An Argumentative Process? (2009)

Wicked Problems, useful or just interesting?

Last week I gave a short presentation on wicked problems to a workshop in the Creativity Centre at Brighton University. I had been asked to do something that would provoke discussion in a mixed audience of artists, designers, business people, engineers and others.

I chose wicked problems because they seem to encapsulate a number of useful ideas about designing and what designers do. Creative people seem to enjoy the idea of wicked problems whereas some others see them as nasty medicine that we have to take whether we like them or not. Since the idea of the wicked problem was first proposed by Rittel and Webber (eg Cross, 1984) and was promoted by Richard Buchanan (1992) it has attracted an increasing amount of interest from the design community, although there have been suggestions that it is little more than an interesting theory, having no practical application. To put it another way, it does not contribute to method or methodology.

However Rittel and Webber give us a persuasive description of the process of solving wicked problems:

…an argumentative process in the course of which an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgement, subjected to critical argument.

I find this very helpful and in my talk I set out to show what such a process might look like, referring to the work of Henrik Gedenryd (1998), who has studied how thinking takes place in designing. I also used the work of Simon Bowen as an example, Simon has recently completed PhD research (Bowen 2009) which explores how “crazy objects” might be used as a source of stimulus when working with groups of stakeholders to identify new needs and design opportunities.

simon-processSimon’s “critical artefact” methodology is based on the idea that provocative design concepts can stimulate people to debate their needs and desires in a more open way, allowing the designer to identify new concepts. His process moves through successive cycles of designing and group work with stakeholders as indicated by the diagram on the left. The first discussion leads to a first design idea which is completely unrealistic but relevant to the issues revealed in the discussion. Successive cycles reveal more ideas and the design concepts become more relevant, eventually forming concepts that have practical potential.

The move from working with stakeholders to producing new design concepts does not rely on the designer to analyse the sessions with stakeholders. Simon relies on the designer’s ability to tacitly “process” their experience of the group sessions into more relevant new designs without any explicit work to identify needs.  One of the interesting aspects of Simon’s thesis is the way he develops a description of this processing using Michael Polanyi’s theories of tacit or personal knowledge in action to validate the principle (Bowen 2009 171-173).

This approach to identifying new design ideas, and more importantly, clarifying the problems they might resolve, seems to provide a good example of the argumentative process set out by Rittel and Webber. At the start there is a general awareness that there may be problems or opportunities in an area that might be defined by a social group, technology, activity etc etc. Through successive cycles of discussion and ideation the group moves towards “an image of the problem” and its potential solution. Simon Bowen’s approach was validated in his doctoral research, for example by an expert panel who were able to confirm that the the concepts which emerged were novel, relevant and could be developed. However his is only one of many situations in which Rittel and Webber’s ideas might be seen in action and I feel they provide us with a template for evaluating a design process, requiring us to ensure that argumentation is present and ideas are conditional rather than prescriptive.

In particular they require us to avoid the idea that a design process can start with problem definition, something that organisations often imagine to be the right approach. In this we are helped by Henrik Gedenryd who set out (1998, 56 fig 1.15) a ‘Rosetta Stone’ of many theories of cognition and designing.

gedenryd-rosetta1He pointed out that all of these theories have a similar structure, generally along the lines of analyse > synthesise > evaluate. They are all linear and, although many theories of designing use iterative models, these are usually the same kind of linear models repeated by being formed into a loop. Gedenryd argued convincingly that these models are not realistic and that the assumption that complex thinking is “intramental” (conducted within the brain and separate from action) is faulty. Instead he proposed a model of interactive thinking in which the person interacts with an environment (the thing they are working with or on) through a task. To support this he pointed out that designers tend to move very quickly into visualising concepts as a means of thinking about their problems.

Gedenryd’s work seems to resonate with Rittel and Webber and with Simon Bowen’s approach providing a model for designing: The designer must create a situation which allows ideation and argumentation to be present throughout the project. Rather than attempting to define the problem to be resolved, the designer should start by visualising some possible solutions which provide the environment for thought and the reference point for argumentation. Simon Bowen’s process provides a role for other stakeholders, not, in this case as co-designers but rather as a sounding board for the designer who “processes” his interactions into new developments in the design. Other approaches may use stakeholders in different ways but it is worth noting that they provide a potentially rich source of knowledge and insight to complement the designer’s personal resources. Through this process, in Rittel and Webber’s words, an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants.

Bowen, S. (2009) A Critical Artefact Methodology: Using Provocative Conceptual Designs to Foster Human-centred Innovation PhD Thesis, Sheffield Hallam University [online at]

Buchanan, R. (1992) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Design Issues 8,2 Spring 1992 5-21

Gedenryd, H. (1998)  How Designers Work: Making Sense of Authentic Cognitive Activity PhD Thesis, Lund University. [online at]

Rittel, H. W. J. & Webber, M. M. (1984) Planning problems are wicked problems. In Cross N [ed] Developments in design methodology (pp 135-144). J Wiley & Sons, Chichester

To cite this blog post:

Rust (2009) An Argumentative Process, Sheffield Hallam University, Art and Design Research Centre discussion paper [online at


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2 Responses to “An Argumentative Process? (2009)”

  1. chrisrust Says:

    I’ve updated this post on 5 June 2009 to include details of Simon Bowen’s doctoral thesis which is now available online

  2. Francois Nsenga Says:

    Very Interesting Review! Looking forward to learning more on how various “beliefs and desires” (Gabriel TARDE) would/should ‘argumentatively’ be coalesced into artefacts.

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