Transdisciplinary Design

A TransDesign Holiday Recipe

Posted on December 18, 2011 | posted by:

“Man at the crossroads looking with uncertainty but with hope and high vision to the choosing of a course leading to a new and better vision.”
-The theme for a mural commissioned by the MOMA to Diego Riviera

What is this Transdesign course that we hope leads to a new and better vision? I have no idea. Instead, I have ideas about how to get there and questions to ask along the way. In an effort to make tangible all the intangibility of this semester, I have written a draft of my own reflections (with all my own biases, interpretations and ideas) on the Transdesign process. Inspired by the Riviera quote above, and as a result of my immersion in the Transdesign world over the last few months, I am able to take this action. The only way to conceivably define this Transdesign pathway is to start somewhere, fail early and then continue.

Perhaps, it’s because as I write this I am simultaneously baking cookies for the holiday party, but a recipe seems the appropriate structure for these reflections. Not to be mistaken for a blueprint, recipes are meant to be interpreted, changed, altered, tested, and improved upon. This recipe might not be fitting of Horst Rittel, Donella Meadows or any of our other Celebrity Chefs but it is a meager attempt to define an experience.

A Transdesign Holiday Recipe

Pre-existing Ingredients
7 parts wicked problems
3 parts experience, skills
2 parts education
a dash of technology

New Ingredients and Experiences
4 parts collaboration
3 parts design process
3 parts systems thinking
1/2 part innovation for every 1-part collaboration
1/4 parts Sustainability for every 1-part technology

Preparation Steps:

1. This recipe is not meant to be followed step-for-step. Different problems and questions will arise that cannot be accounted for now. That’s perfectly normal but try to keep a level-head when you encounter them. Designing hyper-locally will help address these issues. You may even need to start this recipe from the middle and work your way from there: this is in no way a linear recipe. The best advice is to keep cooking, try new ingredients and tools, and if something goes wrong: start again.

2. Your design conditions will be pre-set. A process of trial-and-error can help you tackle the contexts and issues of your particular design environment. Do not overlook this step. You may make it several steps ahead before realizing you misinterpreted the conditions. That’s ok! Just learn from your mistakes and try again.

3. If you need any advice, make sure to ask your co-chefs. Remember, they have different pre-existing ingredients; so they can offer insight you might not get if you work alone.

Action Steps:

1. Gather your pre-existing ingredients; these are the ingredients you can always rely upon. On the other hand, the new ingredients and experiences may seem difficult and strange, but will help your recipe in the end. By combining your familiar ingredients with more unusual ingredients, this recipe will be even stronger. (And more people will like it!)

2. Your pre-existing ingredients should already be mixed together. Great! This will be the basis for the rest of the recipe. It may seem like there are too many wicked problems at this point. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to feel that way. Just keep cooking!

3. Add your dash of technology and continue working. Now, don’t over use your technology – and certainly don’t let it take over the other ingredients. The technology works for you, not the other way around.

4. Add your sustainability. Sadly, sustainability is scarce right now so you won’t be able to add too much. But don’t worry; by making it an essential part of your recipe, people won’t be able to differentiate between sustainability and good design.

5. Throw in your systems thinking and design methodology. These are both key ingredients. Without them, those wicked problems could never be tackled! It will take several tries to ensure you have the right proportions of both. You may want to keep scale in mind for this part. Backing away from your recipe will provide clarity and help you understand what is really going on. Re-framing is also always an option and can be very helpful if you get stuck or lost in this recipe.

6. Now, add your innovation! This comes in many different forms, so choose what is right for you. Past recipes can offer ideas on what your innovation might look like. But don’t be scared to try something new, remember, this is an iterative process. Failing early and often can help lead to stronger outcomes in the future.

7. Put in your collaboration! This diverse, multi-disciplinary ingredient will spice up your design and differentiate it from other recipes.

8. It’s time to test your recipe! Critique and feedback are very important in understanding if your recipe works. It might take days, weeks, even months to gain a full understanding to its effectiveness. Sometimes a recipe seems complete, but years later you realize it was never done at all and must be reworked completely. Put your recipe in normal, everyday situations and see how others interact with it. You might like the burnt taste, but someone else might not agree.

9. Be warned – the first few times, your recipe will likely be overcooked, burned or just plain bad. Don’t be surprised if the end result is different than planned, this is completely normal.  As long as you haven’t burned the whole kitchen down, you can still be successful. Reflect on what you did make to help improve your next attempt. Making anything at all can be a very important first step to tackling difficult issues and problems.

10. Now, how did it turn out? If it’s not to your liking, feel free to go back and try again. You will have to alter these steps until you find the right combination. But don’t worry; as long as you keep asking questions, reflecting on different ideas, issues and perspectives, you’ll get there eventually.