Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems in Design Thinking

According to Richard Buchanan, design thinking should be considered “the new liberal art of technological culture” (5). In centering design as a key discipline for shaping society, his goal is “to connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, […] in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present” (6). He argues that the disciplines that are traditionally understood as liberal arts once formed part of an integrated Renaissance education that comprised the scope of human knowledge, from philosophy to mathematics, to the sciences and the fine arts. However, he argues that today the liberal arts have become specialized and siloed from the sciences. He sees design, with its “interconnection of signs, things, actions, and thoughts” (20) as positioned to be a discipline that can genuinely bridge the humanities and the sciences in practical ways. Designers shape symbolic and visual communication, material objects, activities and organized services, and complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning (9-10). These domains operate across disciplines, so both the arts and sciences use design for problem-solving. This transdisciplinary quality makes design a valuable tool for addressing “wicked problems” (20): challenges that are indeterminately large and complex. Designers can address these problems because their methods are both general and particular, meaning that a designer can frame a general answer to a particular problem, and then reframe the solution in a new context. The transferability of design thinking to new aspects of a problem makes it an integrative discipline that can harnesses knowledge in interdisciplinary ways.

Buchanan, Richard. 1992. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues 8 (2): 5–21. https://doi.org/10.2307/1511637.

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

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/17547075.2015.1051829.

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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. https://vimeo.com/113233445.

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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.” https://www.academia.edu/11791137/Design_Dis_Orders_Transition_Design_as_Postindustrial_Design.

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