The Design Way: the first tradition

Design culture, intentional change, and the human condition

This blog post attempts to summarize Section I: The First Tradition of Nelson and Stolterman’s “The design way” (TDW: 2012, 2003), see also the three previous posts. TDW merges several intellectual traditions, including Churchman’s systems approach, which also inspired our own book “Wicked Solutions.” It is not surprising that there are interesting parallels between the books, some of which we are happy to point out (to ourselves in the first place) at the end of this summary.

The design approach     00-cza42-copyWe humans evolved only relatively recently but with complex culture and technology have been able to spread throughout the world and occupy a range of different environments (Dorey, 2014). Design (of tools, fire, shelter, art, sociocultural behavior) and skull shape are fundamental to distinguishing modern man from his more primitive ancestors (Cieri, 2014). Design, broadly interpreted as intentional change, is what all of us do most of the time. Whenever we face challenges or have desires we engage in design, so much so that the design approach may well be considered key to understanding the human condition.

Intentional change       Design is about change. Not accidental change (like in evolution) or necessary change (like in a logical and scientifically validated chain of events), but intentional change, i.e. change with an intent (where ‘intent ’ is the preferred term in order to leave the exact ‘purpose’ to be determined as part of the design process). Design is also about the imagination and realization of ideal, desired additions to our lives, e.g. in the form of technologies, organizations, systems, process, environments, or ways of thinking. The design approach provides an alternative to approaches found in art, science, spirituality, economics, and technology. It could be considered a third way between art and science.

Fields of application       Design can be applied to practical domains such as government and business, in many professions, and in a wide range of scientific fields, especially where human affairs are concerned. Design requires innovation, creativity, composition, critical thinking, responsible follow through, observation, and reflection. Its aim can be to serve, improve, develop, survive, or produce something of consequence and enduring quality. It can be motivated by a desire for meaning, beauty, order, power, control, or wisdom. Practical wisdom is what is needed to deal with wicked problems. Wicked problems are ubiquitous in all practical domains.

The design way     Many problems in government, business, economics, and spirituality are not recognized as design issues. As a result of this, the wrong strategies are chosen to resolve them. One of the working titles of “The design way” was “Creating a design culture: forging the crucible for design competence.” The authors believe that a design approach or “design way” should be applied much more often. Unfortunately its principles and concepts are not widely known. The authors are also convinced that a design culture of inquiry and action needs a nurturing environment to flourish. With “The design way” they hope to contribute to the emergence of such a nurturing environment.

Parallels with “Wicked solutions”     ‘Wicked solutions’ is exemplary of Churchman’s systems approach. Harold Nelson, one of the authors of ‘The design way’, has studied with Churchman and co-authored a value distribution study with him. Key elements of the systems approach constitute what Nelson and Stolterman have named ‘systemics’, which in turn they consider to provide the fundamental basis for design logic and reasoning.

Beyond the systems approach      However, ‘The design way’ goes beyond the systems approach of Churchman by emphasizing that there are “no given categorical sets, types of systems, or categories of systems, or even categories of elements making up a system.’ Nelson and Stolterman relegate the determination of such things to the realm of judgment. Churchman himself says about his set of categories that “other labels could be found to accomplish the same task.” Yet, Churchman’s categories are immensely useful for the inquiry and design of teleological social systems, as demonstrated in ‘Wicked solutions’.

Complementarity        The term ‘intentional change’ points to the importance of the notion of emergence that is critical in dealing with wicked problems. ‘Wicked solutions’ uses the concept of framing to show how one can take the necessary care in formulating design intentions in practice. Apart from these parallels (and there are many more as I will show in follow-up posts) one could say that the two books are complementary, with ‘The design way’ providing the theory and ‘Wicked solutions’ showing the practice. It will be hard for most people to understand one without the other, with ‘Wicked solutions’ being the easier one.


Nelson, Harold G. and Erik Stolterman. 2012. The design way: intentional change in an unpredictable world (Second edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts. Available from

Williams, Bob and Sjon van ’t Hof. 2014. Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (First edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Bob Williams. Available from

PS: From anthropocene to poietocene     Anthropocene is the term coined by the Dutch Nobel prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen for the current era that started with the Industrial Revolution. The term marks the serious consequences of human activities for the Earth’s ecosystems. It is clear that these consequences follow from what Churchman calls environmental fallacy. With the current knowledge, thanks to the same Crutzen, it can be debated whether these consequences are unintended or not. The question one could raise is whether we ought not bring this – really very wicked – problem within the purview of ‘The design way’ and make the transformation to a design age so to speak. Such a design age could be dubbed ‘poietocene’ or ‘poeticene’, where poiesis (Gr.) means the act of creating something intentionally on behalf of another’s desires and purpose (The Design Way, p. 132), and where the other can be inclusive of nature and future (and why not previous, cf. Churchman) generations of mankind. Such a design age cannot be utopian, that would be very much against the spirit of design.

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