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Updated: Sep 10, 2020

The following article outlines a VERY brief history of design in order to introduce emergent praxis for large scale systems change toward sustainable societies.

In The Beginning

Design is a pragmatic discipline with roots dating back to early civilisation. The discovery of ancient textiles, pottery and built structures reveal thousands of years of aesthetic coherence between form and function.

Some suggest everything is designed, arguing that Western AND Eastern cultures have engaged in the ultimate design dialectic since the time of Thales and Confucius (585-489 BCE):

  • Philosophical - where does the universe come from?

  • Theological - what created it?

  • Physical - how does it work?

  • Ethical - who does it work for?

(Grayling 2019).

Big Bang or black hole, Gods or GOD, newtonian or quantum, plutocracy or democracy - design is ever present, burrowed deep into humanity's quest to understand who we are, where we come from, why we exist and how we live well together (Grayling 2019).

20th Century Design

For thousands of years, design located at the intersection of art, engineering and craft. Generations of meticulously skilled artisans built aesthetically considered material solutions to humanity's survival concerns, which included warmth, protection, shelter, storage, ritualisation and desirability. The imagination of design conjured the possible, the mathematics of engineering strategised the feasible, and the craft of making manifested the material.

Fast forward to Mid-19th century industrialisation, which ushered in large-scale production of designed textiles, weapons, machinery, building materials, infrastructure, furnishings, jewellery, instruments and more. It also amplified the role of graphic, print and communication design to transform luxuries into household necessities for the masses.

By the early 20th century, design grew into a distinct discipline grounded in 20th Century Pragmatism, which called for a learn-by-doing relationship with the material, functional, built world (Adelman 1993; Dalsgaard 2014). As the discipline matured across the 20th century, so too did its application in a variety of contexts, including architecture, automobiles, furnishings, fashion, household appliances, computing, technology, communications and services; it responded to and stimulated desire as consumer demands emphasised convenience, choice and experience in the post World War II era.

The 1970s, 80s and 90s saw mounting evidence of design's complicity in promoting unsustainable and inequitable human consumptive habits. In response, ecology/systems thinkers like E.F. Schumacher, Buckminster Fuller, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Donella Meadows and Bill Mollison introduced non-anthropocentric perspectives into the design lexicon. At the same time, San Francisco design firm, IDEO, adopted the mid-century phrase, Design Thinking, to describe processes and mindsets that postured a more reflective consideration of societal concerns (IDEO 2015). IDEO expanded the designer's purview to include entrenched systemic challenges that were intractable and polarising, or what Richard Buchanan called, wicked problems. To meet the challenge, design combined early 20th century Pragmatism with emerging post-modern pluralism by enacting participatory principles, such as: i) see that the problem and solution are in a co-arising dynamic ii) understand the challenge from the user's perspective, iii) brainstorm about potential solutions with those who are experiencing the challenge, iv) test and design 'with'' rather than 'on' 'to' or 'for', v) be willing to fail, and vi) learn from mistakes (Adelman 1993; Bradbury 2016; Dalsgaard 2014; Kemmis & McTaggart 2005; Peters & Robinson 1984).

By the end of the 20th century, design had undergone a period of individuation whilst also bleeding into already established, social science informed disciplines such as Human Resources, Organisational Psychology, Change Management and People, Culture and Leadership Development. Today, design is called on to contribute methods, tools and practices that inform how people organise and interact with themselves, others and the natural and socially constructed systems they are a part of.

Orders of Design Complexity

As design stepped into more complex problem solving contexts, emergent design specialisations generated confusion both inside and outside the field. By 2015, design degrees in Industrial Design, Architectural Design, Media/Comms Design, UX Design, Customer Design, Service Design, Strategic Design, Organisational Design, Regenerative Design, etc. abounded.

Buchanan offered the 4th Order Of Design - a clarifying framework that pinned each sub-discipline along an evolving complexity spectrum (Baan 2013). This clarification helped practitioners position their purpose and value based on the scope and complexity of the problems they were responding to (Baan 2013).

Figure 1: The Other Design Thinking In Context by Humantific, 2013.

Figure 2: The Other Design Thinking Challenge Scale Shift by Humantific, 2012.

Human Centred Design

Human Centred Design (HCD) emerged in the early 21st century, not as a new sub-discipline, but rather a 4th Order Design methodology that identified and solved complex problems for services, systems and human interactions (Azer, Liedtka & Salzman 2017). HCD put people at the centre of the design process with the understanding that those facing the problems held the key to solving them (Azer, Liedtka & Salzman 2017, IDEO 2015).

HCD is arguably an evolution of Design Thinking, invoking leadership acts based on empathy, curiosity, humility and ease with ambiguity. These are essential values in a rapidly changing world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the new normal.

Transition Design

Out at the leading edge of Design 4.0 is Transition Design, a design-led, trans-disciplinary response to unprecedented disruption caused by the convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution, the Anthropocene and the tension between reductionist and pluralistic world views. The scope, scale and pace of disruption exceeds the knowledge and expertise of any one discipline. Consequently, Irwin, Kossoff and Tonkinwise (2015b) developed Transition Design, an approach to research, learning and leadership that transcends and includes design by reaching across a range of fields to offer a, “design-led societal transition toward more sustainable futures” (Irwin, Kossoff & Tonkinwise 2015a, p. 1).

The Transition Design Framework articulates an interdependent research and learning meta-perspective that draws from multiple fields of knowledge.

Figure 3: Transition Design Framework by Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff & Cameron Tonkinwise, 2015b.


The work of Transition Designers is to translate the Transition Design Framework into something pragmatic. To this end, Transition Designers draw from Futures Thinking (Visions for Transition), Quantum, Systems & Complexity Theories (Theory of Change), Developmental Psychology (Posture and Mindset) and Human Centred Design (New Ways of Designing) to forge a new ontology for learning and leading amidst a world in transition. Those of us who are practitioners working in this field provide clients with a trans-disciplinary toolkit and a thinking partnership that expands capacity for the skilful navigation of rapid change, and all of the wicked challenges that come with it. Ultimately, the role of the Transition Designer is to challenge assumptions while working WITH clients so that more people feel equipped to skilfully navigate and design for an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.


Adelman, C 1993, ‘Kurt lewin and the origins of action research’, Educational action research, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 7-24.

Axer, D, Liedtka, J & Salzman, R 2017, Design thinking for the greater good: innovation in the social sector, Colombia Business School Publishing, New York, NY.

Baan, W 2013, 'Richard buchanan being interviewed about is four orders of design', Design and Strategy viewed 23 August 2020, <>.

Bradbury, H 2016, ‘Introduction: how to situate and define action research’, electronic book, in H Bradbury, The sage handbook of action research, 3rd edn, Sage Publications, Singapore, pp. 1-9.

Dalsgaard, P 2014, ‘Pragmatism and design thinking’, International journal of design, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 143-155.

Grayling, AC 2019, The History of Philosophy, Penguin Random House, UK.

IDEO 2015, ‘The field guide to human-centred design’, Design kit, 1st edn.

Irwin, T, Kossoff, G & Tonkinwise, C 2015a, Transition design 2015: a new area of design research, practice and study that proposes design-led societal transition toward more sustainable futures, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.

Irwin, T, Kossoff, G & Tonkinwise, C 2015b, Transition design: an educational framework for advancing the study and design of sustainable transitions, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.

Kemmis, S & McTaggart, R 2005, ‘Participatory action research: communicative action and the public sphere’, In: Denzin, Norman K., and Lincoln, Yvonna S., (eds.) The sage handbook of qualitative research, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 559-603.

Peters, M & Robinson, V 1984, ‘The origins and status of action research’, Journal of applied behavioral science, Jai Press, vol 20, no 113, pp. 113-124.

Stein, Zachary, 2018, 'Introduction: education in a time between worlds, Institute for interdisciplinary research into the anthropocene', Education in the anthropocene: futures beyond schooling, viewed June 1, 2019 <>.

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