Barry Wylant, B.E.S., M.E.Des. (ID), IDSA, Assistant Professor Craig Badke, M.E.Des. (ID), IDSA
Industrial Design Program, Faculty of Environmental Design, | The University of Calgary
There are a number of complexities involved with the creation of objects today. This complexity
engenders significant challenges for design educators in preparing students for the challenges
the profession faces. This paper offers an overview of ideas that address the complexities
involved with contemporary design work and in particular, design thinking. Further, the paper
discusses how this body of ideas can be used to form part of an academic studio exercise that
allows students to explicitly engage and develop their own design thinking.
The creation of any object is subject to a variety of concerns that must be addressed in resolving
the design of that object. For instance, a manufacturer will obviously wish to introduce a product
so that it can build its business to sustain and grow itself. To do this, the role of the product within
the company mission, the business plan, the marketplace, and its anticipated role in people’s
lives must all be rigorously considered. The materials, processing, assembly, and shipping of the
product must also be factored in. The product design must further allow for the nature of a
product’s fit into society. For instance wireless products must meet strict federal standards in
communications. Such products, those that can affect our individual well-being, our communities,
and community infrastructures, must be designed to meet legislation in the interest of the greater
good. There are a variety of attending concerns in conceiving and creating any given product and
those listed above are typical of ones that designers encounter. Yet as the need increases to
achieve sustainability in our material culture, then very existence of a product, its use, and
disposal will also need to be rigorously attended to. This ever-expanding list of considerations is
indicative of the complex nature of the contemporary design problem. A term used to describe
this type of problem is the ‘wicked problem’ and it reflects the expanding levels of complexity that
must be addressed in making things these days. As the list of considerations grows then the
degree of wickedness in the problem can only increase.
Resolving the wicked problem is no small feat. Part of this stems from the difficult nature of the
wicked problem. Buchanan argues that this is essentially ‘indeterminate’, that the solution to the
wicked problem can be one of many, depending upon a variety of factors and how they are
considered (Buchanan, 1995, p. 6). Indeterminacy does not mean that a solution cannot be
found, rather that the nature of the solution cannot be preordained or predetermined. This is in
contrast to the ‘determinate’ problem where the solution, or its default, is fully anticipated.
Buchanan argues that historically, most of human knowledge has been established in a
determinate way (Buchanan, 1995, p. 6). For example, a recent newspaper article describes a
medical study that indicates that large doses of supplemental vitamin C do not reduce one’s
chance of catching the common cold (Calgary Herald, 2005). The study that established this gem
of knowledge was designed on the premise that its authors would discover one of two things: that
taking vitamin C either lessened one’s chances of catching cold, or that it did not. In other words,
the outcome of the study was determinate.
The indeterminate, wicked problem is far more open-ended and is therefore more difficult to
establish as a specific, determinable problem. It is also more difficult to navigate the nuances and
various facets of the problem.