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some notes on Transition Design

CMU School of Design has started developing the notion of ‘Transition Design.’ A model has been developed (by Terry Irwin, Gideon Kosoff and I) that proposes the interrelation of Visions for Transition, Theories of Change, Posture and Mindset, New Ways of Designing. The following are draft notes on the first two.

Visions for Transition


When at A, you need a vision of B to motivate you to move. You might only get to C, but from C, you can see ‘around a corner’ as it were, to other possible futures D and E. With this idea of ‘seeing around corners’ you avoid the fact that B is never going to be that visionary because it is always going to be the product of worldview at A.

In sum:
1) we don’t do enough of visioning (nor forecasting)

2) when we do do visioning, it is mostly done badly (e.g., horrible architectural ‘artist’s impression’ photoshops), in ways that don’t inspire desire. (What we need is vis.comm design meets media design to create high fidelity futures that can compete with marketing’s visions, or cinema’s dystopias.)

3) when we do do visioning well, there is the converse danger that we are just projecting forward as desirable an idealized version of the current world-view (this is my worry that pictures of ‘cosmopolitan localism’ often look like ‘new urbanism’s slightly denser, and still very white, suburbia).

4) consequently, visioning should be self-consciously situational: B is desirable from A, but on the way to B,
you can glimpse D or E from C as more desirable than B.

Theories of Change

1) Despite design being defined by Herb Simon as intentional change to preferred states, or by Alain Findeli as transforming state A into state B, most designers do not see themselves as agents of (social) change. They see themselves as

  • quality improvers: taking current situations/technologies and making them better (functionally and/or aesthetically)
  • problem-solvers: creating a communication/product/environment that better enable people to accomplish tasks within existing infrastructures/businesses

2) If designers do see themselves as change agents, it is often with only-ever-assumed rationales for how change will happen. For example:

  • ordinary people, and especially business, policy or scientistic people, cannot see the outside-the-box short-circuit change possibilities that creatives like designers can
  • since awareness is more than half the problem of change, designers with their skills in making the complex simple, and information affecting, can accelerate awareness-based change
  • if it is sexy enough, people will buy it and so be changed
  • technology is the answer, it’s just that people cannot take it up because it is not user-friendly enough

3) The field of social design, especially when following ‘research-based design methods,’ often has more articulated rationales for how what designers do enable change. The design process has a commitment to immersive qualitative research, even to the extent of participatory designing, that can empower people in change-making.

4) To be serious about change, as is the ambition of ‘transition design,’ designers need to have deep, well-articulated and applied understandings about how change happens. Transition Designers should always be able articulate the ‘Theory of Change’ that is warranting their interventions.

5) A ‘Theory of Change’ is a model of the system in which design interventions are taking place. It identifies key components and the relations between those components, as well as other systems that may lie alongside the focus system, or systems within which the focus system resides. The model allows responsible predictions about how interventions will change that system –  and those changes could involve the emergence of new components, relations, and contiguous or nested systems. A Theory of Change is never fixed or complete, but always being modified by what is learned about the system being modeled by error-friendly, more-or-less-reversible interventions into that system.

6) There are a range of sources of Theories of Change with which Transition Designers are familiar and from which they generate their design-orienting models:

  • living systems
    especially principles of emergence and transitions in ecosystems, but also ideas about co-evolution, parasitism, virality and migration. Where the former is the slow result of chaos, the latter can be rapid when conditions of resilience finally tip into a series of changes that cascade chaotically through a system.
  • socio-technical systems
    especially ‘Transition Management Theory’s principles of multi-level, multi-stage change. The multiple levels comprise: larger-scale path-dependent infrastructures and ideologies at the macro level, everyday practices – socially hegemonic, routinized constellations of devices, skills and meanings – at the meso level, and niche sites of experimentation at the micro level. Transition Theory, drawing on Sociology of Technology Studies and Diffusion of Innovation research, holds that change requires the staged convergence of a fracturing at the macro level, experiments with new devices at the micro level, and the redesign of practices at the meso level to develop the changed socially cohesive skills and meanings that could take up those experimental devices within new macro contexts.
  • social systems
    especially all that is known the political history of community organizing and social learning.
  • personal systems
    especially all that is known about the (social) psychology of behavior change and the managing of life-stage and health transitions (link to Posture and Mindset)

7) The Theories of Change of Transition Designers are necessarily design-centric. They privilege designerly aspects of change that are invariably missing from non-design, humanities and social science based models of change:

  • – sense-making, making-visible-the-invisible and visioning-the-future (link back to Visioning)
  • – materiality and usefulness (link forward to New Design Practices)

In other words, designerly Theories of Change see that what is missing from many existing Theories of Change is attention to the role of designed artifacts (communications, products, environments). In terms of ‘socio-technical systems’ above, designed artifacts materialize the macro, bind the meso, and so must be the site of experimentation at the micro.


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