The arrival of a post-industrial age and the introduction of knowledge-work has had a significant and lasting impact on the way our economies and societies operate. Very rarely do things remain the same, and very rarely are problems isolated and easy to solve (Dorst, 2015).
Our problems have become modern; they are ever more sophisticated, connected, and human. The strategies and problem-solving techniques that emerged throughout the 20th century have become inadequate methods of responding to challenges. Strategic frameworks need to operate in a volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous world, and problems can no longer be solved with one-sized-fits-all approaches (Akama and Prendiville, 2016), they become wicked.
This separation of hard and soft problems, with a tendency to favour more tangible definitions, is a tension that has existed for centuries. Both Isaac Newton and Johan Wolfgang von Goethe were at odds in their view of the world, and that view has remained pervasive in society even today. Isaac theorised that human experience is a result of physics and scientific measurements, while Wolfgang von Goethe believed this theory to be a disservice to humankind (Krippendorff, 2006).
The tension continues throughout our modern world, as seen by Adolphe Quetelet's definition of the 'average man', a notion that still defines the design of many things (Truffelman, 2016). Art vs. science is an authentic and relevant discussion and sets the context for many of our modern wicked problems.
Regardless of the art vs. science discourse, there is no denying that although wicked problems may have external causes, they are lived and felt genuinely and humanly; as individuals, we experience the world through our very own nervous system (Krippendorff, 2006).
The structure and culture of modern organisations amplify the intensity of modern problems. These structures and cultures favour objective, transparent, and factual elements and avoid soft, ambiguous, and emotional exploration; organisational leaders avoid at all costs subjective conversations that are emotional and awkward (Lencioni, 2012).
In response to the modernisation of work and the introduction of economic and societal wicked problems, there has been a dramatic rise in the importance placed upon design as a form of expertise. Design has presented itself as a new world tool for problem-solving and sense-making.
Design and co-design have a long demonstrated history of success in solving wicked problems, whereby designers change their role and act as facilitators to experts, inhabitants, workers, and those in the lived experience being discussed and designed to produce more relevant products and services (Szczepanska, 2017). Co-design emerged through a need to solve more complex human problems and become more than collecting feedback on design outcomes that have been created by specialist professionals (Al-Kodmany, 2001).
If we consider what Buchanan offers as a definition to design, 'design is the way we plan and create actions, services, and all of the other humanly shaped processes of public and private life', then co-design merely is undertaking the design process with those in the lived experience, at the front-line, working, observing, and empathising with them in realistic conditions (Turnali, 2016).
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the idea that individuals could be a design partner emerged in North America and the individual as a design participant in Europe (Sanders and Stappers, 2008). In both user-as-participant and user-as-partner approaches, outcomes and ideas are more innovative, economically more efficient, and improve the cooperation and responsiveness of different groups (Blomkamp, 2018).
In other words, co-design explores the wants and needs of users at the moment in time, and appreciate that they do not appear without exploration; different experiences form our wants and needs over the years (Rolston, 2019).
Blomkamp (2018) explains that 'for specialist practitioners, co-design is a distinct set of principles and practices for understanding problems and generating solutions. It signifies the active involvement of a diverse range of participants in exploring, developing and testing responses to shared challenges'.
Co-design as a device for solving wicked problems has manifested itself in many ways within modern organisations, notably as human-centred design and Design Thinking. Although design is certainly not a new practice, its importance has increased, and it has become a strategic advantage for organisations.
This manifestation is not about design aesthetic or designerly-thinking, but applying the principles of design in how we work to solve problems (Kolko, 2015) and into design thinking.
The ascension of design is predominantly through an ever increased adoption of Design Thinking and a Human-Centred Design (HCD) approach to problem-framing, problem-exploration, and problem-solving—by both designers and non-designers alike (Irani, 2018). Design Thinking has brought about a shift in focus for organisations from that of technology and features explicitly to design and experience for humans.
As a practice, Design Thinking and Human-Centred Design are both much younger than designerly thinking, but the adoption has increased swiftly. In one interpretation, Johansson-Sköldberg et al. suppose that this increased usage is as a result of Design Thinking, and Human-Centred Design is a means for managers to understand design in more direct and tangible ways than through the more traditional design discourse, of which is built on a platform of soft skills, abstract intuition, and insight.
A reduction of design ambiguity suits the business world well. Predicated on predictability, typical leadership models favour managers who can master knowledge based on analytical thinking, which harnesses both deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning (Martin, 2009). These forms or logic declare truths and certainties about the world that is clear, concise, and importantly not ambiguous. The goal of this model is mastery through rigorous, continuously repeated analytical process.
As Martin (2009) discusses in his book, The Design of Business, 'judgement, bias, and variation are enemies. If they are vanquished, the theory goes, great decisions are made, and great value will be created'. Modern problems, however, are not simple and require collaboration to be solved effectively. Collaboration within organisations has produced unparalleled wealth and life expectancy gains over the last two centuries, not from individuals acting alone (Laloux, 2014).
As the author has explored, modern problems are complex and problem-solving needs to change. The practice of design has demonstrated the strength and ability to solve complex and connected human problems. Design and Design Thinking provides safe passage, though not without peril.
Design Thinking is, therefore, a comfortable place for organisations and intricately balances leaps of logic (science and physics) and leaps of intuition (humanity). Design Thinking and Human-centred design offer a steadiness of structure where there is otherwise chaos and makes promises that innovation and problem solving can be more comfortable, more continuous, and more repeatable (Irani, 2018).
For organisations, the business environment can be so volatile that a company must experiment with multiple paths in order to survive (Kolko, 2015) and because of traditional organisational structures favouring objective, transparent, and facts they are often rigid and inflexible. For a good reason, then, design as a form of expertise has become more accessible through short-form and straightforward introductory experiences (Akama and Prendiville, 2016) that give individuals a newfound sense of agency.
Nevertheless, this increase of access and agency to design and user experience fails to deliver on results needed; falling short of expectation and infrequently producing outcomes for complex problem solving (Dorst, 2015). Because many practitioners of Design Thinking gain their experience through short-form introductory courses, this frequently reduces design to a toolbox where specific design methods are used out of context (Johansson-Sköldberg et al., 2013) and as resulting from this, methods alone have become the centre-point of design and design practice (Akama and Prendiville, 2016).
When the definitions and practices of design are overly simplified and generalised and operationalised at speed as innovation, collaboration, and co-design, then almost any organisation appears to be doing it (Blomkamp, 2018) and perhaps only so as a feel-good 'check-box' exercise.
In this new world of problem-solving, designers now have a significant burden placed upon them. As wicked problems are generally human problems, they are inherently shrouded with dilemmas of social, ethical, and cultural nature. Wicked problems often include a need for design practitioners to employ empathy around trauma, gender, diversity, and complex human relationships that require expertise in sciences such as psychology or economics not typically equipped by a designer.
This is one of the significant challenges of the explosion of design access and agency and not a rejection of the skills adoption and place for design, but a conscious acknowledgement that unless designer practitioners understand the far-reaching nature of their work, it may be meaningless and deliver no impact, or even deliver harm to those in the lived experience of their work (Buchanan, 2001).
Tension in the field of design has emerged. Methods and techniques cannot be reduced down to a formula (Akama and Prendiville, 2016), but the democratisation of design is required to make space for, and effectively integrate the diversity of thinking and perspective (Blomkamp, 2018).
For years design has been begging for a seat at the leadership table. Because design has historically been perceived to be concerned only with aesthetics and craft, designers have relegated to artistic masters, but not business leaders. However, a design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life (Kolko, 2015).
Design Thinking has provided a means for the entire design practice to contribute to strategy and innovation, meaningfully, and to underpin the successful businesses (Johansson-Sköldberg et al., 2013). So suddenly the reality of this newfound importance is setting in, alongside significant challenges in the role and responsibility of design.
Designers should be careful about what they wish for, as they may not be prepared for the reality that awaits them.
Design practitioners are beginning to realise that design itself is not the centre of wicked problems or the centre of a system, but as participants that are actively creating, moulding, and shaping interactions with outside forces, ideas, events beyond them (Slavin, 2016).
Designers must, therefore, actively recognise that they are part of a much larger system and work accordingly. As Slavin (2016) describes the situation, designers are not 'stuck in traffic' they 'are traffic'. This conscious uncoupling of a designer from the design space will reduce the burden placed upon designers, and reduce the impact of their ill-equipped nature.
For designers to see a conscious uncoupling all the way through, the role of a designer and design must be reconsidered altogether (Slavin, 2016) through the lenses of both expertise, and the human lived experience. Designers cannot leverage
To resolve the tension in the design field, we must adopt the practices of co-design more actively and recognise the role each participant will play, their unique lived experiences, and the relevancy of both to the wicked problem. By taking the time to slow down and understand the problem at a fundamental human perspective we can be more successful in our pursuits (Lencioni, 2012), and designers can avoid the social, ethical, societal issues that mire the booming practice.
The conscious uncoupling of the responsibility of design begins with design leaders, and there is an active role that they must play in resolving the tension. The burden of design begins with design leaders who become more prone to intuitive bias, the more their expertise develops. The growing expertise of design leaders can turn into a perceived knowledge and reveal itself in ways that are restrictive and closed (Turnali, 2016) while at the same time taking on more responsibility for the wicked problem.
Design leaders can bring clarity to the practice of design, by first acknowledging the expertise they bring, and the expertise they expect from others within co-design activities and by making space for the individuals and methodologies that are not usually present in design (Akama and Prendiville, 2016).
For co-design, Human-Centred Design, and Design Thinking to be effective at solving wicked problems while successfully navigating cultural, social, and economic issues without the introduction of additional harm, the methods and tools need to be carefully selected and applied to each wicked problem (Steen, Manschot and De Koning, 2011).
Without mindful and intentional curation, design may become another one-size-fits-all approach with limited success, and remain the practice of well-intentioned individuals, carrying a burden that is not theirs to carry alone.
A leader in design and strategy with a passion for human–centred design systems.