Twenty Years in Design

As I previously discussed in my “Get started here” post, I have made every attempt to approach this project without focusing on any specific design niche, but rather as an advocate for designers across the spectrum of design work, education and practice. 

As anyone who has performed historical research on design knows, it is difficult to provide exact dates and times – many articles attempting to do so results in a multitude of disagreeable responses in the discussion forum. In this I am attempting to give a brief overview of design and some of its major transitions; using identifiers widely accepted, but not always. I ask that you not get caught up in semantics, but rather an overall desire to illustrate the ways in which the art and practice of design has adapted.

I wanted to focus on the last twenty years (~2000 to 2020) but felt it was important to ground this information with some of the events leading up to them. “Down the Rabbit Hole” is a recap of the 1960s through the 1990s – if you’re familiar with these events already, feel free to skip.


A very mini review of the
1960s – 1990s in design

In the 1960s and into the 1970s, the term design science was created and then developed more fully by R. Buckminster Fuller, S. A. Gregory, and Herbert Simon, an architect, engineer and cognitive psychologist respectively. By the 1980s, researchers Nigel Cross and Bryan Lawson began testing groups of scientists and groups of architectural designers to compare the unique processes and outcomes obtained to the same problem (Dam and Siang). This was the first conclusive suggestion that perspectives and processes outside of scientific methods might also aid in problem solving.

Co-design and participatory design methods were gaining popularity in Europe, especially in Scandinavia, as projects such as UTOPIA showcased the successful ways end-users could be included in social design processes (Lundin).


In the late 1980s and early 1990s the personal computer moved in: “The mass-adoption of home computers is a technological advancement comparable to the invention of the printing press, ushering in a new age for mass communication and granting access to esoteric art styles and digital software for new methods of creating art” (Ellis). Suddenly, anyone could be a designer. As internet access broadened, so did the connectedness between the profession. Shocking new visuals, like MTV’s logo, were redefining and elevating the role (and voice) visual designers, as one example, had in branding and advertising (Ellis). Influenced by participatory design methods, user-centred design reflected the increasing role computers had in our everyday lives, especially in work contexts (Pacheco). Additionally, new tools, such as prototyping, were gaining popularity – allowing designers to “quickly test, iterate and ensure the usability of designs before fully investing in the development of a product” (Pacheco). Embracing (quick) failure as part of an iterative process became an essential mindset for designers.


In the early 1990s, the IDEO agency was born out of the growing need for a formal design thinking framework. This Nightline clip illustrates how cross disciplinary teams were forming to solve problems, from complex ones to the everyday, like reimagining the shopping cart.

Also, in the early 1990s, design theorist and educator Richard Buchanan connected the dots between design thinking and wicked problems in a speech and subsequent article in MIT Press titled “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Though he wasn’t the first to use ‘wicked problems’ – a phrase first coined by Horst Rittel in the 1960s to describe a complex, multi-layered set of circumstances that have no direct or obvious solution – Buchanan was the first to really link design processes and their ability to support cross disciplinary discovery to create solutions for complex societal phenomena. 

He writes: “the sciences developed over time from the Renaissance and formalised in the specialisations and processes they used, becoming more and more cut off from each other… that design thinking has formed as a means of integrating these highly specialised fields of knowledge, so that they can be jointly applied to the new problems we are faced with from a holistic perspective” (Dam and Siang). This desire to understand users and problems in a more holistic fashion led to a transition to broader focus on user experience, or experience design, by the mid 1990s (Pacheco).


Designers were questioning their role in superficial consumer driven work – they were tired of “posters and toasters” and wanted deeper, more meaningful work. 

The scene was ripe for change as the 1990s came to a close, as both design researchers and designers were seeking deeper ways to explore and apply design for their own job satisfaction, as well as for the greater good of business, communities and society.

1999 – 2000


When the Design Council held their conference in London in March of 1999, there was a desire among design researchers to address the uncertainties facing the “value of design research, the nature of design research, the institutional framework within which such research should be supported and evaluated, and who should conduct it” (Buchanan,“Design Research” 3). While speaker Richard Buchanan noted the continued role traditional “form, function, materials and manner of production” played in what designers do and would continue to do, he also saw great opportunities for designers to explore deeper connections “through an investigation of what makes a product useful, usable, and desirable” (Buchanan, “Design Research” 13).

Later that year, Design Issues published an article of his speech titled “Design Research and the New Learning,”, where he first outlined his highly acclaimed four orders of design. This simple visual (figure 1.) captured the ways designers had been practicing under the symbols and things categories, as well as new areas of design that were beginning to take shape under action and thought.

figure 1: Richard Buchanan’s 4 orders of design

After exploring many different researcher’s takes on these orders, I found Milan Guenther, author of Intersection, had the best explanation of each of Buchanan’s 4 orders, as he originally intended them to be understood:



…or first order design, is about designing the symbols used in communication processes… It is about conveying messages and persuasive arguments, syntax, and semantics, to enable understanding and facilitate information exchange.



…or second order design, is about designing physical objects… It is about selecting and using materials, designing tools, and embodying technology, to support usage and integration in a physical context.



…or third order design, is about designing the behavior of systems and considering the actions of people… It is about designing processes, transitions and activities over time, defining the different states and options to choose from.



…or the emerging fourth order design, is about designing dynamic systems and environments… It is about designing the transformation of a system’s structures, functions, and flows, taking a hybrid look at the system and its dimensions and constraints” (Guenther 66).

As you move through the orders, the outcomes begin to change from very concrete ones, such as Graphic Design (first order) and Industrial Design (second order), into more intangible outcomes, such as Interaction Design (third order) and Organizational Design (fourth order). This newer third and fourth order work has a high focus on how people interact with the world around them, such as in service design, and form systems of behavior and purpose, where problems no longer have specific answers, and the art and practice of design must instead focus on finding acceptable solutions within a set of constraints.


Just a few months after Buchanan’s speech at the London Council, the fall publications of magazines Adbusters, Emigre, and Eye concurrently ran the “First Things First Manifesto 2000”. Updated from the 1960s original, this version “called for designers to use their skills to improve environmental, social and cultural life rather than to sell hair gel and dog biscuits” (Lupton and Lupton). Designers were also expressing a desire for more meaningful work but were frustrated with a widespread lack of opportunity to do so:

“We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication… toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning” (Barnbrook et al.).

It was a groundbreaking effort across many channels, and it challenged the notion that designers had nothing more to offer than supporting the marketing department’s latest gimmick: “Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do“ (Barnbrook et al.). It was a call to arms: designers, it argued, were capable of contributing to more important pursuits, pursuits that matter, change lives, and have greater impact.


(political commentary at the end is not a reflection of my personal beliefs)

The manifesto reflected a growing resentment that design — as a profession — had essentially “sold out” by supporting empty consumerism. In Emigre’s intro article to the manifesto, journalist Rick Poynor writes, “Design’s love affair with form to the exclusion of almost everything else lies at the heart of the problem” (Poynor). Many agreed; it was signed by over thirty prominent graphic and product designers, including Ellen Lupton, Milton Glaser, Jonathan Barnbrook, and Katherine McCoy, to name just a few.

In a rebuttal, designer Loretta Staples made the important distinction that designers would first need to ‘get over’ themselves and their own shiny productions if they wanted to move past the stigma of making “eye candy” (Staples). She ends her dissent by challenging the signers “to take a close hard look… take apart everything you ever thought you knew about what you’re doing. Set out in uncharted territory…” (Staples). While the manifesto pushed outward, it was Staples who helped it become a more reflective experience. For the next evolution in design, designers would need to look inward, perhaps accept some hard truths, and ultimately design’s “mythological status” would need to end (Staples). 

This meant that in the years that followed, the concept of single-handed design geniuses – a fantasy “perpetuated by both the design community and the media” (Canvs Editorial) – starting giving way to more collaborative, co-creative design work.

Up Next: Twenty Years in Design, Pt. 2