top of page
  • Admin

NextD Journal

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Peer Review Series

Welcome back NextD Journal readers! Happy beginning or end of summer, which ever suits your location. We are delighted to bring you this new peer discussion series. Big thanks to invited participants for taking the time to contribute their diverse perspectives.

With much of the design community still struggling to meet the real-world challenges of Design Arena 3 (Organizational ChangeMaking) and Design Arena 4 (Societal ChangeMaking), beyond product, service and experience assumptions, we wanted to return to a question touched upon in our 2020 book:

Is there a need to create designerly capacity in the community for a Design Arena 5, focused beyond community/societal contexts and considerations?

The purpose of this NextD Journal series, continuing our sensemaking focus, is to help readers make sense of the subject and current state of Design for Complexity, in this instance inclusive of the topics of rethinking design, adjustments to graduate design education and an imagined Arena 5.

Invited Contributors: (in alphabetical order) Alan Arnett (UK), Steven Forth (Canada), Arvind Lodaya (India), Sunil Malhotra (India), Elizabeth Pastor (USA/Spain), Tiiu Poldma (Canada), Roger James (UK), Wolfgang Jonas (Germany), GK VanPatter (USA).

I think there is value in reshaping designerly capacity, but I’m not convinced the answer is necessarily another Arena.

Why? I think my answer has to mirror my own designerly journey in some way. We all see the discussions, on LinkedIn and elsewhere, on what some of us might consider to be the narrowness of peoples' thinking, whether its focusing too far downstream/upstream, or juggling processes with diamonds and systems, or other recurring themes. What I’ve learned over the decades is that arguments about the models happen, not because the models are insufficient, but because people (not only designers) are rarely taught to notice their own habits and biases and their impact on, and collisions with, other people.

That’s what I would prioritize above or alongside Arena 5 - helping people understand their biases and habits, and how they show up every day. What happens when they get stressed/excited? Why do designers of so many disciplines constantly get frustrated at clients who won’t ‘just let them design’? Why do we still treat design as if it’s only a discipline primarily focused on individuals expressing their creativity, and not also a collective or shared change process?

That’s how I ended up where I am - starting by wanting to design cars, and ending up coaching business leaders and teams, because really changing things can’t be done just with the power of a shiny design, at any scale. It has to include working with the psychology of people.


The challenges for graduate design education related to what I describe include creating a multidisciplinary faculty who want to work together to deliver this :)

My own stumbling journey went from engineering design, through software design, then into change leadership, applied creativity, innovation, coaching, semantics and loads more. I’ve never seen the range of things I have to draw on in one place, because people generally focus on their own stuff deeply, and don’t look across. It takes people like us to join the dots. I look forward to the results.

Steven Forth: (Canada)

Yes, I believe there is a need for an Arena 5 and related skills capacity. The emergence of AI at scale is a phase change for humanity and our relationship to our own knowledge. It is changing how we learn new things, connect ideas and experiences, and make them real.

The current uses of Generative AI are mostly trivial but they do not need to be. We are just beginning to explore the design of the transformer architectures that are used to build large language models and to find ways to connect these models to other types of model. Knowledge is polyvalent and no one type model, no matter how large, can capture how we need to understand and shape our world.

AI will help us to find design solutions to some of our most pressing problems, which include adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, demographic shift and concentration of wealth.

AI will help us, but solutions to these challenges will not be found by AI alone. We need to understand how to design AIs for use in the context of current human understanding and how to use them to expand what and how we understand and act on our world. AIs also need to be embedded in other systems. Designing for this is a deep challenge.

One framing for this is embedded AI and social AI. There is a lot to learn from the embedded cognition and social cognition disciplines to guide us on the design and implementation of AIs and more importantly the social systems that develop and implement AIs. The corporate driven and corporate ownership model is not our only option.

The large scale emergence of AI will change how we generate and connect knowledge and how we weave this into our lives and communities.


The central challenges for graduate design education related to building capacity for an Arena 5 that I can imagine are in my view as follows:

Understand the alternate AI architectures and approaches, their strengths and limitations.

Understand AI ethics and governance principles and how to apply them to actual work. Know when to say no.

Understand the fundamentals of intellectual property rights and how these are changing.

Know how to build, augment and tune a large language model.

Know how to connect different AIs in new configurations.

Know how to design a GAN (Generative Adversarial Network).

Learn the basics of embodied cognition, social cognition and the application of evolutionary architectures and evolutionary algorithms to design.

Build connections with people outside of one's own discipline.

Design has gotten way beyond itself – if you compare its rhetorical discourse with everyday practice and impact. On the ground, it's barely influencing Arena 3, let alone Arena 4 or the hypothetical 5.

While we may have enthusiastically and optimistically developed frameworks for the future, our bread and butter still comes overwhelmingly from sectors of the global political economy that persist with 20th century business models. Indeed, design was designed in and for 20th century business models, excelled at it, but is now stuck with it.

It is a favorite tool of policymakers and politicians who continue to thrive on legacy models, but has failed to make any impact on them as far as its contemporary concerns and futuristic frameworks go.

Design suffers from an existential dependency on business and industry to actualize its vast potential. Unlike architects or doctors or even teachers, design has not figured out how to sell its value direct to consumers.


Design education further perpetuates the gap between high ideals and monetizable skills. As evidence, check out any undergrad student portfolio. At least 75% comprises the latter, the "idealistic" pieces are far fewer.

Graduate or doctoral projects are more esoteric, but they are designed for a career in academia, not so much mainstream commercial industry – the dominant patron and funder of design.

That is why design is increasingly being split along the middle - between (atelier) ideas that target academia and (real-world) implementations that target business.

Presciently, the consulting industry has picked up on the ideas piece and sells it as a commercially viable/valuable offering, backed up by solid implementation – the critical piece that design sorely and structurally lacks.

I have personally enjoyed some substantive and satisfying collaborations with this sector, but I do not think it should become our new patron either.

What this underscores, is that design cannot exist without manifesting its expertise – hence, it will always need patrons or other entities that “produce”, to whom it can offer its value-addition and close the creative loop. Structurally, this is not a great place to be.

Consulting also needs manifestation, but its expertise is research and knowledge – which can be manifested as reports and policy briefs even if there’s no sponsoring patron. Moreover, these are one-off and don’t require implementation at scale or mass-produced – which is another systemic Achilles heel in the design of design.

To make Arena 4 and 5 viable and substantive, design needs to forge a direct contract with community – ideally, with individual citizen-consumers too, if that’s possible.

Only when design is able to shake off its systemic dependency on mass-production and commercial enterprises, will it attain both the confidence and the groundedness to manifest outcomes and start having a meaningful impact on the ground.

On the question of need for Arena 5, I am reminded of this axiom: “Everything that is right or wrong with the world is the result of something design did or didn’t do.”

This makes design a meta discipline which needs to get its act together, lest this continues being self-fulfilling prophecy. While it is logical to presume the need for enhanced capacity both in scope and scale, the real question is whether or not it must be ‘created’ or emergent. The words of Raymond Loewy seem prescient,

“Design is too important to be left to designers.”

In the last few years, exponential technologies accelerated digital transformation initiatives against the backdrop of the 4th Industrial revolution. These technologies have been powering organisations, institutions and governments, while simultaneously disrupting them and reshaping them. Think ChatGPT.

“… legend has it, when chess was invented in sixth century India, the inventor of chess was given an audience with the emperor. When asked to name his prize, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice to be placed on the first square of the chessboard, two to be placed on the second, four on the third, and so on, with the quantity of rice doubling every square. What most people, including the emperor, fail to realise is that if this pattern continues, by the final square the emperor would owe the inventor eighteen quintillion grains of rice, more rice than has been produced in the history of the world.

The chessboard example is a useful tool to think about the dramatic impacts of digital doubling. In the first half of the chessboard we can still imagine the quantities of rice: after 32 squares, the emperor owes 4 billion grains, a number we can conceptualize. It’s in the second half of the chessboard that the quantities quickly become unimaginable. We have recently entered the second half of the chessboard.”

It is becoming more evident that an AI-led, exponential world needs a new understanding and a living navigation system. We need ways to radically transform our perceptions of ourselves, one another, and our life on the planet.

The piece-meal, reactive problem solving we have become accustomed to, not to mention the collective narcissism of humankind in ‘using’ everything to fulfil our selfish needs, must change.

1. ‘Designerly’ capacity is needed for sense-making, managing change and shaping the future, in the non-linear and exponential world as it unfolds-

• Design for sense-making: Knowledge often stands in the way of understanding. Making sense needs a wide lens, a standard design offering owing to the inter-disciplinary nature of the field.

• Design for managing change: Since design is one of the few ‘business’ professions that is driven more by culture than structure, change is a default setting for designers.

• Design for shaping the future: By its very definition, design is a future-focused discipline. It is about visualising the next ‘product’ and using resources, skills and technologies. It is best suited to understand and lead the way in so-called ‘wicked’ problems.

2. Design will have to deal with ‘immaterials’ which will be shaped using advanced tools and methods such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

3. Design thinking has been fraught with inconsistencies and unfulfilled promises and needs a makeover.

4. Design democratisation is upon us and mercifully so. It is time for design and designers to include the beneficiaries in the design process, even train them to self-serve in some ways.


Unsurprisingly design education is complex. First of all design education must embrace the idea that design is not merely a problem-solving game. The main draw of design is the designer’s burning desire to improve the lot of humankind.

The Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm, the mainstay of industrialised societies, is responsible for the shape of the current thinking. Our entire education system rests on it. Breaking free from generations of conditioning is the biggest challenge.

The following quote sums it up accurately—

“… as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


How do we harness the interdisciplinary orientation and nature of design? Can design education shoulder the burden of extricating ‘design’ from the tactical position it currently occupies in business and society and free it from its present role of primarily subserving commercial interests?

From our Ideafarms perspective; unpacking the value proposition of design education (may also be seen as challenges)—

1. Any new capacity in design education, at any level, cannot afford to ignore the need for vernacular curricula to enrich the discipline by incorporating the realities of native contexts.

2. Mandating a sound philosophical and ethical grounding is key to ensuring responsible design practices. Dialing up the spiritual aspects will help balance the material with the metaphysical to fuel design’s evolution. One challenge is for design education is to create positive sum thinking.

3. Design education to create designers as the powertools to work exponential technologies and AI. Is an opportunity as well as a challenge.

4. Can design education include entrepreneurship and tech literacy besides a fuller and concurrent understanding exponential technologies? Designers have to be exposed to the new digital materials, technologies and processes viz. Data, exponential tech and AI.

5. Creating the balance of philosophy, principles and practice in some measure over the present leaning toward design research and practice.

6. Solving the confusion around design thinking and coming to a common understanding of its longitudinal impact, and value across stakeholders. Preoccupation with design thinking models rather than actual benefit has been the trend.


Elizabeth Pastor: (USA/Spain)

When we published Rethinking Design Thinking / Making Sense of the Future that Has Already Arrived in 2020 it was the first time such a broad perspective around authentic problem finding within the subjects of design and design thinking had been shared.

We had spent numerous years doing community sensemaking research around the rather messy complex subject of design and we were happy to share the results. The practice-based NextD Geographies Framework describing what is inside the operating Arenas 1 to 4 was just one part of what was tabled.


Inside that book can be found many tips and hints regarding the arriving/emergent future of design and various directional considerations going forward. Many of the shifts explained in the book will keep graduate design education institutions busy for at least a decade.

Moving beyond Cross Over and moving Upstream are among the most important if we are to get a new generation of design folks engaged in more complex challenges. Many of the described shifts have direct impact on any graduate design education programe aimed at rising complexity of challenges. Anticipating a diverse audience, there are 25+ diagrams in that book explaining the various shifts.

I am myself particularly interested in how SenseMaking changes and becomes central to the contexts of Arena 3 and Arena 4 work.

At Humantific we no longer lead with the term “design” as what we are doing, and have been doing for some time is hybrid in nature. Our skill-building program, geared for organizational leaders, operating for more than a decade and representing 50% of our business is Complexity Navigation, not design, not design thinking. In it we teach hybrid skills for changemaking applicable to Arenas 3 and 4. For us this is a future that has already arrived. Inside those Arenas changes and adaptations to tools and approaches are required to be ongoing.

A lot of what we do in Humantific practice is future and adaptability focused. Visual Sensemaking is at the center of everything we do but we do not spend a lot of time considering how design might be applied beyond organizations, communities and the planet.

We are particularly interested in skilling up a new generation of Complexity Navigation leaders on planet earth. We do partner with a couple of university-based programs, including TeamLabs in Madrid/Barcelona and would like to do more in that direction.

Tiiu Poldma: (Canada)

If the question is whether or not graduate design education could improve how students are being taught to tackle the highly complex challenges facing communities and planet earth today, I would say the answer is a big yes. There is a need for graduate design education to move beyond itself, making the best of current state, to improve how we teach the tackling of complex issues. I envision a redesigned graduate design education, instilling in students the designerly capacity to understand, empathize, solve, create, and respond to global challenges.

For graduate students, there is a basic need to learn/understand how to:

-question the world around you: the way things are designed, the cost on the planet and the society…..

-question methods and look at issues and problems from a lens of multiple contexts that support and service the people for whose direct life experiences the idea will be implemented.

In other words, challenge graduate design students to learn to cut through (bs) and get to the root of problems and issues, collaborate to root out injustices and allow voices to reveal actionable change. Empathizing and facilitating collaborative change/experience/spaces using (critical) design/judgement. From my perspective, this is where a reconstituted graduate design education can play a valuable role.

Presently some of this is being done in graduate design education:

- How to empower recipients through design actions, wherein students respond collectively while within the spaces of experience, the issues, situations and problems. This goes beyond understanding arenas of problem challenges and wicked problems, in that the lived experience is highly subjective and not predictable. Creative thinking/design thinking are potential ways to structure and implement these design actions and that go beyond established structures, when creating what doesn’t yet exist...the unknown;

- How to be (learning to be) both in the problem (facilitate) and to be able to consider all the possibilities (design)within and outside the situation explored;

-Learning to hone skills of developing empathy for the user, the ability to think outside boxes created, and what knowledge and resources come to bear on actions, and not merely theorizing these contexts.

-Using design learning experiences as a place to mirror scenarios of the real world with perspectives that understand the past, the present and the future.

-Create scenarios for students to explore design as a vehicle for change using the situated contexts of real world problems and what has not yet been imagined.

-Structure thinking and ideas from a position of both intuition/creativity and empathy. Explore what is, what might be and what could be and design for actionable, desired change.

Integrating what already exists with what needs to be improved, with what can be learned from other disciplines for application to more complex contexts is itself complex work for any graduate design education community. This best describes not only current state challenges for design educators but where my own personal interests reside today.

In my view as a design educator, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water but clearly rising complexity implies new water that we needs to seriously take into consideration.

Absolutely, there a need! The history of intelligent design thinking is that of a ‘frontier’ occupation with a focus on the tractable and significant issues allowed by the technology of the day. This has moved from the mechanics of productions (50-70s) with techniques such as statistical quality control to the intervention in social systems (90s-now). Progress then is like a game of Tetris – with the current challenges ‘in play’ where we are adjusting aspects of the issue for coherent fit and the past challenges neatly put away.

In our Tetris model we have a new set of blocks coming with the ‘wave’ of super-intelligent systems, when we work through and transact with ChatGPT like capabilities embedded in the technostructure. The issue with such technology is the inexhaustible capacity to play games. We know from studies that technology mediated social service such as help desk are bedevilled by ‘games playing’ where a substantial number of calls are not to deal with substantive issues but with social issues – such as the desire to talk to someone. This ‘real world’ behaviour is a drag on the efficiency of the operation but possible because of the capability of the call centre agents. The challenge then of the ChatGPT like development is when they are introduced to play games which ethically go beyond playfulness into harm. For example games playing is addictive and ChatGPT could easily be configured to play a modern rock-paper-scissors on a premium rate phone line, or subversively introduced as an ‘attention waster’ or ‘opinion former’ in an otherwise legitimate transaction. There are of course many progressive and positive uses of the technology including ‘synthetic socialisation’ – amusing ourselves to death. So there is a case to be made that new design thinking for a new level of capacity in technology is needed.


Designing a complete curriculum is complex. There are immediate ‘strands’ that are required – a recognition and 3D understanding of purpose, an appreciation of game theory, the forensics of understanding when you are being played and a repertoire of archetypical challenge/response strategies. I would suggest the genesis for a new agenda exists in the work of Harold Nelson (The Design Way) and his thinking on abstraction and the design iteration between real, true and ideal. The focus of (3) requires more abstract thinking or as characterised by this picture (derived from Nelson – The Design Way):-

Wolfgang Jonas (Germany)

Already as far as ´Arenas´ 3 and 4 are concerned, one can be of the opinion that these are not design issues in the narrow / traditional sense, but rather political ones. Where politics can be viewed as a socially and organizationally determined decision-making and design process.

If one accepts the categorization (Arenas 1-4), then one can certainly think of a category 5: global / planetary design, which fits the discussion about the Anthropocene.

And one can imagine a category 6: interplanetary/interstellar design, which certainly caters to the fantasies of ´visionaries´ like Elon Musk and the like. And so forth, perhaps analogous to the "Powers of 10" by Ray and Charles Eames. Which would then also mean that you progress in the opposite direction (0, -1, -2, ...) of, for example, bio- / nano- / genetic design or whatever.


What has hardly been reflected so far: Leaving the "middle" range (Arenas 1-2 or 3) means taking a more and more distanced, Cartesian, even divine observer position.

It is overlooked that from Arena 4 at the latest we are inevitably involved and entangled in the subject of design and almost every attempt to design here degenerates into hubris and also shows no convincing results. We can talk so much about ´wicked problems´; basically our approaches are still first-order methods, no matter how much we invoke dialogue and participation and the like.

For me, the challenge is to reflect on design´s own entanglement in the systems to be changed / shaped and the resulting limitations. This requires giving up the classic mechanistic understanding of design that is still rooted in product design. Maybe even give up the term ´design´ itself to clear our minds.

What could develop would be a ´trans-discipline´* that integrates knowing and doing, facts and values. A trans-discipline that is always aware of the ´problem of control´ (irreducible complexity in social systems) and the ´problem of prediction´ (future uncertainty because of the basically evolutionary character of socio-cultural development).

Yet, my skepticism remains, because such a more reflective, and therefore necessarily more modest discipline, could not transcend the existing economic and military power constellations on this planet. Maybe it just boils down to a merry, post-heroic attitude of ´muddling through´, especially in the face of all the impending catastrophes.

*“We should be more modest, be happy with small transient contributions to the ongoing process of muddling through. This would be a big relief for the community with its heavy, self-imposed moral burdens of saving the world.”

* See: "A CYBERNETIC MODEL OF DESIGN RESEARCH. Towards a trans-domain of knowing”, in: Paul A. Rodgers and Joyce Yee (eds.) THE ROUTLEDGE COMPANION TO DESIGN RESEARCH, second edition, London New York: Taylor&Francis Group 2024 - Routledge-Companion-to-Design-Research/Rodgers-Yee/p/book/9781032022277

Of all the various subjects that we have taken on as professional sensemakers, among the most difficult was the subject of design for rising complexity, which evolved 2005-2020 to incorporate design thinking. Central to us tackling the subject was understanding the 1991 framework, often referred to as “Four Orders of Design” created by Professor Richard Buchanan. We would not have been able to flesh out and explain the ecology of the subject without coming to terms with the strengths and weaknesses of “Four Orders”. We did so in 2005-2006 as practitioners rather than as academics.

At that time, it was not difficult to see that the magic thinking aspects of “Four Orders” was being used in numerous graduate academic circles as a quasi-rationale for not recognizing need for change. There were NO change drivers inside “Four Orders,” which seemed to well suit the academic community..:-)

Ultimately suggesting a need to move beyond “Four Orders of Design” was not an easy lift for us in 2005-2006 but essentially, we saw, from a practice perspective, that the subject had essentially moved on from what was described there.

With the “orders” concept being rather esoteric and a little murky it was not difficult to see that “Interaction Design” and “Environments Design” did not represent the boundaries of what was being depicted as the furthest extension of design, its ultimate “4th order”. That was essentially a dated straight-jacket, that no longer applied to where leading practices were already operating in 2005-2006.

Upon close examination other difficult oddities popped up in “Four Orders” that also flew in the face of basic practice knowledge. There seemed to be several elephants in that living room.

The suggestion that a “2nd order” consisted of “Problems of Construction” while a “3rd order” consisted of “Problems of Action” and a “4th order” was “Problems of integration” did not map to any real world understanding of problems or problem intervention that we knew of..:-)

To suggest that those were the distinctions that represented “orders” did not ring true to practice. All problem interventions contain construction, action and integration. We did not consider those to be “orders”.

In addition, “signs, things, actions, thoughts” could be/can be found in most problem types…so again, with all due respect, not differentiated “orders”.

Furthermore in “Four Orders” we saw no descriptions/admission of how methods change across the “4 orders”. Instead, the suggestion that design was/is a form of transcendent magic thinking, capable of spanning across all orders prevailed. As practitioners we recognized that was folklore, philosophy not actual methodology.

When we looked at the often-cited project examples in design literature using the terms “Four Orders of Design,” "4th order", and “wicked problems” we saw primarily routine product design projects…not fuzzy, high complexity and not wicked problems.

Difficult subject: There is probably no other design related framework that has created so much cascading confusion and resistance to design education change as “Four Orders.”

Having said that we did note in our earlier comments that seeding confusion and resistance to change was probably not Dr. Buchanan’s original intention. From our earlier origins post: "To be fair to Dr. Buchanan it seemed unlikely to us that he intended his 1991 Four Orders framework to be cited for decades by slow to adapt design educators as a quasi-rationale for why no meaningful strategic change was needed in design education."

From our practice perspective, not only did the 1991 “Four Orders” not hold water in 2005-2006 but it was then and is now adding many layers of disorienting, misleading time-change-clock progression confusion that was serving to block true understanding of where design and related graduate education actually was/is, thus acting as a barrier to change.

Among other things “Four Orders” depicted a design community already operating in deeply complex situations, with methods all in sync, backed up by graduate design education programs when that was clearly not the case. In short, “Four Orders of Design” was being used to convey a false narrative, primarily in the graduate design education community. "Four Orders" had become a form of Kool-Aid more so than a timely organizing ecology.


Since our book mission was in part to make sense of the subject in order to point out an emerging future, we determined that rather than adding a 5th “order” in 2005-2006 it would be more meaningful to rethink the logic and introduce a different, less esoteric organizing principle for viewing the community ecology.

Out of that realization and our practice-based interest in challenge complexity came the NextD Geographies Framework. It set aside the Kool-Aid of design as a form of magic thinking.

Its premise is simple: As challenges scale in complexity different tools, methods and skills are needed. In fuzzy, highly complex situations what the challenges actually are is not known at the outset. Not knowing has significant impact on the skills and tools needed. That simple shift, was a vastly different orientation away from the traditional design notion of “briefs.”

While “Four Orders” was widely interpreted to (conveniently) imply that no change was needed in design and related education, NextD Geographies made it clear that change was needed if/when the goal is to operate in the context of increasing complexity. At that time that picture conflicted with several streams of academic narrative. Some remain in conflict.

Without anyone’s permission, NextD Geographies Framework recast the geographies for design and shifted the emphasis away from folklore, acknowledging that the skills of Arena 1 are vastly different from those required in Arena 3, organizational changemaking and Arena 4, societal changemaking. In NextD Geographies Arena 4 is described as focused in the societal challenges of “communities, countries, planet”.

Due to its reformulation, NextD Geographies in essence lit the fire under graduate design education and made the various spinning narratives around product, service and experience design transparent. Not everyone was thrilled by that clarity but more seem to be getting it now.

Today NextD Geographies Framework is central to not only how we make sense of this messy subject but to aiding understanding of its progressions, setbacks, red-herrings and variations. Conversations on the subject of design tend to go around in circles without an ecology framework being present.


For those who might not have studied the subject closely, and or missed that fork in then road the 1991 “4th order” from “Four Orders” has been inside Arena 2 in the reformulated NextD Geographies since 2006.

The emerging practice community has been operating far beyond that particular "4th order" for at least a decade. Organizational ChangeMaking (Arena 3) and Societal ChangeMaking (Arena 4) is not “Interaction Design”, is not “Environmental Design”.

Although we have been writing about Arena 3 and Arena 4 for more than a decade most of the traditional design community, including much of graduate design education remains in Arena 1 and Arena 2.

Much of the online discussions regarding “Design Thinking” including on the wildly popular Design Thinking Group on LinkedIn assume Arena 2, product, service, experience design orientation and logic. To say that another way, most of those LinkedIn discussions do not reflect where the emerging practice community already is and has been for some time.

In brief, with all due respect, if you want to understand where design is, where graduate design education is and isn't, set aside the “Four Orders of Design” magic thinking Kool-Aid.


At the end of the day what does all of that mean? To grasp the big picture of today its useful to imagine vastly different adaptive, time change clocks progressing at very different speeds in the various neighborhoods of design practice and especially in graduate design education. Some change clocks move rapidly, some very slowly, some don’t move, some go backwards.

Many layers of adaptive time change clocks moving at different speeds, but not acknowledged, is part of the engrained, somewhat hidden complexity of the design community of communities. The subject being so huge it is never really just in one place.

All of that helps us process and place Ai and other importations. While we celebrate the arrival and practical applications of Ai we do not get that confused with geographies. As earth shattering as it will no doubt become, Ai is not a geography but rather an approach, a set of automating tools that can be applied in different ways to Arenas 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Similarly, sustainability, is not in itself a geography but rather an increasingly important consideration within all of the Arenas. Likewise for systems thinking, not a geography but rather an approach to be applied across the Arenas. It seems likely that various versions of Ai will become part of the skill-to-scale picture within each geography.

Still in its infancy, right now we see a lot of Ai, being described/applied as a “game-changer” in the context of Arena 2, product option generation, as in; show me 100 different versions of a toothbrush/car. It is particularly good at framed divergence. How Ai is capable of contributing to the complex, human-oriented changemaking work of Arena 3 and 4 is at this point, less clear. Lots of folks are trying to figure that one out in real time that is now moving rapidly. In the context of complexity, some new skills will arrive and others will fall away.

Being adaptive capacity focused, years ago Humantific connected SenseMaking to ChangeMaking so we are among the folks wrestling with how to make use of Ai in those consulting contexts, taking into consideration its various privacy and accuracy issues.

Recently we have been looking at whether-or-not Ai is capable of the rather complex task of real-time, cocreated open challenge framing which is not straight forward divergence. So far, the jury is out on that one. We are looking at what Ai can and cannot do as an in-motion subject.


In closing, returning to the possibility of and or need for a Design / Design Thinking Arena 5: Lets acknowledge that there is finally a general, already identified need to move design beyond the assumptions of product, service and experience design. In our last book we contributed a list of 25 shifts related to graduate design education and proposed a new model better suited to the complexity arenas.

However, one might choose to slice, dice and package up that shift, whatever ingredients you want to add, whether you want to talk orders, evolutions or geography shifts, the need for change, for more skills geared to complexity contexts in design is certainly there. Clearly retweaking "double diamond" is not going to get the job done. Multiple robust changemaking trains now exist. Many more will no doubt be arriving.

Will there be Ai enhanced, sensemaking enhanced, sustainability enhanced, systems thinking enhanced, open challenge framing enhanced, life-centered enhanced versions of Arena 3 and Arena 4 practices along with related skill-building programs? Most likely many variations yes.

Some versions have added one dimension referenced above. Some think adding systems thinking is the silver bullet. Other versions integrate multiple dimensions. How quickly that occurs more broadly in its many variations depends on the various adaptive, time change clocks progressions, or lack there-of.

Already in motion in some neighborhoods, expect a lot of repeating starting points along the way. Expect lots of crossed signals, some competitive overwriting, some resistance, some hostility, some objections, some stonewalling, some big leaps, some hope and hopefully more clarity.

Some of the present narratives around hyping Arena 2 as meta will likely, hopefully dissipate during such movement. More folks are starting to get there is no more time left for going around in circles with Kool-Aid and the spinning of Arena 2 methods. Time to get real as that big clock in the planet earth sky is surely ticking.

Is there a geography beyond communities, countries, planet?

Being big Star Trek fans, we penciled in the possibility of a country-less, galaxy spanning Arena 5 in our book but if we take the super slow community time clock progression around the current Arena 2 fixation as any indication, it seems likely that a galaxy spanning version of design is not likely on the near horizon. That does not preclude the exercise of thoughtfully thinking about what it might consist of.

Let’s keep in mind that the planet itself needs our full attention at this time. Setting aside the Kool-Aid, the gap between the methods of Arena 2 and the increasingly complex challenges facing organizations and our communities remains significant. Lots of work still to do there. Strategic design requires significant progression, including Arena 3 and Arena 4 methods, if it seeks to engage the complexities that now exist.

Good luck to all.



Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page