Reading Rittel: Research on, in, and for design

For all the talk about wicked problems, I find that few have heard of or read Horst Rittel, who coined the term in 1967 and was lead author on the wicked 1973 paper, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (pdf).

Rittel was on faculty at the Ulm School of Design and a leader in the design methods movement. In general, there’s much of value in the design literature, especially for anyone working with approaches to action research, transdisciplinarity, international development, organizational development, social entrepreneurship, social practice, community organizing, and so on. Unfortunately, popular writers on design thinking sometimes neglect to cite their own history — as Cameron Tonkinwise laments, for example, in “The Grammar of Design Thinking.”

I’ve been reading The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning, a 2010 collection of Rittel’s lecture notes and other unpublished writings, edited by Jean-Pierre Protzen and David Harris.

Rittel’s concept of design, as Protzen and Harris reference in the prologue, was a broadly systemic one: “an activity that aims at the production of a plan, which plan — if implemented — is intended to bring about a situation with specific desired characteristics without creating unforeseen and undesired side and after effects.”

This planning for the future is an essential human activity. From the prologue:

Rittel always wondered why this human ability to plan for the future has not received the same attention as epistemology, that is, the study of the human ability to know, and to know what we know to be true, a field that has preoccupied philosophers since the dawn of time.

In 1987, at a conference on Design Theories and Methods in Boston, Rittel mused that ‘[i]t is one of the mysteries of our civilization that the noble and prominent activity of design has found little scholarly attention until recently.’

This piece from “Seminar 1: Modes of Innovation,” 1964, describes three roles for research in service to design:

  • Research on design … Observing the designer as a biologist observes an animal.  How does it work, or behave, or obtain his results?
  • Research in design … Research into the specific knowledge needed for a particular design problem — methods of inquiry, inference, etc. about the particular object under design. One type is the study of the consequences of design. This is almost never attempted. Once a building is completed, unless it collapses the profession is no much longer interested in it. How it serves as a framework for human behavior is almost never investigated.
  • Research for design … Research on generalizable knowledge which the designer can use to control innovation.

“Everybody designs at least some of the time; nobody designs all the time,” the editors write.

If design is about planning for a desired change, then research on, in, and for design is about getting good at change.

See also: “Why Horst W.J. Rittel Matters” at Hugh Dubberly’s website.

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