Design October 24,  2022

Transition Design

Juan Arrillaga   •  UI/UX Lead   •  Linkedin
Sofía Acher   •  Communication Specialist   •  Linkedin

If the discipline of Design has centered over the course of history in problem solving, in a context of ecological vulnerability, we believe it is time to change processes and collectively experiment new forms of thinking and doing.

What is Transition Design?

Transition Design is a design practice that aims to face and give solutions to global changes of current and future society leaning on environmental sustainability, economic, and social criteria.

It rose from Carnegie Mellon University and its main idea is to change perspective and deadlines to work. It looks to work in the current system at the same time as it transforms it. It focuses on letting go of a short term perspective and changing it for a long term point of view. 

Nowadays, design solutions have to face complex problems, named “wicked problems“ by Horst W.J Rittel and Melvin M. Webber. It makes reference to problems that are difficult to describe and that, because of its complexity of factors, they seem impossible to resolve. They tend to be problems of social, political, and environmental character, such as contamination, poverty, loss of biodiversity, economic crisis and privacy problems, to name some.

Terry Irwin, director of the School of Design of the Carnegie Mellon University, investigates about Transition Design from the following premise: 

Wicked problems can manifest as seemingly mundane/simple problems at a local level (limited context), but in reality are often ‘fragments’ of wicked problems that exist on multiple levels; the local, regional and global. The ability to see the roots of these complex problems and visually represent their interconnections/interdependencies and therefore know where design intervention is likely to be most powerful is a key skill for the transition designer (Irwin, Tonkinwise & Kossoff, 2015).

〈1〉 Irwin, Terry; Tonkinwise, Cameron; Kossoff, Gideon. (2015) Transition Design Seminar Spring 2015

To visualize this with a clear example, in the image above there is a systematic map elaborated by the Institute of Public Health of Norway that describes and explains the obesity problem in their country.

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With an approach of complex systems, it explains the ways in which the different elements of a “system” are interrelated and how systems are intrinsically dynamic and uncertain: changes and responses to interventions within the system can rise randomly and in no literal way, during an uncertain amount of time.

Transition Design: 

This systemic conception of the problem to approach requires design solutions that cannot uniquely concentrate in the main discipline nor in one and only design specialty. In fact, the priority objective of Transition Design is not to produce one object, space or element of communication, but to give them shape to design lifestyles that overcome the worked problems from the actions of the involved. And, therefore, collaboratively design and in consensus with the agents that participate. For this reason Transition Design can be called “design of actors relations” implied in the situation to intervene.                                                                                                                                                                                               

An example of this is the Cooperative of housing La Borda in Barcelona, Spain. The process of La Borda starts in 2012, within the community’s recover of Can Batlló, where a group of neighbors decides to organize themselves to collectively solve the need to access a worthy, social, affordable and environmentally sustainable living place with the will of promoting new ways of coliving and generating community by way of interrelation between neighbors. 

This is an initiative to promote an alternative solution to access housing, which is based, among other things, on the elimination of speculation on land and housing. The objective is to convert them into a good for use and not for transaction.

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The cooperative of architects is involved from the start, with the motivation of building an alternative to the serious housing crisis in Barcelona. This implication becomes an opportunity to rethink the production of popular housing, from below and with the participation of the future user in its ecosystem.

In the cooperative La Borda, the tools to materialize ideas facilitate their recognition by different groups. An example of this was the dynamics of theatricalization of the laundry service. The exercise was based on recreating, on a real scale and with prototypes, the different spaces and tangible elements of the laundry cleaning experience in the future community: bucket, washing machine, stopcock, notebook to record shifts, etc. It was used to collect information on the preferences of future users and to help internalize the laundry service itself, thus facilitating the debate on the different scenarios that were being proposed.

Designing for a better future

Transition Design puts on the table the idea that design can play a relevant role in social and environmental change. This way, the objective of Transition Design focuses on the ideation of sustainable lifestyles at an environmental, social, emotional, political, alimentary, and economic level, among others.

The UX design that we have been practicing is motivated by improving people’s experiences with products and services, improving people’s lives, as much as possible. However, the design of products and interfaces that meet immediate needs can and often neglect the real problems of people and society.

The optic from the design for transitions requires constantly rethinking how anything is designed. In addition to this, it implies letting go of short-term results, so design teams should also work on their own expectations when dealing with such a problem.

The concept of transition design is ambitious and implies a really big challenge, since it modifies the way of working: the way in which designers have learned to interact with collaborative interdisciplinary teams and how we have prepared ourselves to facilitate groups of people looking for solutions.

For designers it is a challenge, since it involves research/experimentation immersed in the same context in which it is intended to intervene, giving rise to spaces for co-creation with users and dynamics of innovation open to all the agents that participate in the process. Interaction, incorporating systemic thinking as an axis.

Therefore, if studied in depth, all transition design is based on some understanding of systems theory, and in particular living systems theory.

It is certainly not the case that all designers adopt only this attitude of transition and long-term vision, but it is necessary to consider the context in which we carry out our profession. We must not forget that we work in the context of imperfect systems and that it is valid to question whether we should use our time and resources as designers to start improving the foundations of the future.

Juan Arrillaga UI/UX Lead   •  Linkedin
Sofía Acher Communication Specialist   •  Linkedin