The Design Way: core concepts

Desiderata, interpretation, communication, judgment, composition, and craft

This blog post attempts to summarize Section III: Fundamentals of Nelson and Stolterman’s “The design way” (TDW: 2012, 2003), see also the five 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.

Desiderata       ‘Desiderata’ are that what is desired by a design client, including end-users – by proxy or directly. In a normal design situation, desiderata form the starting point for a design process of intentional change. Unfortunately many design projects start with a needs assessment instead of an assessment of what is felt to be desirable. Needs tend to divert design away from sustainable solutions. A desiderata assessment is particularly necessary when social structures are involved. If too many needs are ´swept in´, this can easily lead to analysis or value paralysis. If too many desiderata are ´blocked out´, design gives way to trends-based futuring, rule of thumb, and best practice. If all goes well after (and during) a proper desiderata assessment, the intention of a possible future design is brought out in a way that allows for the gradual emergence of the design elements, including the purpose.

Interpretation and measurement     Somehow design has to be fed with information. Two common models are subjective interpretation and scientific objectivity. The trouble with the first is that it is, well, one-sided, biased, while ignoring hard facts. The second, in contrast, is biased toward commensurable measurement and tends to ignore soft facts, exactly because they are subjective. Although selective, these traditional methods remain helpful in understanding design situations. The TDW alternative – or better, complement – is ‘appreciative judgment’ to determine what is important and what not. Design interpretation is intentional, because design is intentional. TDW proposes three acts of interpretation: (1) explorative interpretation to find meaning; (2) generative interpretation to create possibilities of meaning; and (3) compositional interpretation to make meaning.

Imagination and communication        There cannot be creative insights into the not-yet-existing without imagination. Imagination gives form to creative ideas as (intentional) images, which in turn need to be communicated. Creativity is image rich and image dependent, so collaborative design processes cannot rely on verbal methods alone. Communication of each other’s internal images is of the greatest importance. Ideally, design communication follows a number of phases and stages, from bringing the design partners together to the development of novel insights. The main part of this process is iterative until an ‘adequate’ conceptual design is agreed upon, which can be implemented.

Judgment      Design is intentional action that uses critical judgment to transform the ideal into reality. Judgment synthesizes creativity and innovation. A succession and mix of judgments is used, starting with client judgment – which installs accountability – to various forms of designer judgment. The first designer judgment is framing judgment to determine the right direction of the process followed by several of ten design judgment types, including appreciative judgments, quality judgments, compositional judgments, and core judgments. The latter link design to core values of both the client and the designer. Overall mediative judgment is required for a balanced use of the various judgment types.

Composing and connecting       Design can mean (1) the result of a design process, i.e. a compositional assembly, or (2) the design process itself, which involves integrating design strategies to find novel connections and relations. Design as a process passes from the emersion of a tentative, formative ideal (or ‘parti’) to a final compositional phase. The particular, adequate, holistic outcome of composition must in important ways continue to reflect the essence of the ‘parti’. In the end, the design must also be composed in such a way as to convey a sense of wholeness and comprehensibility.

Craft and material       Craft and material are needed to bring a design concept into the real world. Craft is a skill set to manipulate and integrate material and tools. A crafty designer knows how to let material (possibly including people) “speak back”. This helps in building effective relationships, both internally (as a whole) and externally (with the world). A designer needs a certain connoisseurship to be able to produce quality and excellence in these relationships. The quality of the design remains unclear to many until completion. A design takes time to completion. During this time different people or teams may be involved, having complex and contradictory needs. This may hinder completion, so careful management may be needed to bring a design to maturity.

Parallels with “Wicked solutions”    ‘Wicked solution’ uses rich picturing, stake identification, and framing to conduct a proper desiderata assessment. It reduces the problem of subjectiveness by using the concept of ‘perspectives’ to create the conditions for inter-subjectivity. In addition to the three forms of interpretation already mentioned (which correspond roughly with rich picturing, framing, and boundary critique + dialectics), ‘Wicked solutions’ adds ‘reconstructive interpretation’ for interpreting and making meaning of existing situations. The subsequent phases and stages of design communication in TDW can be fitted quite easily on the steps and stages of the design process in ‘Wicked solutions’. As to judgment, ‘Wicked solutions’ is particularly strong in core and compositional judgments. The notion of ‘parti’ is conspicuously absent in ‘Wicked solutions’ (but could be ‘reverse engineered’ if necessary, of course). ‘Wicked solutions’ as a process of inquiry and design is very good at letting material, more especially people and their perspectives, “speak back”. `Wicked solutions´ does not go into the craft of finalizing the design. The reason is that ´Wicked solutions´ is a practical guide for design in general, while craft deals with details that are highly specific to different design domains.


  • 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

About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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