Category: Transition Design

Mark Lilla writes, “Our ambition must be to develop a vision of America that emerges authentically out of liberal values yet speaks to every citizen, as a citizen.”

The need for a compelling, cohesive and unifying vision for the liberal-minded people of the United States is a Transition Design challenge. It describes a complicated, multi-stakeholder problem that needs a creative solution that considers the ramifications of its implementation. My energy perked up as I read Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal as he described:

“If Liberals are serious about supplanting Reaganism in the public imagination, they must first understand why it rose and retained its power to convince for so long. What changes in American economic and social life made that ideology plausible in the first place?”
[Transition Design has tools for that]
He goes on to say,
“It wasn’t the careful study of arguments that convinced millions of Americans to vote for Ronald Reagan. It was the imaginative connection he made with the public that transformed those ideas into an epiphany.”
[Designers already have the skills for this, if given the right fodder]

My nascent view of Transition Design is that it provides a profound set of tools and a philosophical-type mindset to answer the challenge, “What can be the future of ______ ?” with a systemic approach of responsibility and inclusion, rather than economic and material inspiration.

In my time at IDEO, we used to laugh at how many, “What’s the future of____?” problems we would work on. What’s the future of popcorn? What’s the future of education? I love these projects and these questions, but with the tools of Industrial Design, we tend to limit our solutions to the needs of the business and the needs of their current customers… rather than the needs of the planet and the needs of the citizenry. Those tools make sense in a capitalistic space, but there are bigger and better problems that designers can work on, we just need bigger and better weapons. And the Irwin, Kossof, Tonkinwise team is showing them to us.

The election last November shook me, as it did so many people. I became fascinated with understanding these “other” voters so that I could see, through their eyes, these issues that seemed so black and white to me. I started to see the complexities in the challenges of American identity, job creation, political accountability. I began to search for books that might explain some of it, and there were a few that helped to describe the problem, but of course, most academics don’t propose solutions. That’s what designers do. But these topics are so much more complicated than the bounded problems we typically work on when there is a client, a set amount of time, a set amount of money and an expected outcome.

What would it mean to work on a design challenge that could take 100 years to solve? 50 years, ok, 20 years, if that helps it feel more plausible.

It turns out that Terry Irwin, the head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon is exploring this right now. She has instigated a new practice in Design called Transition Design, which comes out of her Ph.D. research with ecologist Gideon Kossoff, and philosopher turned design professor, Cameron Tonkinwise. The three of them propose that in response to the failure of Ecology and Sustainability to sufficient change behavior and improve attitudes toward more long-term thinking about the earth, Design may be able to help. But only with new tools to handle the complexity, new mindsets to deal with such long-term challenges and new training in systems of change.

I have to admit that I never personally connected with the Green Design movement, so I was surprised to find myself excited about Transition Design. But I think it is because Transition Design can be used to tackle any number of societal issues we face today, and it approaches with a great deal of empathy and a curiosity about the causes and mindsets that are at the root of the problem.

I was invited to attend a 5-day course in Spain with Terry, Gideon, and Cameron. The course had an incredible diversity of attendees: some service designers, some design professors but also community organizers and NGO workers– from all over the world. The attitude these three leaders take is that this discipline of design is just beginning, the same “problem worrying” they apply to Transition challenges, they apply to the development of the tools and methods themselves. It is all work in progress, and they invite us all to try it out and build on what is there.