Fourth Order Design: The Underlying Structure of Communities and Moral Obligations of Designers

The design field is widening its scope as the world becomes smaller, tighter, and more complex. Designers need to be able to place themselves in the middle it all. Doing so, provides a vantage point to understand and make evident the invisible relationships present in the community. Depending on the context of these relationships, one will simply be rephrasing the same overall theme that is present in all communities. The community needs a responsible designer and the designer needs a responsive community. Otherwise, progress will not be based on an understanding that discovers subtle relationships.
A community is composed of relationships between people, objects, and ideas (Mapping by Bouman). The context of these relationships can vary; for example they can be schools, maps, or the law that provides structure to society. These are different examples of communities because they all create relationships between people, objects, and ideas. A school has within it the teacher-student relationship, the relationship between the student and the material being learned, etc. These relationships can then shift between the concrete and the abstract. A concrete relationship would be the architecture of the school. It creates a relationship between the people and the space. An abstract relationship would be a relationship between relationships. For example, we know there exists the teacher-student dynamic and there’s also the relationship between the student and educational material. An example of an abstract relationship is the interplay between these two. The vantage point gained by making visible the higher-order relationships allows one to understand influences within the community that had previously been hidden. It then follows that one can keep going up the scale of abstractness in order to further understand the delicate complexities of the community.
The designer is trained to make evident the relationships in a community. The relationships the designer discovers can then be presented to the community in a variety of formats. For example, it can be visual, auditory, gustatory, or any unique combination of the senses. The designer provides the mirror and holds it up to the community. The community now has the opportunity to rethink and understand itself from this different vantage point. The purpose of the fourth order designer is to make evident these relationships in the community in order for the community to better understand itself (Fourth Order Design by Smith). Knowledge of the self creates a relationship of responsibility with the self. The community can no longer plead ignorance for an action that is harmful to the environment or itself. I think the most a designer can do is convey his or her vantage point to the community (Design Education by Findeli). It is now the responsibility of the community to take action.
This may seem to be too strong a requirement on part of the designer, but the designer is trained to deal with complexities that are not always structured (Fourth Order Design by Smith). The unstructured environment needs a facilitator that is willing and able to put him or herself in the middle of it all. The result is creativity that stems from the mind of the community, not just the designer.