Book Review: Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

A review from UX Matters on a methodology which seems closely linked to ideas on Co-Design and transdisciplinary research without the baggage of its intellectual precedents and academic rigour – while citing social entrepreneurship it has yet to see how this might embrace both commercial and social actors in a unified field, I haven’t read the book yet but it looks worthwhile  and have ordered it. 

In this “Handbook & Call to Action,” Kolko introduces the idea of wicked problems—large-scale social issues that plague humanity, like poverty and malnutrition—then describes the role of design in mitigating these problems. Starting with the example of his experience with Project Masiluleke, Kolko points out that traditional approaches cannot deal effectively with complex social and cultural problems. Such wicked problems always interconnect with other problems, are costly to solve, and often lack clear methods for understanding and evaluating them.

Traditional ways of tackling wicked problems include the following:

  • top-down government policy-making and funding that are too broad and complicated to deal with the real issues
  • companies’ being motivated by revenue generation and mass production to maximize their profit margins
  • standard project-based frameworks with finite engagement periods that are too short and too shallow to create long-lasting social impact

Kolko suggests that it is possible to mitigate wicked problems through what he calls social entrepreneurship—entrepreneurship that aims to create social capital by adding value to the community rather than focusing only on creating economic wealth.

Kolko argues that designers need the skills of a social entrepreneur to tackle wicked problems effectively. However, in the commercial world, designer and entrepreneur are two separate roles. It’s unclear why this should be different in a not-for-profit context. Although it’s possible to combine the roles of designer and entrepreneur successfully in one person, this is an exception rather than the rule.

Kolko’s proposed curriculum is first and foremost a design curriculum—and a very promising one. While it is not convincing as a social-entrepreneurship curriculum, it is arguable whether one curriculum should even try to address both design and entrepreneurship.

Kolko advocates making students aware that they can position design within any context and teaching them how to deal with situations in which the circumstances may be complex and far from ideal. This is a very valuable proposition—one that would benefit every design course. It is admirable that Kolko wants to place the emphasis on solving social problems, but students must realize that making this choice has consequences as well.

Read the full review

Author: Jon Kolko

Publisher: Austin Center for Design

Publication date: March 2012

Format of print edition: Paperback; 8.5 x 8.5 inches; 176 pages

ISBN: 978-0-6155931-5-9

List price: $45

Free online edition: Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

Review: ‘Designing for Social Change

The need for co-design, transdisciplinary design or social design, or a host of other names the methodology of interaction with all stakeholders in an inclusive design process which moves beyond the confines of accepted academic and professional disciplines is receiving the attention it deserves, while this review of new book focusses on graphic design for social change, it is relevant for all designers trying to achieve a more holistic and sustainable result in their work.  From [polis}

It is my hope that we are only in the infancy of the “social design” movement — a time when genuine social engagement remains a peripheral niche in the field of design. In “Designing for Social Change” Andrew Shea confirms this hope by demonstrating the enormous potential for growth, professional satisfaction and transformative change that social design wields. In outlining 10 strategies for community engagement, and breathing life into them with two concise case studies apiece, the book inspires and teaches in equal measure.

Each case illustrates the design process from beginning to end, from the design challenge to the engagement and design strategy to outcomes and lessons learned. While clear and striking images of designed booklets, posters and signs abound, photos of communities interacting with and using these products is given priority. As such, this reads as a handbook for action that appeals specifically to graphic designers seeking to engage communities through their work. However, the strategies are broadly applicable to any designer looking to fully inform his or her product with a well-conceived and context-sensitive process.

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