What’s Wrong with Wicked

By Dianna Miller

Six months have passed since the Design Ethos conference. Looking back,
I think we got schooled as a community of designers…in the best way.

During the DO-Ference, designers succeeded when we dispensed with ego and worked in the presence of what was possible, what was larger than ourselves, when we came together and listened deeply, built upon one another’s ideas, collaborating in the midst of what was naturally emerging in the moment, improvising, “yes, and…”as our performance brethren would say.

But, when we arrived in the moment with a plan, a process, a method, or a sense that we had greater expertise and experience (despite the fact none of us had ever lived in that moment before), we encountered resistance, unexpected results, and frustration from others who couldn’t picture where we were coming from—literally or figurative. And why should they? In these moments we learned that nothing was as we initially assumed.

If, as a designer or human being, you have ever been fortunate enough to have your assumptions busted in this manner, then you have discovered this is where real learning, real transformation, and wisdom happens…if you allow it.  To be sure, some of us at Design Ethos had moments when we blamed circumstances or other people for not conforming to our ideal or being who we wanted them to be, and we may have suffered as a result.

But, I observed many more moments when we tuned in, adapted, and then collaborated with fresh understanding. There were some terrific tangible deliverables in the end, but I believe the most valuable outcome was intangible: a paradigm shift around what it means to be a designer and a community member.


This brings me to semantic nit I’ve been pondering since the conference. Design thinkers academically and colloquially refer to social innovation projects like the Waters Ave. initiative as “wicked problems.” In 1992, Richard Buchanan presented Horst Rittel’s description of a wicked problem thusly in his famous article, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking:

“[These are] a ‘class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’.”

It has been useful to practitioners and theorists alike to identify and name this particular kind of design problem—one that is indeterminate, with no “definite conditions or limits,” no stopping rules, or definitive lists of features or tests—but I wonder if, in a subtle way the connotation of the word,  “wicked” itself keeps designers rooted in an older perception of our role that may not help us evolve as a profession as we move toward social innovation.

In the case of the Waters Ave. project, we designers from across the road and around the world put our collaborative practices to work for the sake of an extant community that, while struggling with serious, indeterminate economic issues, is nonetheless assured, creative and proactive in its own right. As in all communities, behaviors and outcomes naturally emerge when people come together.

We must ask ourselves, if emergence is natural, does it help to call it wicked? As design thinkers, what does it mean when we label a social systems problem (or other naturally emergent phenomena) with a word that connotes evil, immorality, and maliciousness?

Do we perceive these problems as wicked because we, who would prefer to control outcomes, don’t feel entirely comfortable with chaos, conflicting values, or unexpected outcomes? What exactly is our intention as designers? By reframing (without redefining) the wickedness of a wicked problem as being its liveliness, we may start to shift mindset.


During Design Ethos, I took time out to catch Terry Irwin’s talk on design for living systems—a topic I’m mildly obsessed with as a service designer. Taking cues from bioscience, she describes in AIGA Living Systems Principles the characteristics of open systems (which include social organizations such as communities):

—They are self-making, continually changing—you may create change through a “perturbation” in the system, but you can’t predict it.

—They maintain themselves through exchange of energy, keeping a state of disequalibrium that results in growth and change. Stasis in a living system is death. In other words, chaos means life.

—They have emergent properties: physical forms and behaviors that arise unpredictably in response to perturbations in the environment.

—They are decentralized, comprised of systems nested within systems where patterns, forms, themes, repeat themselves at various scales.

—They display extreme sensitivity to initial conditions; small changes have the potential to create large variations in the long-term.

At the DO-Ference, successful living systems designers worked spontaneously and intuitively around these principles by doing the following:

—Make something, put it out there for feedback right now. Instead of planning and controlling, participants quickly and iteratively “perturbed” by creating and introducing messaging, artifacts, and prototypes into the context… just to see what might happen. Those who didn’t know what to make, simply made something in order to discover what to make.

—Stay flexible, try things and let go of outcomes. Participants (designers and community stakeholders, alike) stayed present and accepted momentary confusion, disorganization, or change in direction as part of the process, adapting as they went. As the Grove’s David Sibbet says, “there is no failure, only public learning.”

—Improvise: the play is the thing. By listening and responding to others’ ideas and engaging with sketches, prototypes, frameworks, and improvisations, participants fostered faster emergence: these “played” the design together.

—Ask someone else: seek input from many sources, and document as you go. When teams were at a loss for answers or ideas, they connected with people from other teams, when into the field to research, connect with others. By documenting the journey, they collected evidence of patterns as they were forming.

—Set the stage, create prompts, watch for subtle response. Participants worked to create connections, positive first impressions, and accommodations for colleagues in the studio spaces.

In  short, to design for social systems, we are the models we create, and we’re always iterating—that’s life.


Dianna Miller has been an user interface designer and design strategist for over 20 years, for companies including Adobe Systems, WebEx Communications, and Rearden Commerce. She was also a Design Principal in the Design Systems group at eBay. In 2010, Dianna developed and implemented the Service Design curriculum at SCAD. She presently works freelance in Boston, Massachusetts.


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