May 13, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Nice – coals to New Castle..

    I’m working inside SME’s at the moment and its interesting how directly useful these ideas are, but also incredibly difficult to implement/action. In the concrete world of SME’s theres no room for deep thought or multiple iterations (meetings)to tease out or explore thinking models. Yet the unrealised or latent demand is there. I have found no tool that will, for example link scenario planning with cashflow forecasts to assess the impacts of ‘interventions’ or improvement investments. While we can easily capture the numbers all the contextual info (key assumptions) disappears the moment the white board is cleaned and the spreadsheet saved. In the big org theres time and resources to indulge the imperfect/imprecise processes. The SME is much less forgiving, the idea rapidly impacts – for better or worse…

  10. Posted January 15, 2012 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    Hello Noah: Have been traveling alot so just dropping by to say hello. Happy to see this dialogue.

    For those who might not know the NextDesign Geographies Framework: Design 1,2,3,4 can be utlized for many purposes in numerous contexts including program assessment, consultancy focus, restrategizing, project assessment, making sense of the marketplace, faculty assessment, community skills assessment, policy focus assessment, etc. The ideas within have far reaching ramifications for practice and education.

    For those interested here are a few resource & reference links:

    NextD Geographies: Making Sense of the Future that Has Already Arrived

    Occupy Reimagining Design

    ReReThinking Design Thinking

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