Wicked Problems: Design ambiguity and provide systems .

What role do “Wicked Problems” play in the context of global transformation tasks? And how does design position itself in this context? A conversation between Prof. Markus Frenzl (Faculty of Design, Munich University of Applied Sciences) and Prof. Markus Weisbeck (Faculty of Design, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar).

Markus Frenzl: Horst Rittel’s term “Wicked Problems” has experienced a small renaissance in recent years. It has almost become a buzzword to describe the global transformation tasks that seem unsolvable from within the existing systems. We probably also want to use it to position ourselves in design to participate in the transformation.

Markus Weisbeck: We see problems that the world has to cope with global warming and, among other things, resulting migration flows. The hypothetical view into the future, the solution of problems that do not yet exist are classic examples of how design can be used in politics or social forms. Interestingly, Rittel says that the thinking of designers is structured in this way.

Frenzl: In the university context, many disciplines are approaching us for the first time because they recognize certain competencies in design that they do not have themselves. Many are now realizing that the transformation tasks cannot be solved by a single discipline and in individual aspects, but require an interdisciplinary, systemic perspective. And we have to accept that there can be no validated scientific solution for such “Wicked Problems”.

Weisbeck: Yes, it’s about multi-optional worlds.


“Transformation tasks cannot be solved by a single discipline and in individual aspects, but require an interdisciplinary, systemic perspective.”

— Markus Frenzl


Frenzl: I consider central which understanding of our discipline is reflected in this. Design always deals with systemic, social and cultural contexts. Perhaps the supposed unscientific nature of our discipline – the experiment, the improvisation – is now even our greatest advantage. Against this background, an exciting question is whether we designers should unreflectively adopt the research logics of other disciplines.

Weisbeck: That is factually impossible. Improvisation is one of our main tools and it is frowned upon in most disciplines. In surgery, it would not necessarily be desirable. In design, we come up with ideas through various steps of non-logical or -linear thinking, which we keep transforming processually. On the other hand, we even need a certain illogic in order to arrive at solution-generating results in the design process. Or packaged as a slogan: “Is methodology the art of weak talent?”


“Improvisation is one of our main tools and it is frowned upon in most disciplines.”

— Markus Weisbeck


Frenzl: Through Design Thinking, the understanding has grown that design does not only mean aestheticization, but also the shaping of innovation processes and future models. However, Design Thinking does not map the design process, nor creativity as a whole. It is also part of our competencies in design to shape ambiguity and to endure uncertainty, to come to terms with mistakes and intermediate solutions. We are used to going through many iterative processes and submitting designs that cannot be scientifically proven. Many people seem to value that more and more. I therefore believe that our discipline is not doing itself any favours by trying to adapt more and more to the scientific and research logics of other disciplines.


“It is part of our competencies as designers to shape ambiguity and to endure uncertainty, to come to terms with mistakes and intermediate solutions.”

— Markus Frenzl


Weisbeck: Especially since in the future we will be dealing with generations that are not only completely digitized but have also grown into a linked world of consumption and service. You combine a social media channel with a delivery service, and you have a new product. That’s infinitely transformable. You can only approach this with an attitude like the one you describe.

Frenzl: But we have to get away from the idea that the solution is always a product. We cannot replace one growth logic with another growth logic. The start-up culture also often has a hard time with this. They all focus on sustainability and social aspects and then develop a new product as a solution to the problem, be it a product or a service. But design is always cultural production as well. If the dustbins in public spaces have to be emptied more often because of coffee-to-go cups, you can design dustbins that are easier to empty, rinsable to-go cups and deposit systems like Recup – or you can try to design a cultural change where coffee is “to-stay” again. Design needs to work on sustainability issues like new materials, circularity, or recyclability, as well as anticipate cultural patterns of how people will behave and interact with things. And it must develop models for a society that seeks alternatives to the logic of growth. We designers must finally dare to talk about renunciation. The topic still doesn’t seem to have arrived, although it has been on the agenda since 1972, with “The Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome.

Weisbeck: Yes, absolutely right, especially since more and more people have an aversion to possessions, such as automobiles or individual transport. Even if a younger generation rejects our current economic and social order, it cannot be called anarchistic and irresponsible. In the post-pandemic age, it is less and less about commodity world and possessions. We will see combinations of rental services, but certainly also problematic credit point systems like in China. Most designers who take their profession seriously do not design only when they get a commission, but continuously develop solutions that they do not even need for the current commission of a product or campaign. There are not many disciplines that think about the future while they are still working.


“In the post-pandemic age, it is less and less about commodity world and possessions. We will see combinations of rental services, but certainly also problematic credit point systems like in China.”

— Markus Weisbeck


Frenzl: It’s exciting to see which disciplines are currently trying to position themselves as the leading discipline for transformation: Is it the social sciences, entrepreneurship, the natural sciences, or, say, philosophy? Many design theory professorships have recently been filled by philosophers, and it will be interesting to see whether they take on a more reflective position within design from the outside or see themselves as designers. Isn’t it central that we in design reflect on “doing” our discipline and our responsibility?

Weisbeck: Yes, many colleagues from visual communication do great stuff, but they can’t articulate their own ideas at all. The marketing department, i.e., the business economists, then put it back into words in order to win budgets within the company. We also have to create a theoretical foundation from the practice of visual communication or product design, no great philosophical treatises, but at least an instruction manual for thinking.

Frenzl: But it is not only about the justification of the concrete design. Designers also have to negotiate what role they want to play in shaping transformative processes, participation or involvement. Design has rediscovered its social relevance, but it still needs to reinvent itself in terms of how it communicates its own competencies. I don’t think we already have the standing in the public and political spheres to be accepted in our role.

Weisbeck: Not in any way yet! To speak with Lucius Burckhardt: what we have to manifest here is not only what we practically execute, but we also have to deliver the system. We are in our infancy if we want to explain to a business economist, to an analyst, to a numbers person, that improvisation is one of our main tools. A certain scepticism towards design is still there. Designers tend to be seen as money wasters who want to aestheticize everything. But this acceptance is sure to grow as we experience ever greater exclusions in worlds of goods, services or social services, all of which need a form.

Frenzl: In his current book, Andreas Reckwitz addresses the fact that the proposal logic in sociology prevents the development of large-scale models of society because research proposals tend to deal with time-limited, small-scale issues. Against the backdrop of large sustainability and transformation issues and the associated “Wicked Problems”, we are confronted with the same problem in design: Do we expect only small-scale, pragmatic solutions from design research? And who, apart from ourselves, grants us the right to deal with major social issues?

Weisbeck: The role we are assigned is the one we want to be assigned ourselves. It takes self-awareness of our actions. The awareness that we do not see our profession, even if it is playful, as pure play. And also, a certain seriousness and self-confidence in using our methods to tackle problems that are bigger than ourselves. You can develop experimental and solution models that are one building block to a larger one. In our discipline, we can perhaps do that better than others.

Wicked Problems
Horst Rittel, together with Melvin Webber, coined the term “Wicked Problems” in the 1960s: problems that appear unclear, contradictory, volatile or even unsolvable. In doing so, they defined ten characteristics for Wicked Problems:

1) There is no definitive formulation for Wicked Problems.
2) There is no clear finish line for Wicked Problems, i.e., there is no way to know if the solution is final.
3) Solutions to Wicked Problems are not true or false, but better or worse.
4) There is no immediate and no final test of a solution to a Wicked Problem.
5) Each solution to a Wicked Problem is a “one-time operation”; since there is no way to learn by trial and error, each trial is important.
6) There is boundary on the set of possible solutions yet a well-described set of admissible operations that can be included in the plan.
7) Each Wicked problem is essentially unique.
8) Each Wicked Problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
9) There is always more than one explanation for a Wicked Problem because explanations vary widely depending on individual perspectives.
10) Designers have no right to be wrong and must take full responsibility for their actions.

Frenzl: It is an exciting question whether we need to position ourselves more clearly with an independent research logic if we want to create more awareness of the possibilities of design research.


“The academic context in which we both move must not develop its own systems that practice no longer needs.”

— Markus Weisbeck


Weisbeck: That wouldn’t hurt us and would also ground us a bit. Just compare how many art historians there are and how thin the numbers are in design theory or design philosophy! On the other hand, we need to be careful about academization: We need the feedback of the hand to the thought, as Gropius said. The academic context in which we both move must not develop its own systems that practice no longer needs. Today, in a design position, it is hardly possible to get a professorship without a PhD. And why? Because the PhD is a measurable quantity, whereas a creative work needs reviewers. A Gerhard Richter, for example, would no longer get a painting professorship today because he “only” paints.

Frenzl: Yes, in the university context we are increasingly confronted with traditional measurement categories from other disciplines. And we have to negotiate whether we want to adapt to these measurement categories or explain that these categories do not apply to us. We have a different scientific and research logic in design. It is important to convey design as a culture-creating and culture-shaping discipline in research as well. The “New European Bauhaus” is a nice metaphor for researching and working from different disciplines towards a common goal. But the goal today is the jointly designed society itself.


“It is important to convey design as a culture-creating and culture-shaping discipline in research.”

— Markus Frenzl


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10 years of the German Design Awards, 10 years of design history

For ten years now, the German Design Council has been honouring outstanding achievements with the German Design Awards. This year, for the first time, the award has a focus theme: inspired by the work of the visionary designer and design theorist Horst Rittel, the motto is “How designers think”: How can solutions be found for those challenges for which Rittel, together with Melvin Webber, coined the term “Wicked Problems” in the 1960s; problems that are unclear, contradictory, volatile or even unsolvable – or only appear to be?

In our series of articles, we would like to introduce personalities and projects that deal with Rittel’s thought in their own way.

Discover all award-winning projects of the winners of the German Design Awards 2022.

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