Designing for Life

As we explored readings around problem-solving and design thinking in our theory class, a characterization of wicked problems particularly struck me. Defined by Horst Rittel as indeterminate and messy, wicked problems are not unlike something we are all quite familiar with – life. There is nothing quite as indeterminate and messy as life itself.

In suggesting wicked problems embody the same qualities as a living thing, I must explore how these problems live, breathe, grow and adapt, as we do.

Incorporating the perspectives of multiple authors from this section, I explored the nature of wicked problems. The points of view of each author are reflected in throughout. So, are wicked problems alive? Let’s find out.

We start with empty field.


It receives sun, water, wind.


And the living things that those elements invite.


Under the right conditions, those living things sprout. And grow. And rise.


Until small changes get bigger and bigger still.


The ecosystem expands, fostering new life and inviting change.


There is no way to anticipate that change. An understanding of the ecosystem emerges gradually. (Simon)


Every factor in the ecosystem also depends on every other factor. Temperature, rain, sun, plants, animals: outputs for one become inputs for the other. “There are no ends to the chains that link interacting open systems.” (Rittel) A change to one part of the whole means a change to another. Every change has a consequence.

Although other ecosystems might look similar, there will always exist a unique property in each ecosystem. We will never find the same exact combination of elements, down the smallest grain of soil.


Designers can navigate this complexity through placements. They can establish temporary constraints that allow us to see the ecosystem in different frames. Is it an ecosystem full of plants?


Animals? Trees?



This exercise generates many mini-hypotheses. Eventually, we can exchange one hypothesis for a better one. (Cross)

These placements or frames must also be flexible and temporary, so we may never force ideas that worked for one ecosystem to fit another ecosystem.

Designers also develop an understanding of the ecosystem by examining its interconnectedness. In exploring integration points, we are not required to be fern or deer or oak experts.


But rather, we explore the integration points, connecting useful knowledge from each field. (Buchanan)


As ecosystems grow and adapt, they also organize themselves into a variety of patterns. These patterns do not always align with the patterns in which we think. Lateral thinking allows us to disrupt and cut across natural thinking patterns in order to align with those of the complex ecosystem. This practice helps promote creativity, supporting our arrival at innovative ideas. (De Bono)

As a designer, when we approach living wicked problems, our tools must parallel them. Our means for understanding and creating must be as dynamic as the ecosystems we enter. Designers can practice integrative thinking to find understanding between the parts that make up the whole.

Similar to the ecosystem of a forest, wicked problems take a long time to develop and a longer time to solve. As designers, we must approach each wicked problem as an ecosystem, focusing on single parts, but acknowledging its larger whole. Change takes time, but so does life.

As a budding designer, the problems I immediately encounter may not seem inherently wicked, but I suggest we search for the messiness in every problem we face.

Connecting each problem to its larger ecosystem is the first step towards addressing the wicked problems of our world. 


If you have questions, comments or would like to discuss the nature of wicked problems, please reach out to me.