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Wicked Problems in Design Thinking

In “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” Buchanan suggests that design may be an important means for traversing a diffusion of knowledge that has been brought about through the advancement of traditional liberal arts/sciences. According to Buchanan, while traditional liberal arts/sciences continue to contribute to knowledge, they also contribute to its fragmentation. In fact, suggests Buchanan, as they advanced into the nineteenth century, traditional liberal arts diminished the “circle of learning” through fine-tuning, scope-narrowing, and specialization.

Referring to Dewey’s description of the tension and need for balance between specialization as reflected in the old, and integration in the new liberal arts, Buchanan introduces design as an integrative discipline with the potential to extend knowledge and enrich human life; designers seek to integrate knowledge, and so provide much needed understanding of the technological culture that demarks our times. For Buchanan, design is no longer a trade activity, but an emerged “liberal art of technological culture”, the transformation of which parallels and is in sync with the revolution, expansion, and enrichment of the liberal arts proper.

Buchanan allows that there is no one definition for design (as its specifics change from trade to trade), though it enjoys a universal function to integrate and extend knowledge, and enrich human life. As such, design problems are “wicked”: They are indeterminate with no discrete subject matter. Design exists in relation to given projects, and so can connect discipline of communication, expression, interaction, and reasoning.  

Reading this made me wonder, and I share my angst with you: Is there a crisis in liberal education, specifically a lack of integration? How can studying design be of general interest? How can the study of design inform other areas of study?

Posted in Motivations, Reading.

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2 Responses

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  1. Profile photo of Jacob Lederman Jacob Lederman says

    I enjoyed Buchanan’s attempt to move beyond design as semiotic, product, or artistic object. Analytically, for me, the wicked problem thesis points to how design is both all and/or none of these. It has no objective essence but is rather a framework for conceiving of problems or solutions (this may just be the vaguest sentence I’ve ever written). But on some level this resonates as intuitively true; all human creation is in itself designed and therefore the discipline seems rather wide-ranging and chaotic. This discussion reminds me for some reason of an exhibit that was at Moma (I think) sometime last year called “Nature’s Design” or something like that. It presented efforts by architects, designers, etc. to replicate the art/science that produces our “natural” lived environments.

  2. Profile photo of Hadassah Damien Hadassah Damien says

    Buchanan seems to be suggesting with his “doctrine of placements,” that seeing relationships among any type of object is a critical skill of design — and to me, this is one way of looking at interdisciplinary work, that it requires a specific navigation among diverse objects. So, with an eye on both the general [macro view] and specific [micro], design is a tool or methodology as well as a type of lens that can be used to inform our areas of study by helping us see them in relation to other areas. Instead of lack of integration, what’s required is looking across the carrel, and I think that many [mine at least] liberal educations encourage just that. Do you think it’s different? I’m guessing PhD work has more object-specificity, but for the people you will be/are teaching perhaps this is less of an issue?

    Either way, the other parallel is that “wicked problems” are our papers 😉



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