Daily Reflection 20: Wicked Problems

Today I focused primarily on the history of Wicked Problems. I have been familiar with the concept of wicked problems for some time, but I had never thoroughly read the articles that describe it. The two articles I focused on today were Dilemmas in the General Theory of Planning by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber and Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan. Rittel and Webber describe the problems that social professions (e.g. planners, designers, educators) deal with as “wicked” because they cannot be defined in neat little packages for planners (I’ll just use “designers” from now on) to solve. The core of the issue seems to be interrelationships. First of all, every designer is unique and therefore every design solution uniquely based on the particular way that designer approached and defined the problem. Additionally, because design always involves people, their interactions, perceptions, judgements of and solution are variable and diverse. Writing in 1973, Rittel and Webber describe the pluralism that has disrupted any notion of a perfectly designed society displayed by the civil upheaval of the 1960s. In their essay the authors provide a list of ten characteristics of Wicked Problems, ultimately painting an imposing picture for design practice.

Buchanan takes the concept of Wicked Problems one step further by offering a description of why problems are wicked. He starts his essay by positioning design practice using the writing of John Dewey on experience. I was a little unclear on this point, but it seems that Buchanan is defining design as intentional “experimental thinking”. I got the impression that according to Buchanan, design is an activity that scientists and artists do at various times, but that designers have made a profession out of. Buchanan also points out the act of “placement” in design. The term appears to be pulled from rhetoric and refers to the way designers construct a placement for each design that may relate to subjects in the sciences and/or the humanities. Design is therefore neither a complete integration of arts and sciences, nor does it fall under either category, but shifts around based on the design situation. Building on the ten characteristics of Wicked Problems from Rittel and Webber, Buchanan states that design problems are wicked because they are “indeterminate”. However, he points out that no one has been able to articulate why they are indeterminate. Buchanan’s proposal for why design problems are indeterminate is that there is no definitive subject matter to design. Again, going back to the unique situation of every design problem, the subject matter for design is always constructed based on the particular context in which it resides. While the designer brings “general” subject matter based on experience, the designer also assembles “particular” subject matter unique to each problem.

While these are only a starting point for describing Wicked Problems, both articles have had a strong influence on the development of contemporary design practice, education, and research. I am glad that I have taken the time to read these articles because my definition of design will have a major influence on how I conduct, present, and ultimately defend my research. Thankfully these articles seem in-line with pragmatist philosophy, which I think will be useful in grounding my research in theories that are relevant to design practice as well as other disciplines (education, management, etc.)

Rittel, H. & M. Webber (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. ‘Public Sciences’ 4, 155–169. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Buchanan, Richard (1992) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, ‘Design Issues’, vol. 8, no. 2, Spring 1992