Wicked Design

Problems come in two flavors. There are the problems we know how to solve, or at least know that there is a solution to them. Like mathematical equations, for example, or beating another chess player in five moves. For those problems, the mission is clear. And then, there are “wicked” problems. Wicked problems are problems that don’t have an immediate, obvious solution to them. They are complex, messy, full of unknown unknowns, and thus difficult to solve, often even unsolvable. Solutions to wicked problems are also not right or wrong, but rather good or bad. Wicked problems include all kinds of economic, political and societal issues, healthcare, the COVID-19 crisis, climate change, urban development, education, poverty, or social justice. But also: Design.

Design is a wicked problem because we have to deal with the complexity of changing contexts, unpredictable user behavior, differing stakeholder interests, and new technologies and materials all the time. But more importantly, design is a wicked problem because at the very moment we start, we have no idea how an appropriate solution might look like. Be it a music streaming service, a corporate website, or an interface for an elective stove – neither do we know upfront how the final solution has to look like, nor does a “right” solution exist. The solution can be a good or bad solution. But which one it will be in the end, will be determined by the process and the decisions we make along the way.

Too many teams and agencies, though, approach design with a technical rationality that just doesn’t fit the true nature of design as a wicked problem. They plan project timelines with distinct phases, work in linear workflows with static layouts, and hope to increase the efficiency of their processes over time. Yet, how can you become efficient at solving problems that are messy and different every time? Once you truly understand that design is a wicked problem, it becomes obvious that we have to approach design differently. Design is not chess. Truly “efficient” design is a result of a more flexible approach that lets us explore and evaluate different solutions, that leaves room for the emotional, irrational, surprising aspects of good design, and that lets us constantly redefine the problem space once we have learned more about our problem. Because if design is a wicked problem, we only have found a solution when we have successfully defined the problem.


This is the 40th post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.


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