Transition Design: Design for a Brave New World

NASA’s The Blue Marble


The world today is complex. It is layered with complexity that didn’t previously exist or that we didn’t previously understand. With this, the problems we face have become more complex. Sometimes referred to as wicked problems. As a reaction to this, design has matured by increasing our ability to understand and deal with complexity. The evolution of design has seen it transition from the world of designed artefacts and physical objects, towards applications in ever more complex contexts. Design today deals with intangible issues such as services, experiences and human behaviour.


“Fundamental change at every level of our society is needed to address the issues confronting us in the 21st century. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, depletion on natural resources and the rising gap between rich and poor are just a few of the ‘wicked problems’ that require new approaches to problem solving.”  

– Transition Design 2015


Today I sit in a design studio and call myself a ‘Service Designer’, dealing with these more intangible aspects of design. I was drawn to the discipline because through it there was a clear opportunity to reduce our consumptive behaviours in our transition towards a service based economy. Service design also provided the framework to consider a much broader context within which to design. Meaning that we could give more thought and consideration to the wider impacts of what we design. Reframing and answering the right problems to make the most meaningful impact. Service design enables us to design with intent and consider our effects on the realms of society, economics and the environment. But as a ‘designer’ I often feel we aren’t quite doing enough.


“When we come back to the basics of what service design is…One of those core things was to reduce consumption and to move us away from a product orientated society and towards a service orientated society…Things that reduce the products that we buy and consume and change our behaviour and relationship with physical goods. I think that the reality is that this has not happened and this is something that our community should be questioning and critiquing.”  

– Lauren Currie, Service Design Show


I have a ‘dissatisfied optimism’. I have a disgruntlement with the way things are but also a belief that things can be better. This instills a desire to improve the world around me, and extends to a critique and reflection on how I see the practice of design and the value it creates in the world (through the lens of Service Design). I believe that design is doing great things all over the world (in its many forms) and is maturing in its capability to do so. But design’s relevance in the future may be intertwined with its capability to deal with increasing complexity in a critical and intentional way. In order for design to deal with the wicked problems defining this century, it needs to evolve and develop new tools, methods, and ways of thinking.

In the relatively short time I have called myself a ‘designer’ I have seen great work produced: work that helps solve problems and makes impact within society and the economy to improve the everyday lives of people. But from my perspective there are aspects of the world, we as a design community are falling short of addressing. These are…

1: A consideration for the environment (natural systems). 

2: The ability to implement over long time horizons and consider multiple generations (past and future). 

3: An ability to understand and deal with higher levels of complexity (economic, natural and societal). 


Adaption of Richard Buchanan's four orders of design as a framework for design’s reach and evolution.

Adaption of Richard Buchanan’s four orders of design as a framework for design’s reach and evolution.


I believe these aspects are missing due to the confines within which Service Design and most design disciplines exist. Service Design for the most part looks to create solutions which provide profit and benefits for companies and organisations by delivering useful and desirable services for users. But solutions are often based within a business context and therefore within the dominant economic paradigm. Which doesn’t often consider the environment, long time horizons, future generations, and interconnected complex problems. But I believe design is critical to changing the modus operandi, in what ever form it takes.


“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”

― Buckminster Fuller


To understand how design might need to evolve to better tackle these aspects, I went to Schumacher College in Devon, England to attend a short course on Transition Design. Transition Design was developed and delivered by Professor Terry Erwin, Dr. Gideon Kossoff and Dr. Cameron Tonkinwise from Carnegie Mellon. Its purpose is to provide the framework for “design-led societal transition toward more sustainable futures and the re-conception of entire lifestyles”. Transition Design believes that it needs to challenge “existing paradigms and envision new ones that will lead to radical, positive social and environmental change”. To do this it makes explicit the foundational need to “understand the interconnectedness and inter-dependancies of social, economic, political and natural systems.”

Although Transition Design currently sits within the world of academia, I believe that it can provide the structure for us as designers to push our collective thinking, providing a framework to learn from others, develop new tools and methods to put into practice. Below you can find the high-level framework of Transition Design.


Transition Design suggests that to deal with the three aspects I outlined earlier we need to build new knowledge that helps us to develop and think more deeply about these areas. Below are some areas of knowledge that would help us better deal with these aspects. (Transition Design also deals with other areas of consideration but these are the three I have chosen to focus on).


“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

― Albert Einstein


1: A consideration for the environment (natural systems). 

– Needs and Satisfiers:  Max-Neef 1992

Understanding how people go about satisfying their needs is a key strategy for developing future sustainable solutions.

– Worldview: Capra & Luisi 2014

Our current world view is inadequate and requires a shift to a more holistic/ecological worldview and is one of the most powerful leverage points for transition to sustainable futures.

– Goethean Science & Phenomenology: Hoffman 2007

A phenomenological approach to understanding the ‘wholeness’ of natural organisms and the symbiotic, holarchic relationship between part and whole.

2: The ability to implement over long time horizons and consider multiple generations (past and future). 

– Futuring, Future-casting and Speculative Design: Dunne & Raby 2013

More radically new ideas and compelling visions of sustainable futures are needed to allow designed solutions in the present to be informed by longer-term visions of sustainable futures.

– Indigenous Wisdom: Papanek 1995

Indigenous pre-industrial societies lived sustainably in place for generations, informed by ‘slow-knowledge’ that was place based and embedded within local cultures.

– Post Normal Science: Ravetz 2007

Is a method of inquiry for addressing long-term issues when relatively little information is available, values are in dispute and urgent decisions and outcomes are critical.

3: An ability to understand and deal with higher levels of complexity (economic, natural and societal).

– Living Systems Theory: Capra & Luisi 2014

Explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of the relationship between organisms and their environments. Principles such as self organisation, emergence, resilience, symbiosis, holarchy and interdependence can serve as leverage for change within complex systems.

– Cosmopolitan Localism: Sachs 1999

Is a place based lifestyle in which solutions to global problems are designed for local circumstances and tailored to specific social and ecological contexts whilst being globally connected in their exchange of information.

– Social Practice Theory: Shove 2010

Looks at the constellations of devices, skills, actions and meanings that form slow-changing/inertial habits and habits in everyday life and looks to identify opportunities for innovation that can help create more sustainable forms of everyday life.

– Alternative Economics: Korten 2010

Sustainable futures will require the development of new kinds of equitable and integrated economic systems in which most needs can be satisfied locally while some remain reliant on global networks.


However design evolves, Transition Design makes for a foundation of inspiration and direction. It provides a bank of knowledge and way of being that I believe we should all push to include in our practice. As we collectively discuss what design is evolving into or where it needs to evolve, what practices, methods, tools do we need? What world views and ways of thinking do we need and what actions and steps do we collectively need to take? Do we actively need to shift the dominant paradigms or do we need to wait?

The evolution of design is inevitable. But we should be having a discussion about its intent and what role it needs to play in the transition towards a society that considers the whole, understands that we are part of the system not separate from it and thinks beyond our lifetimes towards future generations. It might not be design that leads us to the future but it should be by design that we create a meaningful brave new world for ourselves.

  • Dan Szuc

    October 1, 2016 at 10:51 am Reply

    Lovely reading, thank you.

    • Oliver Dykes

      October 4, 2016 at 11:13 am Reply

      Thanks Dan. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  • Marius Koppang

    October 4, 2016 at 3:16 am Reply

    An inspiring read, thanks for sharing Olli.

    • Oliver Dykes

      October 4, 2016 at 12:50 pm Reply

      Thanks Marius. If you get the chance, let me know your thoughts?

  • Louise

    November 6, 2016 at 7:00 pm Reply

    Hi Oliver,

    Fantastic read thank you for publishing it.

    I am a Designer and Landscape Architect who has recently developed a keen interest in Service Design, as an industry using a Human Centred Design Process to develop services/products and strategies. I am passionate about the power design has to solve wicked problems and make positive change, so your article really resonated with me! I liked your term “dissatisfied optimism” which is exactly how I feel! Design has the power to change stuff, and we have a responsibility to change stuff, so lets do it!

    It was really interesting to note the “aspects we as a design community are falling short of addressing”. The reason I studied and practice Landscape Architecture its its focus on the principles you discussed above (see below);
    1: A consideration for the environment (natural systems).
    2: The ability to implement over long time horizons and consider multiple generations (past and future).
    3: An ability to understand and deal with higher levels of complexity (economic, natural and societal).

    However, the current economic situation has lead to LA becoming increasingly marginalised and reliant on developer/architecture commissions and we have lost this vision. While we are taught in at uni to design complex systems and processes over time in social and political environments these don’t readily translate into practice.

    Cant wait to read more about Transitional Design! It sounds really interesting.

    Thanks again for your post.

  • Louise Krstic

    November 10, 2016 at 2:01 pm Reply

    Hi Oliver,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I found this a great read. My background is in Landscape Architecture and the built environment and I’ve recently become very interested in UX design (by way of Human Centered Design).

    Landscape Architecture is founded on the aspirations of Transition Design such as a consideration for the environment (natural systems), long time horizons, and economic and society complexity. But we lack the technology, human centered approach and digital agility of UX.

    Transition design sound like the future!

    Particular thanks for all your links, super awesome and a great read too!

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