Design Will Not Save the World

I disagree with the notion that design as a discipline, and designers by extension, are somehow specially positioned to address the world’s problems. First let’s make some distinctions.

Puzzle Problems Wicked Problems Intractable Predicaments
Discover path to known and explicit end state Neither path nor end state are known, and often not even knowable These are not problems and therefore cannot be solved, we can only hope to mitigate or cope with thier effects
Public Policy

Engineering’s methods, values and activities are optimized to solve puzzle problems. However that which makes engineers good at solving puzzle problems also makes them bad at solving wicked problems, which design’s methods, values and activities are optimized to solve.

By analogy then, that which makes designers good at solving wicked problems also makes them bad at handling intractable predicaments. Indeed it’s almost trite to say that design is a problem solving endeavour. However predicaments are by definition insoluble. Approaching a predicament from a design perspective then necessarily treats it as a problem. This creates an inherent contradiction which asks all the wrong questions and usually results in worsening the situation. I wonder if such a contradiction also drives supply side thinking likewise resulting in worsening solutions.

I’m not saying designers should not engage. Indeed people are certainly not merely the sum of thier professional discipline’s methodologies. And so designers are also simultaneously citizens, parents, students, tax-payers, gay republicans, etc.–many of which are roles better positioned to help with mitigating the results of intractible predicaments than thier role as a designer. So I guess I’m questioning the design’s academically prevelent messiah complex.

Actually I’ll go a step further. I am going to make a bold and contentious proclamation (and on the scantest of objective evidence too): Design solutions to intractable predicaments end in either failure or tyranny.

I know at least one person who should have some good counter arguements.

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7 thoughts on “Design Will Not Save the World

  1. Well, I think that there’s a tremendous hubris in designers thinking that they are exclusively equipped to tackle wicked problems. But – I think that the ability to frame, to explore alternate problem spaces, and to provide alternate perspectives is key to addressing “intractable predicaments”.

    Effective public policy demands a design mindset at the table to develop effective approaches for mitigation. This may not mean a designer at the table, but people with a perspective about possibility and exploration is crucial. I’m wary that qualifying a situation as “intractable” leads to abdication, when what is needed is better tools (including that abductive approach) for policy development.

    While we won’t *solve* world hunger, war, poverty, healthcare, the environment, or short-term thinking endemic in the markets and elected office, there’s a false assumption that the objective is a universal solution that eliminates the situation. Designers have a contribution and an obligation – but not a monopoly.

  2. I just came here after reading Steve Portigal’s most recent post, – it seems interesting to me that as the trend towards ‘responsible design’ or ‘world changing design’ seems to become more vocal and visible, there is a corresponding trend indicating discomfort with the concept that design can save the world. does this mean something or am I just seeing patterns where none exist? I do know that the UK has made major strides in using design methods to re look at their healthcare and other public systems.

  3. I’ve seen some of the UK work you’re referring to Niti, and when you see the presentations (which I’m sure you have) I think its pretty clear where design has contributed and how these contributions matter.

    Of course there is no indication that design was involved in any policy level work helping to create the strategies to help mitigate healthcare predicaments. Rather design seemed to be involved at a more tactical level, to help conceive of solutions to particular problems. This makes sense given that design is about solving problems. Policy, however, is not.

    So while, as Jess says, designers have something to contribute and should contribute, I really don’t think that the world have been waiting anxiously for design to come along as save it–a hubris I’ve heard from some design academics, and one that makes me feel the discomfort you mention Niti. I never really had the language to make sense of this discomfort until Richard Farson spoke to me about the differences between “problems” and “predicaments,” and how addressing a predicament as a problem is a grave mistake.

    Yes Jess I totally see your point about the term “intractable” and how such a notion could easily discourage people from contributing, because well, what’s the point? Well, the point is not to solve a problem, but to make the best out of a predicament since the can’t be solved. But if designers approach predicaments as soluable problems they make the situation worse.

    Isn’t it better then to admit that there is no solution, that we shouldn’t try to impose one, and then focus on how we can best live with the predicament by mitigating its negative impacts? I’m certainly not trying to encourage abdication; I’m trying to discourage the hubris–because in terms of social predicaments, if Farson is right, such hubris could be very destructive.

  4. Unpacking I came across an article in an old adbusters magazine that exemplies my point exactly. The article is by Rick Poyner and is entitles “Designing the World: It can change everything.”

    My favourit exerpt from it is a quote from San Diego designer Bennett Peji, “[n]ow I see that anything is possible through graphic design.”

    uh… sure dude, what ever you say.

  5. Hehheh,

    As they say, the enthusium was great in the beginning. But I think reciently most designers, myself included, are starting to get a little dissillusioned and have found that they cannot change the world. The reason is many, including the a designers area of influence espically when i comes to business decisions.

    Karim Rashid also “…wants to change the world” but it would be interesting to see how he feels now a few years on from the date of his published book.

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