Transition Design

A Vocabulary for Visions in Designing for Transitions 

Candy and Lockton arrive at a vocabulary for visioning that is synthesized from practitioners and researchers working in diverse fields and who work “on questions of vision, futures, and how they relate to the present.” (28) They offer seven words: lenses, imaginaries, backcasting, dark matter, circularity, experiential futures, and new metaphors to think through transition design in a practical manner. Candy and Lockton bring their experience in research, education, design (Lockton) and experiential futures design (Candy) and invite others “to contribute lenses they find useful for new ways of seeing” (44). The hope is that through this exercise we expand the cases and terms we can reference and that we may establish a better “sense of how to do what needs to be done” (44).

Lockton, Dan, and Stuart Candy. 2019. “A Vocabulary for Visions in Designing for Transitions.” Cuadernos Del Centro de Estudios de Diseño y Comunicación 19 (73): 27–49. 

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Six Pillars: Futures Thinking for Transforming

Future studies researcher and professor, Sohail Inayatullah, presents a new approach to study the future. He proposes six foundational concepts that describe how individuals, organizations, and government might think about, or approach, future thinking: the used future, the disowned future, alternative futures, alignment, models of social change, and uses of the future. E.g., Used future: Is your image of the future, your desired future, is it yours or is it unconsciously borrowed from someone else? Alternative futures: We often believe that there is only one future. We cannot see the alternatives, and thus we make the same mistakes over and over. Ultimately, he believes that “futures thinking helps create the conditions for a paradigm shift. The organization imagines a new future, creates a new strategy, enables stakeholders, uses tools and then a new future emerges” (6). Inayatullah also offers six questions, which can be summarized as questions about will, fear, hidden assumptions, alternative futures, preferred future, and next steps. These questions connect to the hopes and fears mapping method in Transition Design. Lastly, he offers a theory of futures thinking which consists of what he calls ‘six pillars of future studies’. This is linked to methods and tools and can be used as theory or in a futures workshop setting. The pillars are mapping, anticipating, timing, deepening, creating alternatives, and transforming. Findings: In an increasingly complex and heterogeneous world, futures studies can help people to recover their agency and help them to create the world in which they wish to live.

Inayatullah, Sohail. 2008. “Six Pillars: Futures Thinking for Transforming.” Foresight: The Journal of Futures Studies, Strategic Thinking and Policy 10 (1): 4–21.

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Cosmopolitan Localism: The Planetary Networking of Everyday Life in Place 

How do we envision sustainable long-term futures? And how do we guide actions to realize these visions? Kossoff proposes that the nascent concept of cosmopolitan localism needs further development. Globalization is at the root of many “wicked” problems, but to only turn to localism is simplistic. While many theorists suggest a future place-based lifestyle, we also need to consider the advantages of being networked at multiple scales, from households to neighbourhoods, cities, regions and the planet.  Cosmopolitan localism, Kossoff suggests, should advocate for self-organization at the local level but should also try to be networked. By developing and engaging in a local network we build local resilience, which facilitates reinhabitation. A networked society is a prerequisite. SLOC communities (Small Local Open Connected communities proposed by Ezio Manzini in the 2010s) share knowledge and resources. SLOC communities develop self-managed economies “wherein manufacturing and agricultural production would be largely for local consumption” (58). Communities are nodes rather than centers of production separated by great distances. Everyday needs should be satisfied by local communities and be tailored toward specific cultures and ecosystems. Individual actions can support local networks, e.g., eating at a local restaurant that gets their produce from a local farmer, who employs local workers. Engaging with the local network creates a decentralized and non-hierarchical organized system resulting in social, economic, and political power that is distributed.

Kossoff, Gideon. 2019. “Cosmopolitan Localism: The Planetary Networking of Everyday Life in Place.” Cuadernos Del Centro de Estudios de Diseño y Comunicación, no. 73: 51-66.

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The Three Horizons of Innovation and Culture Change

Daniel Christian Wahl, author of Designing Regenerative Cultures, reports on a framework that he, as well as other future practitioners and members of the International Futures Forum, developed to engage with the complexity of the interconnected problems we face today. They named their approach the “Three Horizons” framework.  Three Horizons thinking attempts to make sense of and facilitate cultural transformation, and to explore innovation in an uncertain future. Three Horizons is a foresight tool. “It describes three patterns or ways of doing things and how their relative prevalence and interactions evolve over time.” The first horizon describes established patterns/systems and a ‘business as usual’ scenario, the second horizon maps out disruptive transitions where innovations are more effective than existing practices--but not always transformative; when they are transformative, they lead to the third horizon which identifies new emerging patterns. These three situations co-exist at all times and tell us about the future by analyzing our behaviour in the present. The Three Horizons methodology prioritizes solutions that create and sustain regenerative patterns and accepts that we learn from experience and are always in “an apprentice mindset.” Wahl suggests that holding facilitated conversations using this framework allows us to see things through diverse community perspectives. This step, he proposes, has the potential to transform and innovate cultural norms.

Wahl, Daniel Christian. 2017. “The Three Horizons of Innovation and Culture Change.” Medium: Regenerate The Future (blog). 07 2017.

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Transition Design: Design-Led Societal Transition Toward A More Sustainable Future

Transition design theorists Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff and Cameron Tonkinwise present an exploration of their new theory of transition design at the 2013 AIGA Design Conference. Their talk covers the basic principles of the theory, a discussion of “cosmopolitan localism” as a desirable model for a sustainable culture, and the role of designers in leading society through a transition to this “sustainable everyday life” through planning processes that consist of a series of “situated actions” rather that rigid plans. They discuss the need for teams of interdisciplinary experts to collaborate with grassroots, “place-based” communities and argue for nonhierarchical relationships between communities, regions, governments, and global networks. They envision a future where respect for ecosystems is built into society and where exploitative labour is a thing of the past. They propose models of design thinking that they suggest can help achieve these goals.

AIGAdesign. 2013. Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff & Cameron Tonkinwise. Video. Head, Heart, Hand: AIGA Design Conference.

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Transition Design: A Proposal for a New Area of Design Practice, Study, and

In the paper, Irwin proposes transition design as a third sub-discipline of design, alongside design for service, which shifts design from its traditional focus on objects to user interactions, and design for social innovation, which moves the discipline from the marketplace into socio-cultural domains. Both subdisciplines are part of a movement towards the “codification of replicable skillsets and methodologies” (231) in design. Irwin places transition design at the end of a continuum, seeing it as a third subdiscipline that takes a broad view of design by placing it in the context of sustainability. Transition design acknowledges that all design takes place within a natural environment. It has the capacity to link the former two disciplines within this awareness and can help designers leverage their work towards desirable futures.  This essay provides a valuable introduction to the theory of transition design. Irwin presents the elements of her theory, explaining how transition design operates within a framework that considers the posture and mindset of the designer, visions for the future, comprehensive theories of change, and new methods of design. Each of these elements provides a vantage point for considering how transitions to sustainable living can be achieved. Irwin argues that design can contribute to resolving the “wicked problems” (234) of the 21st century and she sees evidence for this in the way that other disciplines are increasingly turning to design for support to map out and resolve important issues.

Irwin, Terry. 2015. “Transition Design: A Proposal for a New Area of Design Practice, Study, and Research.” Design and Culture 7 (2): 229–46.

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Living Systems Theory and Its Relevance to Design: A Matrix

This two-page document describes the qualities of living systems that designers can draw upon to begin integrating design and natural systems. Ten key concepts are covered: (1) living systems are “organizationally open, self-organizing and ‘autopoetic’ which means they generate order and change from within. Designers must work carefully with living systems to harmonize with and not disrupt their natural order; (2) they “operate in a state far from equilibrium”: living systems take in and expend energy continuously and designers must learn to channel the emergent flow of energy rather than seeking to reduce a system to equilibrium; (3) they “have emergent properties”: complex systems operate uniquely at many levels and designers must be able to design for adaptation and change rather than rigidity; (4) their “structure is networked, holarchic, and fractal” and design solutions must also be holistic in nature; (5) living systems are “Are sensitive to initial conditions” which means that small changes can have long-term effects. Designers must take the time to observe natural systems over time, and they should consider the ramifications of even small interventions; (6) they “Are controlled/regulated through feedback” and designers must learn to account for feedback loops when intervening in living systems; (7) “when healthy, [they] have high degree of diversity” which should be cultivated by designers; (8) they are “comprised of non-linear relationships,” which therefore requires designers to work slowly and iteratively, taking pause to assess the impact of their work on the system; (9) “whole and part relationships are nonhierarchical”: living systems are complex and the whole is difficult to see. Designers should refrain from imposing artificial boundaries around the system; (10) they are “full of interdependence and cooperation,” which designers should cultivate. They should also refrain from interfering in relationship webs, working iteratively to assess impacts before proceeding to initiate greater change (2).

Irwin, Terry. 2012. “Living Systems Theory and Its Relevance to Design: A Matrix.” In Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, edited by Stephen Harding. Floris Books.

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Wicked Problems and the Relationship Triad

In this text, Irwin introduces four key points for changing our perspective on how design can intervene in society: (1) our “wicked problems” are as complex as the living systems they are embedded within (1), (2) people, environment, and things are intertwined in these systems, (3) new forms of design are required to address this, and (4) new ethics is required to develop new solutions. Irwin defines “wicked problems” as limitless, complex issues that cannot be easily conceptualized and argues that before designers can contribute to solving wicked problems, they must develop expert skills in seeing and understanding them, which means a departure from the oversimplified business-oriented worldview. In the second half of the article, Irwin defines an expanded “living systems” worldview that will provide designers with the tools to engage with wicked problems (2). Finally, Irwin provides examples of how interventions into systems can either compound or defuse wicked problems depending on whether they accurately assess the complexity of the systems in which they are intervening. Irwin concludes by arguing that new design principles that account for the relationship triad are essential if we are to move towards a sustainable future.

Irwin, Terry. 2012. “Wicked Problems and the Relationship Triad.” In Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, edited by Stephen Harding, 232–59. Floris Books.

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Cameron Tonkinwise, Transition Design, Konstfack 2014

Cameron Tonkinwise, Director of Design at Carnegie Mellon, outlines the evolution of design from the Bauhaus era to the present, exploring how designers have been variously defined as form-givers, designers-in-service, and now as change agents. As the enablers of mass production, and therefore mass consumption, designers are the originators of the central problem of our time: the excesses of material proliferation and waste. The only way to solve the problem at the root of their very discipline is to change it from within. Movements in design, like participatory design, digital interaction design, and service design have shifted the discipline towards a human-centred activity rather than an object-oriented approach. Tonkinwise sees value in these movements and identifies an important shift from the designer as the solver of a given problem to a definer of problems themselves. Tonkinwise embraces Ezio Manzini’s theories as a critical “redesign of design”. Manzini argues that designers should lend their service design skills to laypeople embedded within the problem contexts they face. The designer makes solutions drawn from the grassroots easier and more sustainable and then spreads this good idea to the wider society. For Tonkinwise, design now occurs in support of change-making through the spectrum of service design, design for social innovation, and transition design. Designers make futures by adding things to the present that create futures, and new things create new habits and new practices: herein lies the problem and the hope for design.  

Konstfack, ID. “Cameron Tonkinwise, Transition Design, Konstfack 2014.” Vimeo, February 26, 2024.

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Design’s (Dis)orders: Mediating Systems-Level Transition Design

Traditional design suffers from a duality that leads it astray: designers’ obsession with improving the function of objects leads to constant innovation and endless material products that end up in our environment as waste. This relentless perfectionism is accompanied by design’s utopianism, which Tonkinwise calls a kind of “megalomania” (5): the belief that a perfect, universally functional society can be developed through systems thinking. These tendencies have links to the history of design: perfectionism is the care of craftsmanship filtered through industrialization, while design’s links to Western philosophical hierarchies lead to universalist, technocratic tendencies. Transition design seeks to resolve this tension, first by widening perspectives on what is considered design, and second by considering the significance of the interplay between objects and contexts. It considers designed objects as infrastructure, and it understands that design occurs in multiple scales, none of which is less important than the others. Transition design understands objects and systems as interdepended. However, unlike utopian forms of systems thinking, transition design does not seek a perfect resolution or end point to design challenges. It understands that wicked problems are infinitely complex and builds adaptability into its worldview.

Tonkinwise, Cameron. 2014. “Design (Dis)Orders: Transition Design as Postindustrial Design.”

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The Dynamical View of Natural Form

Irwin and Baxter call for a paradigmatic shift in the way that designers work, from a focus on form to a focus on relationships. In the West, the focus of design on form stems from our mechanistic worldview, they argue. This worldview is limiting in that it prioritizes the quantifiable, individual parts (rather than their relationship to one another), and human supremacy in the natural world. Adopting Goethe’s ‘way of seeing’, the authors argue for a dynamic understanding of unity, in which form is seen as a process that can evolve, rather than a constant. Only when designers can understand that we are parts of a whole, can we design sustainably for the future.  

Irwin, Terry, and S. Baxter. 2008. “The Dynamical View of Natural Form.” In Design & Nature IV: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering, edited by C. A. Brebbia, 129–38. WIT Press.

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