Terry's history seems reasonable, but there is more at stake here. I
use a broad definition of design as an inherently human activity.
Simon's definition works nicely for me. I have extended the
definition to move beyond pure problem solving. I describe design as
a goal-oriented process to solve problems, meet needs, improve
situations, or create something new or useful.
In this broad definition, the practice of design and many of the
design professions go back to the first cities. Some design practices
go back to the first purposely shaped artifacts. Homo habilis
designed and built the first purposeful tools at least 2,500,000 year
ago. In this sense, design activity predates the modern human species.
People began to think about problems millennia ago. They asked what
problems are, and considered how to solve them. Aristotle and Euclid
predated Horst Rittel, and articulate thinking about problems and
systems long predates Rittel's work. Back in the sixties, I recall
reading different kinds of work in fields such as systems theory, as
well as fields related to urban planning such as ekistics. I also
studied work on problem solving in synectics and general semantics.
Did people do good work on these issues before Rittel? Yes.
Nevertheless, Rittel made an important contribution. His criteria for
wicked problems capture issues in an elegant way. It seems to me we
can use Rittel's ideas without blaming him for what he did not do --
or for what we cannot do with the concept of wicked problems.
As Klaus says very well, we should not dismiss Rittel's contribution.
Klaus's comments on the term "problem" and the need for deeper
explanation also make sense to me. I disagree, however, with the idea
that there is nothing operational in the Merriam-Webster definitions.
A good research dictionary such as Merriam-Webster's often provides
operational definitions that show us how things work as well as what
they are. (See NOTE on dictionaries below.)
To speak of raising a question for inquiry, consideration, or
solution is at least partly operational even if it does not tell us
everything about how to do it.
Is there more to say than this? Yes. Nevertheless, we cannot examine
all aspects of an issue in every short post.
Ranjan's comments are very helpful and interesting. Nevertheless, I
suggest that some problems are not opportunities to resolve. Some
research problems, for example, are opportunities to find things out.
I spend a lot of time with problems that interest me. I don't intend
to resolve these problems. They may not involve things I intend to
do. These kinds of problems involve questions such as: "What does it
mean?" "Who said it?" "When did it happen?" or "How does it work?"
There are many good ways to look at design problems. One good way to
look at design problems is to see what some call a problem as an
opportunity for resolution. This is often what designers do when they
solve problems, meet needs, improve situations, or create something
new or useful.
At the same time, clients often come to us because they have what
they see as a problem. They come to us because they want help solving
In addition, as Chris notes, there really ARE difficult problems in
this world. Some of these involve much more than opportunities. To
see examples, check the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human
Potential on the web site of the Union of International Associations.
A NOTE on dictionaries:
Not all dictionaries titled "Webster's" descend from the original
The firm that publishes the original Webster's Dictionary mistakenly
thought that they owned the title under copyright law and neglected
to file a trademark claim. Since titles cannot be copyrighted, an
unscrupulous competitor bought the content to an inferior dictionary
and published it as Webster's Dictionary. A long legal case finally
found for the competitor. As a result, the original Webster's is now
There are probably fifty or sixty different things on the market
called "Webster's." I did not refer to Webster's but to
Merriam-Webster's uses operational definitions drawn from living
language and a rich index of examples. I generally use two
dictionaries: Merriam-Webster's (which now belongs to Encyclopedia
Britannica) and the Oxford English Dictionary.
Prof. Ken Friedman
Institute for Communication, Culture, and Language
Norwegian School of Management
Center for Design Research
Denmark's Design School
+47 46.41.06.76 Tlf NSM
+47 22.214.171.124 Tlf Privat
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