I know I tend to draw connections between seemingly-unrelated arenas of my life anyway, but the synchronicity of the following thoughts and musings leading up to tonight’s class felt more than a little serendipitous. (Maybe even a little eerie.)

Any time I sit at the window seat on a flight, I ponder scale and perception: How when we are up high, a house or a car can look so small and insignificant, yet when we are on the ground, that room / that driver seat / our front view is our entire world…how perception changes the object…and how hard it is to pull back and keep in mind your more complex surrounding contexts (your impact on it, its impact on you, your role in it). Me-centered view versus something more global or community-based.

On top of that, this past week, I’ve had a bunch of discussions with AC4D classmates and other design friends about how you scale any local human solution, and what the trade-offs are to get a larger reach and impact. Part of solving a wicked problem is being able to look at the larger picture. But part of the definition of a wicked problem (Horst Rittel/Richard Buchanan) is also that you can never see all the impacts your solution will have–yet you are still responsible for those impacts. So that added a layer to my airplane musings of whether we as human beings are even able to look at the larger picture, since things are so complex now. Even the seemingly small parts are beyond my comprehension, like this airplane wing: I don’t know how it works or what went into making it—let alone the impact of how it was made, or how it’s being used.

Additionally, after we watched How to Train Your Dragon this past weekend, we sat through and marveled at the scale of the various teams as the credits rolled by. In my head, I was wondering how do you even start to put together these teams, who is managing all of this, who is directing it all, who is responsible for it all, or are people just working in tandem on their small parts of the project and somehow it all adds up to a motion picture? A big question for me in terms of wicked problems is where the accountability resides. How do you start to organize and design for such a complex system that involves so many people?

And thinking about scale usually makes me think of Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. Because she mentions identifying your “creative DNA” and part of that is identifying which scale you work at. Doesn’t mean that’s all you do, but you are most likely either drawn to micro or macro: short story or epic novel, sonata or symphony, small relationship focus or societal themes, etc. When I look at my creative writing and artwork, it trends toward micro, and I’m not sure yet how this plays out in my design work, particularly design work for social sector and wicked problems. How can I wrap my head around very large, complex, interconnected, wicked problems?

So anyway, this is all floating around in my head as I fly from LA to Austin, and drive from airport to AC4D, first class of Quarter 2: Rapid ideation and creative problem solving with Jon Kolko, and one of his first slides says:

“This quarter is about conducting research in the field, thinking about complex, large-scale systems, and solving problems in new ways.”

And one of the goals of the class: “Be able to model complicated systems and services through the use of diagrams.”

Okay. Game on.

Intro to Rapid Prototyping: Q1 Recap

This is my recap and reflection post about what I have accomplished, learned, and learned I need to work on in Justin Petro’s Interaction Design Prototyping class.

My biggest takeaway from the class is highlighted in the above short animation about how to tell a good story! (I actually made this video by just typing–using this super easy-to-use text-to-animation tool called Xtranormal. Try it out; it’s pretty fun.)

STORY ended up being the thread that tied together all the methods and techniques we learned and tried out these past 8 weeks. No matter what medium we were using to present our ideas, our goal was always to tell a compelling story.

Week 1: Social Media

I will continue to tweet @s0delightful, blog here at AC4D, blog on my personal site, post photos to my flickr, and videos to my vimeo.

Takeaways on creating a good brand:

  • Be bold, be simple, have an opinion.
  • Make/Think. Share/Reflect.
  • All beta all the time. Create a living portfolio.
  • Cadence and consistency are important.

Next steps:

  • Figure out a quick and effective process that I can use for uploading and tagging photos on a regular basis.
  • Participate in more targeted Twitter conversations, perhaps around #SocEnt.
  • Blog more resources and links in short posts here, so they’re not lost in my Twitter stream.

Week 2: Visual Problem Solving aka 100 post-it notes

Takeaways from class:

  • Iteration and practice with sharpie helps work muscle and brain memory.
  • Though we were supposed to be building a library of visual symbols, throughout the semester, I found it was easier to create new customized sketches for each new story I told.
  • Seeing others’ people work in a studio or online space would have helped free up my imagination and made my sketches less boring/less standard.

Next steps:

  • Keep drawing analog.
  • Learn to love the Wacom = quicker to get into digital form.
  • Still wish we had done a better job of gathering resources on how to visualize often-used business terms.

Week 3: Storytelling Through Time (Guest Lecture: Ahmed Riaz)

Takeaways from class and from making NetLib poster:

  • Stick figures can be expressive.
  • Being able to visualize something helps get people on board with an idea because it fosters a shared understanding.
  • SimPo: Simple yet powerful.
  • Tell stories collaboratively and visually to brainstorm possible solutions.

Next steps:

  • Keep drawing from observation of how people move.
  • Keep working on concept models that incorporate sketches.

Week 4: Creating Valuable Arguments aka Pitch Decks (Guest lecture: Josh Baer)

Takeaways from doing Rain Juice pitch:

  • Focus on the problem.
  • Tell a story. About people.
  • Use slides as visual support, not wordy.
  • Putting together a pitch deck really forces you to think through the business value of your design idea, so creating the deck can be a good iteration tool.

Next steps:

  • Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice…
  • Practice some more. Video it, share it, get feedback.
  • Don’t be afraid to create less wordy slides.

Week 5: Web Presence and Frameworks

Takeaways from creating website wireframes for Rain Juice:

  • Stick figures and storyboard sketches (above) help you figure out the main user(s) for your site and what they need it for.
  • Small, quick iteration (more than you think you need. 100’s) of homepage hero element is actually fruitful.
  • No more Lorem Ipsum. If you don’t have a product yet, the site and its brand are your product.

Next steps:

  • Look into leveraging APIs.
  • Be more consistently rigorous about the brainstorming/iteration/sketching process instead of jumping straight onto the computer–because it works!

Week 6: Mobile Frameworks

Takeaways from creating wireframes for Research Buddy iPhone app:

  • Competitive research is important.
  • Take into account established standards for apps.
  • Storyboarding through user experience useful here, too.

Next steps:

  • Figure out if Research Buddy is doable, write out the specs for it, get a quote of how much it would take to develop it.

Week 7: Video/Over Time Frameworks Some overlap here with Lauren Serota’s lecture about storytelling.


  • Animation makes it more real. Can communicate the user experience better to non-designers than static series of unconnected screen shots.
  • Combo of photo + sketch = awesome.
  • Can animate in Powerpoint, Keynote, Flash, or in-camera.
  • Music + voiceover add polish.

Next steps:

  • Try it! I’ve done animation/movement stuff before, but not in a quick, effective “rapid prototyping” way.

So yeah:

Tell a good story. Keep your audience in mind, so you can tailor any presentation to their interests and goals. And practice/experiment with these different types of prototyping, so that you can 1) think through your ideas by making things, 2) get ideas out of your head and into physical forms so you can get feedback, and 3) employ a spectrum of fidelity and medium to visualize ideas, so that you can turn them into
compelling stories.

Why do we sell ourselves short?

It frustrates me when others preface their presentations or opinions with caveats or apron strings that lowers or alters our expectations as listeners. But I’m also guilty of doing the same thing. In response to a classmate’s feedback that I tend to sell myself short, I started thinking about the reasons we’re conditioned to do this kind of thing.

Immediately, we both thought “it’s a girl thing.” That is true and there’s a lot to say about that in terms of different types of feedback, different channels of reflection. But then I started thinking about how it’s also a “society thing,” which is a lot more interesting to me. What of MY past experiences have led into this habit of downplaying my own accomplishments and strengths?

It’s a School ThingBeing the goody-two-shoes straight-A nerd student is not easy. It is not cool. When you win end of the year awards in fourth grade, and they make you walk up to the front of the class again and again even though you’re super shy, and the other kids are all rolling their eyes, you do not want to keep getting acknowledged for those A’s. When your friend says to you in 6th grade “I hate you” with a smile on her face and as a “joke” because you’ve gotten an A on a home-ec test and she didn’t, you still feel the sting of those words.

What are we instilling in our kids if the structures set up in our schools creates stratospheres of winners and losers, so that nobody can celebrate each other’s learning, the actual process instead of outcomes, or their collective accomplishments?

The world needs strong thinkers who can also honestly reflect on their strengths and growth areas—without feeling overly congratulated for simply making the grades/test scores, yet able to find ways to celebrate and expand on real improvement, growth, learning, and success.

It’s a Creatives ThingI spent most of my college years feeling as if (on some level) I wasn’t doing as much (or as valuable of) work as my engineering friends who were cramming for calculus and systems analysis tests…even though us design/art students had three or more 8-hour studio courses a semester.

This is probably compounded by Asian-American second-generation immigrant-parent expectations. You’re supposed to study STEM and play a musical instrument. I did neither, and I was constantly reminded of this during Saturday Chinese school classes during high school. While other students often missed class for recitals or concerts, I only missed one class—and that was for a Beach Clean-Up with the Art Club. (I didn’t tell them I was president.)

It’s also harder to share your accomplishments, when there’s a language gap. I don’t know how to talk about design in Chinese to my family, and I don’t know how to talk about design in plain English to my friends in a way that they understand its value. Lots of times, if you talk about it at all, it’s to show an end product instead of talking about what you learned during the processes.

It’s a “Success” Thing

All of the above holds true when you move from college into the “real world” and start working full time. It’s pretty depressing to compare creatives’ salaries with pretty much anyone else. Even if you don’t care about money, you still feel it on some level because it’s a measure of how much society (doesn’t) value your skills set.

There’s more value—and you have an easier story to tell at family gatherings—if you have a stable job (even if you hate it), are working toward home ownership, and are on track to make grandbabies.

Additionally, I’ve quit and switched jobs/industries a bunch in the past couple years, I don’t feel like I have the same specialist experience that other peers of my age who have stayed put in one field have (notwithstanding ongoing debates about value of generalist/specialist/various-shaped designers).  I don’t fit any of the job descriptions I see on job boards, and since I don’t know who would pay me for my special mix of skills, it’s hard to reflect on the “strength” of any single one of my skills.

If we as a society need more creatives, more designers, and more cross-disciplinary thinkers, we need to figure out ways to nurture and support and celebrate them without making them feel (even if unintentionally) like outcasts at holiday dinners.

It’s a Design ThingWe foster a culture of judgment and critique because we have high expectations of ourselves and of our work. Because of this, every time we present, every time we send something off to a client, we hold our breaths and brace ourselves to be skewered, to hear rejection, or to at least get back a ton of change work to add onto our plates.

Design schools need to provide guidance on how to give effective and valuable critique. Additionally, a lot of times during design school, we only get present to be critiqued at the very end of a project–when you can’t do anything to change what you’ve just presented. So you’re naturally on the defensive. Might as well throw in some qualifiers to lower expectations, to let them know that I also know that this is not perfect.

Throw some traditionally-trained designers who like to present fine-tuned “final” work into some rapid-prototyping everything-is-beta-all-the-time presentations, and it’s definitely a learning curve of what “presentation” and “critique” mean.

We owe it to ourselves to StopWe owe it not only to ourselves, or even just to our classmates, but also to AC4D to stop downplaying ourselves. I know we all believe in our collective awesomeness, but news flash–that also means your individual awesomeness has contributed to that. We can also spend all the extra energy and brainpower back on the work itself.

Quick ideas of how to do that on a practical day-to-day AC4D level:

  • Just start the actual presentation! No caveats, qualifications, apron strings. Save em for later, other channels, or not at all.
  • Focus on what feedback you’re looking for to keep being awesome or to keep getting better next time instead of dwelling on what went not-so-perfectly this time.
  • Bite your tongue if you feel yourself starting to self-deprecate. Ask a question instead.
  • If you find yourself starting off emails or writing with caveats or apologies, go back and delete them before sending/posting to the world.

We also need to share our stories, so others know it’s okay to be cross-disciplinary and awesome and smart and strong and overachievers. The world is in sad shape, and we don’t have time to apologize for trying to make it better.

And while we’re at it, let’s figure out ways to celebrate (real) achievement in K-12 schools as well as higher ed, so that we don’t lose those engaged, creative smarties — or any of their classmates — to either the peer pressures of underachievement to fit in or to the dehumanizing one-size-fits-all path toward “success.” This could mean anything from mentoring one child to restructuring the traditional  grading system to teaching design as a liberal art…

2010 Edition Design Theorists – Collect'em All!

By popular demand, here are the Design Theorist Cards I presented today in class. Feel free to use it as a learning tool or the worst party game ever.

My original intent was to pair quotes with the authors, but I also liked the fact that the cards became an affinity model where I could group the the quotes into commonalities and themes I didn’t see previously. I’d really like to find out how to transcend my low-fi prototype into an interactive framework like we talked about in class. Adding the extra layers of context would really make the experience have depth and a perspective. Where should I start? Chap?

Isolation is the enemy of improvement

Tony Wagner said that about isolation. (And I wouldn’t have known about him or listened to his talk if it weren’t for the impromptu design theory framework discussion session with classmates tonight.) He says—and it’s fairly obvious that—with collaboration comes better learning and problem solving over all. The collective bar is raised as people actually see what other people are doing. And there is so much value in the informal conversations we have before and after and around and in addition to our structured classtime debates, that lead to listening to other people’s viewpoints, that lead to constant reframing, that leads to new insights.

Since we don’t have STUDIO SPACE, but still need COLLABORATION.

Workarounds for now:

  • Everyone log onto ac4d googlemail/chat, especially while working on ac4d stuff. Update status. For example, “working on framework for kolko”.
  • Send/share stuff for feedback while working on stuff. (We can do this digitally. And we could also start designating time—for instance the 15-30 minutes before class every day—as open time for people to show up and show progress and talk through ideas?)
  • Virtual whiteboards? Collaborative spaces online, e.g. a better Basecamp? I don’t know what these are. Anyone have ideas?

But seriously, we need studio space—where we hang out, because we know other ac4d folk are also hanging out, and where we can be our crazy selves without reserve.

Because this:

plus more of this:

leads to these:

4 Social Innovation Fellowships now accepting applications

StartingBloc Boston 2010

One of the most important factors for success in any field is the strength of your professional community, and the social sector is no exception.  Fellowships are a great way to instantly connect to world-class communities, and four of the best social innovation fellowships available are currently accepting applications.  Take a look:


StartingBloc is a people accelerator.  I had the great pleasure of becoming a StartingBloc fellow last February, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the experience to any young professional or college student finding their way in the social sector.  It starts with a 5-day institute shared with 120 of some of the most astounding social innovators you’ll ever encounter and continues as a professional community that has continued to introduce me to some of the most amazing people I know.  StartingBloc is partially self-sustaining, so there’s a fee to attend the institute, but I assure you it’s worth the cost.

Deadline: October 24th (Soon!) Apply for StartingBloc

The Unreasonable Institute

Have a 2+ person Social Sector startup in the prototype/pilot phase?  Do you have an internal revenue mechanism (not just donations-based)? Do you have an unreasonable ambition to reach at least one million people?  Then you’re perfect for the social venture accelerator the Unreasonable Institute.  After an astounding successful first year, they’re gearing up for their intensive signature summer institute that provides the best mentoring around and is guaranteed to refine your

Deadline: November 20th,  Apply for the Unreasonable Institute

Echoing Green

Provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs with ideas for social change.  If your social-sector startup is less than two years old and you’re committed to working full time on the idea, Echoing Green could provide crucial assistance to get you through the rocky early years.

Deadline: November 12th, Apply for Echoing Green

Ashoka US

Do you have a radical new idea to change the world?  Are you ready to take your impact to the next level, scaling nationally or globally?  Want the clout of the oldest and largest association of Social Entrepreneurs behind you?  Then you should look into Ashoka.  With some of the biggest names in Social Entrepreneurship from Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to Kiva’s founder Matt Flanner, you’ll be in good company.  Ashoka selects Fellows internationally as well as here in the US.  [Full disclosure and all that, I used to work for Ashoka]

Deadline: Rolling, Nominate a US-based Fellow (self nominations allowed)

Posted from Ryan’s personal blog, Back of the Envelope and Big Ideas

Perception of Creativity

In 2005, chess grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand was part of one of the famous chess tragedies against Van Wely. Anand literally threw the game away from his grasp when he went against his instincts and chose a complex chess move instead of a simple one.

This following quote the next day from Anand summarizes a great deal about the nature of problem solving – “It is ironic that if I had played Re8+ and not won the game people would have all said that I was not working hard enough at the board, just going for simple solutions. Now they will be saying I had overworked the position, looking for a convoluted solutions where there is a simple, elegant win available”.

What is so interesting about this statement from Anand? If Anand had won the game instead of drawing, we probably would not have had a chance to take a peek into the complexities that domain expertise adds to problem solving.

Figure1: The Circle of Knowledge

Figure 1 shows a conceptual sketch of the circle of knowledge. Circle of knowledge is a hypothetical term being used in this paper to indicate the depth of domain knowledge. It is important that we associate knowledge depth with this circle and not breadth. The reason for this is that we want to associate the insight we can derive from the problem specification with this circle of knowledge. I believe that the meaningful insight is dependent to a large extent on intuition, which can only stem from having some sort of domain expertise. What does this translate to in case of domain experts like Anand?

In the landscape of chess moves, Anand’s superior understanding would translate to him seeing more possible scenarios towards his end goal. However, with the superior domain skills also comes the curse of knowledge. The term curse of knowledge was coined first in a 1989 journal on political economy meaning that when you become the expert in some subject, it is hard for you to imagine not knowing what you do [1]. Let us explore an expert‘s strategy at solving problems. In [2], Johnson-Laird dissects the shape of problems. Laird argues that creativity is essential to derive insight, a critical attribute to problem solving. He argues that five elements namely novelty, optional novelty for society, non-determinism, constraints and existing elements are essential for qualifying as a creative solution. As per Laird, novelty is not a mere regurgitation of a set/known process. The outcome should be novel to the person or optionally, to the society. The other attributes like the solution not following a deterministic trend and building upon constraints and existing frameworks seem to be a natural outcome of this process. I think the first two attributes are very critical in terms of how experts view problem solving. Let us go back to Anand’s example. In his game, he was at a stage where a simple move could have sealed the game in his favor. Instead, he chose to go for an off the beaten path and a more creative and novel way of solving the problem. If he had been successful, that very move which cost him the game could have resulted in songs of his glory, and expert analyses about an unconventional move in a crunch game would have been written all over the world. Did the novelty bug bite Anand? Was he blindsided by his own creativity?

In a seminal work [3], Herb Simon argues about the structure of ill-structured problems. According to Simon, any problem whose structure lacks in definition in some respect is ill structured. Simon makes a great point that the boundaries are blurred between well-structured problems and ill structured ones. In that context, majority of the problems can be perceived as ill structured. In Anand’s example, it very well appears that managing creativity is an inherently ill structured problem with a huge interplay of social and personal dynamics. Co-incidentally, Simon talks about chess in [3] and in the context of artificial intelligence, he positions it as an ill-structured problem. While this positioning is not central to our discussion, it is essential to note that the process of managing creativity when dealing with ill-structured problems is much harder. This can be observed in Anand’s post-match statement quoted in the beginning of this paper. Anand talks about the quality of winning as one of the decision-making criteria. This is a great insight into the mind of this genius. Summarizing, when managing creativity in ill-structured problem domains, perception of solution plays a critical role in qualifying to be creative. Then, is “perception” the missing attribute from Laird’s original list found in [2]? It seems ironic to add an attribute loaded with social complexities (thus, making it inherently ill structured) as a necessary qualifier for creative solutions, which are more personal than social.

What makes perception a challenging qualifier is that it cannot be easily quantified objectively. Our perception of how people perceive our work is inherently a flawed metric. When that factors into our decision-making ability to solve a problem, the outcome crosses the line from

Orange normally. Dry still bar voluminous products elasticity morning been oily.

being non-deterministic to chaotic. Also, this detrimentally affects the process of relying on instinct to derive insight, which is in many ways critical to creativity [2].

Figure 2: Using the circle of knowledge to find a solution

Let us shrink the circle of knowledge through the aid of constraints to make the problem simpler. Let me elaborate on this point in the context of the example used in this article. While Anand’s circle of knowledge is huge owing to his extraordinary domain expertise, his constraint might be the analyzable depth of the move scenarios. For instance, let us say Anand can think up to a depth of 7-10 moves. In this case, his circle of knowledge would shrink to reflect that stage in his current problem solving abilities. Based on revised scenarios, like the moves played by his opponent, his circle of knowledge would change to reveal more possible solutions. This logical course of problem solving is indicated in figure 2. The final solution in this case is arrived through mere instinct. If perception of the solution at each step is factored in the decision-making, the process gets more chaotic as indicated in figure 3.

As seen from figure 3, at every stage, adding perception can lead an alternate course towards the final solution. I am not arguing for one over other in this article; my point is merely to illustrate the point that managing creativity through social complexities is extremely chaotic.

Finally, though Laird [2] would not want to add perception to his original list of qualifiers for creativity, in the current socially integrated world we live in, this metric would be hard to ignore when one quantifies a creative solution. For, when one is quantifying somebody else’s solution, he is already introducing the element of perception. Right, or wrong, it is clearly an indispensable metric.


[2] The Shape of Problems, Philip Johnson-Laird

[3] The Structure of Ill Structured Problems, Herb Simon

Wicked Problems Filtered Through Design

The twenty-first century finds itself in the middle of more rapid changes and technological leaps than ever before.   While many of these changes have lead to solutions in medicine, science, and business, none has yet moved humanity closer to solving the complex problems of basic human rights in areas such as healthcare and education.  This paper examines the nature of solving complex problems in the world of these complex systems and explores how design might better move society closer toward answers to these issues.

According to computer scientist Herb Simon, there are two types of problems in the world, well-structured problems (WSP) and ill-structured problems (ISP).  Well-structured problems cannot be concretely defined.  To be classified as well-structured, a problem must meet the six criteria Simon spells out in his article “The Structure of Ill Structured Problems.”  Among these are the ability to test a solution, the presence of a problem space, legal moves, knowledge with the context of one problem space, and a requirement that information needed for a solution is practically obtainable.  In simplistic terms, if a computer can look at all possible choices for a solution and solve that solution in a reasonable amount of time, the problem is well-structured.  A simple math problem, 2+2, meets the criteria for being a well-structured problem with a well-defined solution.  However, when one leaps to theoretical math and the world of proofs and theorems, a seemingly simple, well-defined problem becomes anything but.  At the outset, theorems or a chess game would “appear to offer the best examples of well-structuredness” (Simon 185).  The problem, however, lies in the fact that the problem space remains undefined.  For example in chess, a computer player cannot practically play out every possible move scenario.  The computational power needed exceeds current computer capabilities.  Instead, the computer chooses the best move out of many random options.  To play a chess game “require[s] immense numbers of applications of operators and tests for their solution, so that the total amount of computation required may be impractical” (Simon 184).  To be a WSP, a problem must be conceivably computational, and a chess game is not. With each move, the problem space is continually redefined, violating the requirement of a well-structured problem of one problem space.

In a WSP, the problem solver cannot introduce new resources to the problem space while trying to solve the problem.  If the solver does, the problem is at once ill-structured.  Similarly, when a problem solver uses knowledge from outside of a solution space, the problem becomes ill-structured.  For example, if one had a sheet of paper with all the names and shapes of the countries of the world and had the task of labeling all of the countries, a problem solver needs to gain knowledge from another space, namely a map or a globe.  Information from another problem space violates the principle of a WSP.   Simon goes on to say that “problems presented to problem solvers by the world are best regarded as ISPs” and that there are not WSP, but rather “ISPs that have been formalized for problem solvers.”

However, with that claim, Simon examines possibilities in which ill-structured problems might have solutions.  Indeed, it would appear that problems in our world do actually get solved.  If, like Chris Pacione claims in “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy” every problem is an ISP, then surely ill-structured problems must be tackled in the real world.  People manage to live productively. Simon proposes the example of an architect.  The nature of building a house is an ill-structured problem.  There is no way to test a proposed solution.  There is no definitive problem space because it would be impossible to look at all the possible structures imaginable using all imaginable materials.  The architect faces an ISP, and yet houses are built.  How?  The answer lies in adding constraints to the problem.  There are the internal constraints of the architect, the memory of what one desires to build and the architect’s stylistic choices.  External constraints also exist, for instance a budget and a timetable.  Once these constraints are in place, the architect breaks down the larger problem of building a house to small parts, for instance, a house is made up of a structure plus utilities.  A structure is made up of a frame and a foundation. A foundation is made up of concrete and steel reinforcement, etc.  This reductive process occurs until an architect has, in effect, a WSP.  The architect sees “the problem is well-structured in the small, but ill-structured in the large” (Simon 190).

Richard Buchanan adds a third category of problems, wicked problems, an idea borrowed from Rittel.  This category really is a subset of the ill-structured problem.  According to Rittle, wicked problems are a “class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”  The aforementioned architect had the skills necessary to take an ill-structured problem and make it structured in the small, allowing the architect to end up building a house.  Wicked problems are more complex in that they involve social systems, people, which are inherently dynamic.  As soon as a designer defines a problems space and set of problems, the problem space has changed due to the social, people-centric nature of the space.  Whereas with a house, the architect knows when they have reached their goal and finished, in a wicked problem, the problem solver can never know that a problem is solved or if a solution is good or bad.  When is poverty eliminated?  Is not the poverty line merely a relative term based on one’s relation to the whole?  How then can these problems be approached?  Buchanan points out that these wicked problems are just an “amusing description of what confronts designers in every situation.”

What a designer really does is organize information and see new ways in which a problem can be framed using placements, repositioning an idea in a new light.  Looking at the world differently through a new placement is how a designer “intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development” (Buchanan 17).  What designers are paid for is their organization of information and their ability to frame a problem in their chosen subject matter.  This is a skill vital to solving the complex problems facing the world.  There is more information than ever on poverty, education, and healthcare, but information itself solves nothing.  It is in framing that information, discerning what is relevant and useful and then deciding how to approach a problem that is needed.  These are the exact skills that a designer brings to the table, and this is why design should be something everyone knows how to do.   If one cannot think critically about one’s world and know how to engage the information overloaded culture in a way that limits and frames problems, they will not succeed.  The ability to properly constrain a problem yet remain open to new ideas is a fundamental skill in the Post-Information Age.  Design is as fundamental as math and reading in the 21st century, and should therefore be included as a basic
liberal art.

To more clearly see why design is a liberal art of the 21st century requires an understanding of the concept of liberal arts.  Traditionally, liberal arts were essential subjects that needed to be learned for an individual to think critically about their world.  Richard Buchanan observes that “at their peak…these subject matters provided an integrated understanding of human experience and the array of available knowledge” (Buchanan 5).  Upon further reflection into the nature of liberal arts, their purpose is to frame the world in such a way that it can be reflected upon and analyzed.  For example, a core liberal art, philosophy, asks fundamental questions about life and the world, questions that are currently unsolvable and therefore wicked problems.  Over the centuries, many different philosophies have attempted to answer these questions.  It is interesting to note, however, that the liberal arts cannot be studied on their own.  Attempting to understand the recent philosophical trends of Deconstructionalism requires a grounding in intellectual history.  In fact, without an understanding of the context in which Derrida’s ideas of Deconstructionism emerged, it is impossible to understand his critique of the world.  Philosophy is irrelevant outside of its historical context.  Similarly, to even begin to understand Derrida’s deconstructionalist view of the world into signs and signifiers requires that one understand language’s structure in the first place.  Therefore, a foundation in another liberal art, here language, is required to understand and think about the world.  Not only that, but thinking in one liberal art enhances and informs thinking in another.  All of the liberal arts depend on one another, and while separated into different subjects and disciplines, at their core, liberal arts are the basic tools to think critically about the world and provide a context through which to approach problems.

Seen through the lens of problem solving, design emerges as a liberal art of the “Contextual Age.”  The sheer pervasiveness of technology demands that one have the ability to think critically about it and approach complex problems deeply intertwined in technological systems.  Design, like history or philosophy or language, provides another frame through which to look at the world, another way to frame the problem.  While no one has definitely solved humanity’s philosophical quandaries and definitively solved philosophical problems such as life’s meaning, the liberal arts have allowed for a reframing of the question, a way to understand it, to break it down into more manageable chunks.  The liberal arts have allowed us to approach the world more thoughtfully, more aware, more engaged, and more alive.  Similarly, while no one knows the answer to whether the wicked problems of the world like education, healthcare, and poverty will be solved, design offers new possibilities and skills to examine those problems, to enrich our understanding not only of solutions, but of thinking about the problems.  It is in this richness and approach that design finds itself the emerging liberal art in the “Conceptual Age.” Even though design may not solve these wicked problems, it makes life richer and provides new ways of looking at the world through placement.  The hope is that maybe, new perspectives on wicked problems, informed by the new liberal art of design, produce new solutions.  After all, no one can know what solutions and hope may emerge in the future, for the future is a new problem space.