Transforming the Design Process to Create Better Solutions

“All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act toward a desired and foreseeable end constitutes the design process.”
—Victor Papanek, The Green Imperative

Solutions always arise out of the design process. Any time we conceive a course of action aimed at solving a problem, we are designing. Design involves scripted or coordinated activities, the formulation of messages and narratives, and the creation of physical artefacts. All of these combine to form the myriad solutions (good or bad) we see around us everyday.

Because of its ubiquity, design is implicated in most of the large complex problems confronting us in the twenty-first century. Such problems are often referred to by the design disciplines as wicked problems, a term coined by planner and theorist Horst Rittel. Wicked problems, such as poverty, terrorism, and the global financial crisis, are characterized by contradictory, incomplete requirements and interconnected, interdependent variables that make them extremely difficult to solve. Sometimes solving for one aspect of a wicked problem creates or reveals others. Because of their high degree of complexity, Rittel posited that it is impossible to know when a wicked problem has been solved.

The transition to a sustainable society is a wicked problem and is the largest design challenge of our time.

Donella Meadows, the late environmental scientist and systems theorist, wrote a groundbreaking essay in 1999 entitled “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” which argued that within any complex system there are key points at which change can be catalyzed or leveraged. Examples of complex systems are a company, a city, an economy, a living organism, and wicked problems. She outlined 12 leverage points for change in increasing order of effectiveness.

At the least effective end of the spectrum, we can change the amounts of things; we can do more or less of something. A more powerful way to impact a system is to change the configuration of its infrastructure. However, sweeping change is not possible until we begin to work with leverage points such as changing the rules of the system or even its goals. According to Meadows, the most powerful leverage point is the mindset or paradigm that governs the system, i.e., how we think.

Einstein famously argued that we cannot solve problems from within the same mindset that created them. How and what we think always precedes how and what we design. Therefore, truly sustainable and appropriate design solutions can only arise out of a more holistic and ecological worldview.

Authors such as Fritjof Capra (The Turning Point and The Web of Life) and Morris Berman (The Reenchantment of the World) have written extensively about the characteristics of an ecological worldview: a shift from objects to relationships, from hierarchies to networks, from a human-centered focus to a “web of life” view, from short- to long-term thinking and from solutions based upon growth and financial profit to those based upon quality of life for all species over long periods of time.

Bringing a new way of thinking and a different posture to the design process can significantly shift the trajectory for design solutions. The most powerful leverage point in the design process is the point at which the problem is framed and parameters are established.

The late Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface Carpets and Solutions editorial board member, famously talked about his shift in worldview in 1994 after reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. His shift in mindset led to the company’s transition to sustainability. The resulting practices, processes, and design solutions are catalyzing industry-wide change. Consumers didn’t ask for this change and investors didn’t require it; Anderson’s shift in worldview demanded it.

This new mindset led Anderson and his team to reframe the problem of providing floor covering to consumers. Traditionally, the industry had sought to meet the narrow objectives of providing quality floor covering to consumers while sustaining the company’s growth and earning profit for its investors. Anderson and his team changed the goals of the system. Instead of treating growth and profit as the company’s primary objectives, they included concerns for people’s health (those who worked for the company, those connected to resource extraction, and those who might be affected by the product’s demise when it went to the landfill). They also included concern for the planet (i.e., how resource extraction and after-life disposal affect other species and ecosystems).

As soon as design solutions are framed within contexts that include people, planet, and profit, relationships to larger, wicked problems are instantly revealed. Creating solutions within these new, complex contexts will require us to think in terms of systems, and to leverage their inherent dynamics to design for lasting, meaningful change. Until designers shift to a more holistic worldview, design will continue to be part of the problem, not the solution.