Designers cannot go it alone when navigating issues in public health or disaster relief, for instance. These challenges defy a solitary approach. While historically the profession has lauded the accomplishments of the lone, heroic designer, this model is insufficient for our current condition. The design process must become more like open-source software development, with multiple contributors across diverse domains each contributing based on their disciplinary perspectives and unique strengths—but with no single controlling agent.
The ability to collaborate, and to do so strategically and intelligently, is not simply the capacity to play well with others. It takes many forms: pairs, small groups, large teams, or even crowdsourcing. It can be perilous and full of pitfalls. Thus, if a project is to be design-led, designers must be able to demonstrate that they are fluent in the mechanics of working together, and can deliver methods that maximize the effect of multiple perspectives rather than letting the process devolve into chaos, miscommunication, and dysfunction—as it often can. Knowledge specific to the methods of collaboration is essential for coordinating the stakeholders in any multi-person process, which is itself the only way to make headway into a complex problem area.
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It is difficult to overstate just how radical this move toward collaboration will be in its effects. While still relevant, these qualities must now begin to subordinate themselves to more urgently needed approaches. Transdisciplinary design results from a confluence of these larger transformations. Collaborative, distributed, open, and emergent, it arises to meet challenges in diverse contexts that traditional disciplinary approaches have struggled to address.
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It does not entirely replace these disciplinary approaches, but adds a new kind of design capacity. Because it is open-ended and connective, its outcomes are neither knowable in advance nor bounded by convention. Instead, the aim of a transdisciplinary practice is to collaborate with outside forms of expertise—health workers, elected officials, environmental scientists, bankers, biologists or bamboo foresters—in a designled process to discover new methods and approaches that are unique to that collaboration and not derivable from known disciplines.
Radical change is not a process that any professional field absorbs easily. While it is all well and good to believe that we will merrily march forward through these changes, the reality is that they are putting designers into uncomfortable new positions. Transdisciplinary design situates its practices within new kinds of contexts—public health, government services, humanitarian relief, public education, infrastructure—and generates outcomes that might range from protocols, platforms, services and systems to those whose forms we cannot even predict.
What are the key practices? How does the approach take form? A range of strategic practices have emerged that are beginning to give shape to an approach that, while not yielding a final definition of transdisciplinary design, at least provides an outline of some central practices.
As mentioned, collaboration is one of the defining features. This requires analytical acuity, research and understanding, and—in many cases—an outside perspective. Collaboration across diverse disciplines is itself a key strategy for. Religious scholars may provide unexpected insight into a project on social entrepreneurship, just as a food cart vendor would likely assess the implications of reshaping an urban environmental landscape very differently than a city planner.
To reframe critically is to recognize, for instance, that increasing bicycle ridership in the city is not just a matter of building better bike lanes, but also requires coming to terms with national, politically-driven subsidies for oil, highway construction, and automobile manufacturing. Systems diagramming: Disentangling the complexity that ensnares us in so many aspects of everyday life requires that we piece together the bigger picture, understand the broader context, and visualize the flows and disruptions of resources between stakeholders.
Systems thinking provides a rigorous method through which one can begin to manage complexity, or at least start to get a sense of it. By diagramming relationships, flows, and connections one can make manifest the intricacies of a problem to all its stakeholders, while also revealing opportunities for optimizing patterns within complex contexts that might otherwise seem ungovernable.
Scalar thinking: Engaging with complexity means recognizing that any project has both highly localized manifestations and amorphously dispersed global implications. Between those two extremes there are additional levels of impact and opportunity. The first responsibility of a designer is to map out the full spectrum of these scalar gradations. From there, it is a matter assessing the most feasible and strategic level of intervention. The nature of a problem shifts as the scales shift; so it is critical that designers recognize what resources and partners are involved at each level so as to best identify the optimal avenue for intervention.
Experimental prototyping: Keeping an open mind as to the outcomes of a project or, to put it differently, not defaulting to known outcomes opens the possibilities for unexpected results and new kinds of products of the design process.
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Drawing with video; service performances; storyboarded behaviors; scripted interactions; organizational rule sets: these. It is even possible that no two projects will ever have the same kind of outcome. Quick, experimental prototyping ensures that multiple stakeholders can test, react to, and shape the ultimate direction of the process independent of concern for disciplinary expectations. Assessment metrics: Currently, measurements of the social, environmental, or economic impacts of design are fuzzy at best.
In fact, for design to have an impact on large-scale issues, its practitioners and advocates must become better able to demonstrate the value of their interventions. Very few stakeholders are going to take a gamble on empowering design processes if the outcomes are immeasurable. Design needs to take a page from the playbook of public health and start to develop mechanisms for measuring the impact of its actions.
Design-led research: Discovering and producing new knowledge through designing involves sensitivity to the knowledge-producing effects of design itself.
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Design-led research is not the research one takes on before designing, but is instead a process of establishing questions and research directions that are solvable specifically through the act of designing. This may involve additional, conventional research as one advances through the design process, but the aim is to utilize the process of design itself as a way to discover, reveal, and generate new forms of.
Put more simply, through design we can discover. And through designing in complex and unfamiliar contexts we will discover what transdisciplinary design can become. Reflective practice: Identifying the subtle deformations that are taking place in the design process while in the throes of it is critical to the evolution of transdisciplinary design practice.
Being reflective in this sense affords practitioners a way to make their methods explicit, and in turn to build up awareness and a language for expressing their strategic value. Because so much project work is exploratory and experimental, it is essential that transdisciplinary designers foreground their methods, processes, and practices and be capable of communicating these back to stakeholders in the process.
The desire to create a space of experimentation around complex issues, unbounded by disciplinary pressures, was the primary reason that we launched the MFA in Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons. In other words, we were not going to teach the students what it was, but instead would establish the conditions for the practice to emerge.
Around every corner lies the temptation to codify these disparate practices into a new kind of discipline, a temptation we are determined to resist. On the contrary, we are convinced that transdisciplinary design must remain an emergent practice that shape-shifts as the projects change.
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In the end, we benefit more from a willingness to deflect the impulse to define it. Always in a state of becoming, transdisciplinary design emerges within complexity as an evolving set of practices and an openness to change. Part of an ongoing series of lectures, dialogues, and conferences sponsored by the Karan-Weiss Foundation, these presentations and conversations allowed us to pair up experts from diverse perspectives around emergent themes in design. Two of the contributors, Anne Burdick and Ayssar Arida, wrote essays specifically for this issue; these contributions bookend transcripts of the three Design Strategies Dialogues.
The aim was to explore how networks—global, immediate, and decentralized— are changing the way we live, work, and design. What are the possibilities and challenges of working and living in an always-on, always-connected global marketplace? And how can we leverage the power of these networks to transform everyday practices?
Each is reshaping the practice of design in surprising ways. Marije Vogelzang is pushing her practice into the realms of eating, its rituals, and the communities it creates. Andrew Blauvelt scans the far edges of studio design practices to identify projects and practitioners that are redefining the relationship between designing and consuming—using design to leverage the creative power of diverse communities in the process. The third and final Design Strategies Dialogue explored the role that systems design can play in creating resilient responses to crises, whether humanitarian, environmental or technological.
Natalie Jeremijenko, a celebrated and provocative designer and activist, and Nigel Snoad, a researcher and change agent with extensive experience in. If these Dialogues revolved around the question of how design can respond to new challenges, Anne Burdick, Director of the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design, scans design from the outside. She surveys other disciplinary practices that are currently taking up design, in novel and sometimes troubling ways.
Finally, urban theorist and practitioner Ayssar Arida unearths an archaeology of transdisciplinary thinking, exploring the work of Aby Warburg and his attempts to create an instrument for tracing conceptual connections across cultures and historical eras.
Like the field itself, these practitioners are shapeshifters, defying easy categorization. Together, they represent the range of thinking and the diversity of imagination that is essential to the development of transdisciplinary design. The sparks of insight ignited by their disparate practices provided both the light and the heat to get the conversation started properly.
More recently, this interest has found its way into the academy, where scholars have turned to design as a stimulant or a strategy to address shifts in culture, technology, or theory. Versions of design, alternately called studio-based learning, multimodal scholarship, or media literacy, can now be found within the physics classroom, education theory, ethnography and the social sciences, and the scholarly production of literature, philosophy, and history.
But it is in business education that attention to design is most pronounced. For some time now, academics and business leaders have touted design as a savior for failing corporations, as the secret of savvy managers, and as a factor in the resurrection of the MBA.
Instead, design is variably construed as a value-add, an everyday event, a working method, a byproduct, a literacy, and a complete abstraction—and frequently designers are nowhere to be found. Rather than bemoan this absence, it is useful to explore what kind of future the growing interest in design—but not designers—portends for design and design education.