Wicked Problems in Design Thinking – Summary

         Richard Buchanan’s essay “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” looks at the changing role and identity of design theory as a liberal art. The context of 20th century design thinking, he believes, must be framed within the larger search for new integrative disciplines to complement the arts and sciences instead of fragmenting them, as was the case in the 19th century. Buchanan believes exploring design theory is important because there is no part of contemporary life where design and the act of designing does not play a significant role in shaping our human experience. Design, he describes, is explored throughout the world in four broad areas: symbolic & visual communications (advertising, typography, etc), material objects (industrial design, fashion design, etc), activities & organized services (management, strategic planning, etc), and complex systems & built environment (urban planning, architecture, etc). Though it may be easy to pigeon hole certain professions to a specific area, the reality is that all designers, thinkers, managers, scientists, move freely between all four. He believes, furthermore that greatest tool designers have when dealing with the wicked problem of design – problems that reflect the reality of incomplete information, client expectations, conflicting values, and timetables to name a few – is the use of placements. Placements are a loose system of understanding that allow for multiple outcomes, sometimes described as intuition. The ultimate goal in studying design thinking is that it will allow people of all disciplines to share, extract, and apply different methods and solutions to their own fields or professions in a way that will enhance our creative output, and even our very culture, in meaningful new ways.