Wicked Problems

Examples of a few well known wicked problems:


Education Reform


Climate Change






Racial Inequality

First coined by engineer, theorist and professor Horst Rittel in the 1960s, the term “wicked problems” has come to describe confusing, complex challenges with no clear, direct solution. Rittel continued to work on ‘wicked problems’ to an even greater degree throughout his career, however, it wasn’t until Buchanan in the 1990s that a significant relationship between wicked problems and design was established. He writes in his 1992 article “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”: “Why are design problems indeterminate and, therefore, wicked?

Neither Rittel nor any of those studying wicked problems has attempted to answer this question, so the wicked-problems approach has remained only a description of the social reality of designing rather than the beginnings of a well-grounded theory of design” (Buchanan 16). Buchanan is remarking on how, despite the work Rittel and others have done to define what makes a problem intrinsically wicked, little had been done at that time to understand design methodology in relation to it. Essentially, no one could answer how design can aid in forming solutions for these types of problems. 

Over the last twenty years, that has changed. We’ve explored many theories of design thinking, both in relation to wicked problems, and technical ones. We’ve broadened and tested our methods, design has established a seat at the ‘wicked problem table’. Furthermore, designers are everywhere – from the traditional design department to the C-Suite, and we understand in profoundly holistic and integrated ways how wicked problems must consider, as Guenther wrote above, the “soft factors” that could undermine even the best solutions (182). 

If any particular wicked problem was a pie, and the various disciplines related to the problem were the slices, then design might be considered the crust. Though maybe not a perfect metaphor, I am attempting to capture a difference between the fundamental operations of design and other fields of work, who primarily learn and practice within a set of guiding “principles, laws, rules, or structures” (Buchanan 16) applied to their field of work. (Example: mathematics) Design, on the other hand, shows up everywhere there is human experience and it is through creative connection-making, understanding, and the art of facilitating towards alignment, that various groups with a shared, vested interest can find acceptable solutions. When it comes to wicked problems, great design (and designers) can become the backbone of a unified approach, much like the way crust keeps the pie from becoming a jumbled wreck.

This is why my previous post focused heavily on a few of the tools designers are using to turn intangible, abstract ideas and experiences into something we can quantify and base important decisions on. It is building on our successes with these hard and soft skills that I make a case for designers to go deeper in our practice.

For every organization bringing together thought leaders and stakeholders to discuss strategy development, or attempt to gain consensus, or plan for murky futures, there should be designers there, making the experience of handling these tough topics more engaging, more defined and purpose-driven, where data has been synthesized to tell a story, past failures reframed to be less intimidating, and ambiguous paths forward transformed into logical steps. 

And it is through the art of conversation design that I believe we can have such a significant impact.

But designers are not magicians. Because our work has often dealt so heavily with the subtleties of human nature, our methods have been puzzling to other fields. Our metrics for success may have, at one time, been difficult to capture or convey. We have no secret potions, we no longer wish to stay behind the magic curtain to do our “best work” – if we ever did. (My research suggests designers did behave like this; I’ve yet to meet one who does today.) We are in the trenches now with our fellow fields, our sleeves are rolled. We have years of evidence that our methods work. It may get dirty, but we’re here for it.


Exploring all the ‘—disciplinaries’

The disciplinarities according to researcher Alexander Refsum Jensenius. Read more about his work on his website.

Intra—, Cross—, Multi—, Inter— you’ve probably heard them all and wondered if there were any true significant differences, or just another example of a new buzz word coming on the scene. My opinion: they ARE different but basically convey the same idea – we (humans) collaborate in various ways to solve various problems. I mostly refer to ‘interdisciplinary’ in this research, but multi- or cross- may work just as well, depending on the nature of the problem, the organization, etc.

One very informative article I came across while attempting to understand the nuances between these approaches was “Disciplinarities: intra, cross, multi, inter, trans” by Alexander Jensenius. He has created the visual above, based on research by E.F. Zeigler, over the years to illustrate the unique roles individuals have within each type.

I did come across something, however, that excited me… the concept of antidisciplinary. If you’ve never heard of it, you should. The approach may be slightly more radical, you might be accused of discipline anarchy, and I’m certainly not suggesting you start lecturing your friends about it over lunch – only that it presents a certain upset for status quo, and embraces the reality that many of us don’t fit into the perfectly neat boxes our educational institutions may have suggested we do.

“For me, antidisciplinary research is akin to mathematician Stanislaw Ulam’s famous observation that the study of nonlinear physics is like the study of ‘non-elephant animals.’ Antidisciplinary is all about the non-elephant animals” (Ito 3).

In short, it doesn’t focus on disciplines themselves but rather on all the spaces in between these defined niches. In other words, it is an approach that doesn’t get caught up in who is defined by what and I imagine this mindset more accurately reflects most of today’s teams, especially the most open and successful ones. 

Antidisciplinary was made popular by former MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito (he resigned in 2019 after taking money from Jeffrey Epstein and attempting to cover it up). Either way, his contributions toward understanding how we could further shed our preconceptions about disciplines to solve the world’s current and future wicked problems, isn’t without merit and consideration as designers reframe and reimagine our own work.

Does the concept of antidisciplinary sound interesting to you too? Explore it further by searching for these articles:


Marilyn Stember’s “Advancing the social sciences through interdisciplinary enterprise” (1991)


Joichi Ito’s “Report from Marrakech” (2016)


Joichi Ito’s “Design and Science” (2016 / 2019)


Neri Oxman’s “Age of Entanglement” (2016) (specifically check out the Krebs Cycle of Creativity map)