Four Squares: Tame or Wicked

Prompt: Using exactly four black squares, express the concepts order, tension, chaos, and one other concept of your choice. For each concept, create eight designs and judge which is “best” (1).

Solutions for “order” and “tension.” Credit: Student work, 2018.

Students use black construction paper, scissors, and glue to create the designs. Then, they transcribe and elaborate their work, producing a four-page written report that documents goals, process, solutions, and reflections.

I use Four Squares whenever I teach “Design Methods,” no matter what level (undergraduates, professional masters students, or doctoral students). Four Squares requires students to develop skills by engaging the problem. In relation to their work, I can name and introduce theoretical elements about design and throughout the quarter I invoke anecdotes of our shared experiences with Four Squares.

At the end of this 60-minute activity I make the seemingly outlandish claim: You can work with these ideas for a lifetime and never stop learning. By the end of the quarter students understand what I mean.

His materials are continually talking back to him, causing him to apprehend unexpected problems and potentials. As he appreciates such new and unexpected phenomena, he also evaluates the moves that have created them.

Donald A. Schön, 1990, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, p. 63.

The Four Squares activity positions students to learn about some the essentials of design.

  • Ambiguity. Beginning can be hard because the goal is unclear and there is no obvious way to get started.
  • Constraints. Working strictly within constraints, appropriately bending constraints to design creative solutions, and inappropriately breaking constraints.
  • Critique. Presenting work to everyone in class and receiving critical feedback while also giving critique.
  • Discernment. Making a judgement on the “best” solution. How do we do that?
  • Design Fixation. The challenge of avoiding local minimal and exploring an entire design space.
  • Emotion. Experiencing emotions, feelings of success, uncertainty, and perhaps incompetency and failure.
  • Ideation. Producing multiple, independent solutions.
  • Materials. Considering the affordances and limits of tools and materials (scissors and glue).
  • Perceptual and cultural dimensions. Some designs might rely on perceptual and embodied experiences; others, on culture and language.
  • Process. Varied processes can be employed — planning, sketching on paper, display-based explorations, borrowing ideas from others, etc.
  • Responsiveness. Taking action and creating designs; then, responding with new designs.
  • Rigor. Adhering, or not, to constraints and process.
  • Roles. Switching roles: Artist (creative ideation); Judge (selection); Explorer (looking outwards); and Warrior (persuasion and fighting).
  • Specialized language. Developing language for discussing and appraising solutions.
  • Skills. Appreciating that skillful performance – for example, cutting a square with even edges and applying glue evenly and neatly – is non-trivial.
  • Time. A design process begins and ends. Toward the beginning of class the atmosphere is relaxed, toward the end the work gets rushed, like many design processes.

Prior to this activity, students read Rittle & Webber (1973) and study the ten criteria of “wicked problems.” At the end of class, after students have presented their solutions, we ask the question: Is Four Squares is a wicked or tame problem?

We discuss. I guide students to make the best, most persuasive, arguments, on both sides. Students write up their views in their four-page reports.

You might think there is not much at stake with Four Squares – definitely not a “wicked problem.” And, you might be right. After all, we work with craft materials, not driverless cars on highways, data centers, or social media systems.

However, over the years my students have taught me that it is more complicated. For some students, Four Squares is a return to elementary school, a time of strong emotions. For other students, presenting solutions to Four Squares in the classroom and receiving comments is stressful. For students who are perfectionists, Four Squares can be challenging: It is not easy to cut straight edges and squares. Finally, some students dismiss the activity out of hand, asking, for example: What’s this got to do with the future of libraries and designing events that are aligned with community interests?

All of these reactions are understandable. I explicitly acknowledge them. Doing so helps me to create an intellectual community of honesty, courage, and safety.

With Four Squares, I can invite students to break the rules, which I think is essential in professional practice, but to also understand that not all rule-breaking is equal. Sometimes rule-breaking can enable a design (powerpoint or report) to transcend the prompt; other times, rule-breaking is a failure in judgement. Students need to find these things out for themselves. To position students to draw their own insights, I need to be direct, and perhaps arbitrary, in my assessments. I try to explicate my judgements, but at times words fall short.

In the future perhaps I will work with others to:

  1. Create a machine learning model that generates and selects Four Square solutions. We could use that model to explore meaning and interpretation and the nature of human and machine intelligence.
  2. Crowd source the design prompt and use the crowd to generate solutions and select the best solutions. We could use such a system to explore collective intelligence.
  3. Change the deliverable from a four-page written report to a t-shirt, which includes the prompt, the solutions, and a reflection on the nature of wicked problems. Students would wear their assignments, illustrating that design deliverables need not be written reports.
  4. Design a ten-week seminar for 1st year students in which students explore Four Squares in all its theoretical and practical intricacy.

(1) Four Squares is an introductory graphic design task from Wilde & Wilde (1991). I first used this activity in 2007, developing it with Prof. Friedman for a course that we co-taught (Hendry & Friedman, 2008). Since then, the activity has largely remained the same. That said, every time I use Four Squares something new seems to emerge, including discoveries about the nature of design and, specifically, about the process of developing common sensibilities and language for appraising solutions to Four Squares.

Hendry, D. G., and Friedman, B. (2008). Theories and practice of design for interactive systems: Eight design perspectives in ten short weeks. Proceedings of the 7th ACM Conference on Designing interactive Systems, DIS’08 (pp. 435-444). New York: ACM Press.

Rittel, H. W. J. & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169. 

Wilde, J. and Wilde, R. (1991). Visual Literacy. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.