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How to Change the World as a Designer

Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash

As designers, we are often presented with a problem to solve. Generally it is a current problem like:

  • Increase customer satisfaction
  • Enable leaders to hold performance conversations
  • Enable employees to use machinery.
Whilst we can make a difference by solving these current problems, how often do we consider a sustainable future in our design?

Well, that is where a practice called transition design comes into play.

Transition design acknowledges that we live in ‘transitional times’, meaning that we have a need for society to transition to a more sustainable future (Carnegie Mellon University, 2020).

Through the practice of transition design we can develop solutions that “protect and restore both social and natural ecosystems through the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between people, the things they make and do, and the natural environment.” (Carnegie Mellon University, 2020).

The design practice focuses on big picture, strategic problems that may be decades away (Spacey, 2016) from occurring or being solved. To put it simply, it means working on problems that you may never see resolved yourself (Irwin, 2019).

Terry Irwin, the Director of the Transition Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University explains that our world faces many wicked problems (Irwin, 2019). These are issues that are complex and highly resistant to resolution (Australian Public Service Commission, 2018). View the characteristics of wicked problems below. 
(Transition Design Seminar, 2020). 

It is easy for us as individuals and teams to see wicked problems as being solved at a global level and therefore outside of our sphere of influence. Terry Irwin (2019) shares that we can all make a collective difference through the decisions that we make and the projects that we design.

Below are some examples of wicked problems and how we could contribute to solving them through our design projects.

If enough small changes happen that link to a high level problem (such as a wicked problem) that problem can be impacted on a global scale.

So how can you take on a transition design perspective and contribute to the future of our society and planet?

1. Understand Systems Thinking

In order to contribute to transition design, it is important to have an understanding of systems thinking. This will enable you to take on a holistic approach and understand the different parts that make up the working system around you.

“System thinking is a method of critical thinking by which you analyse the relationships between the system’s parts in order to understand a situation for better decision making” (Grimsley, 2017).

If you would like to increase your understanding of systems thinking, we recommend reading the below blog series, which we wrote. Systems thinking has a number of applications and can take your design abilities to the next level.

1. The Art of Systems Thinking - Part One
2. The Art of Systems Thinking - Part Two
3. The Art of Systems Thinking - Part Three
4. The Art of Systems Thinking - Part Four

2. Think about the Future

Along with focusing on current challenges, also consider how your project will impact the future of society.

For example, let us say that you have created a learning solution that involves printing hundreds of handbooks. This decision is contributing to more trees being cut down, which in the long-term impacts our environment. By considering the impact on the future of our planet, we can identify a better way such as making the booklets ebooks, which are accessed entirely online.

3. Adopt the Transition Design Framework

The Transition Design Framework provides insight into what we can do as designers in this space.

The Framework has “four mutually reinforcing and co-evolving areas of knowledge, action and self-reflection” (Irwin, 2018). 

  • Visions for Transition
Practical action: Design projects that act as stepping stones to a better future.

  • Theories of Change
Practical action: Use models and theories to support the change that you desire.

  • Posture and Mindset
Practical action: Adopt a mindset of openness, mindfulness, self-reflection and collaboration.

  • New Ways of Designing
Practical action: Adopt new ways of designing that arise out of future visions.

You can view the framework here (Irwin, 2018).

Transition design is not something that anyone is a complete expert in just yet. It is the start of a conversation. We hope that this blog has opened your eyes to the concept and has enabled you to understand the impact that you can have through contributing to it. Special thanks to Terry Irwin for her significant contribution in this space. Our team is excited for its potential in the design industry and most importantly our future as a race.


Australian Public Service Commision. (2018). Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective. Retrieved from

Carnegie Mellon University. (2020). About Transition Design. Retrieved from

Grimsley, S. (2017). Systems Thinking in Management: Definition, Theory & Model. Retrieved from

Irwin, T. (2018). Transition Design Framework. Retrieved from

Irwin, T. [Hanze Ontwerpfabriek]. (2019, June 22). Lecture Terry Irwin on Transition Design @ Hanze Ontwerpfabriek, Groningen, Holland. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Spacey, J. (2016). What is Transition Design? Retrieved from

Transition Design Seminar (2020). Wicked Problems [Image]. Wicked Problems, Stakeholder Relations & Assignments #1a and #1b. Retrieved from

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