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The Promise of Transition Design: An Interview with Terry Irwin

November 11, 2015

Terry Irwin is Head of School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and has been teaching at the university level since 1986. A practicing designer for over 40 years, her studies in living systems convinced her that more collaborative and transdisciplinary approaches were needed to face the challenges of a rapidly changing environment. “Transition Design” – a new discipline and course of study developed at Carnegie Mellon by Irwin and her colleagues – is her response to that challenge. Impact Design Hub spoke with Irwin about Transition Design and its promise for solving the most wicked problems we face.  


IDH: “Transition Design” isn’t a term that even a lot of people in the social impact space are that familiar with yet. Can you tell us what it means and how it differs from existing disciplines like “sustainable design” or “service design?”  

Transition Design is a speculative, experimental form of design practice and design research dedicated to conceiving long-term models for sustainable lifestyles. It is premised on a kind of “cosmopolitan localism” that is both rooted in more place-based lifestyles and participatory structures, but also involves a deep knowledge of how information and technology connect us. Design, for some time, has been taking up the challenge of social innovation and sustainable or ecological design, but we felt “Transition Design” better summed up the need to be working in this way.

Designers are increasingly being asked to work on complex problems within complex social and environmental systems. In order to design effective solutions for systems like these, you have to think in long horizons of time and recognize that we as a society need to transition to a more sustainable future. You need to understand the interconnectedness of the social, economic and political, and be able to entirely reconceive how we live our lives. So designers must not only be able to understand those problems in all their complexity, but also be able to work in transdisciplinary teams to solve them.

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IDH: In terms of universities and large institutions, this seems like a pretty radical shift in thinking, how were you able to incorporate those ideas into the curriculum at Carnegie Mellon?

When I interviewed [for the position of Head of the School of Design] in 2009, I said, “Unless you’re interested in mainstreaming some of these ideas into the curriculum, not just creating a degree in sustainability or a track in ecological design, then don’t hire me.” Well … they hired me. So I took that as a mandate to lead the faculty in a fundamental redesign of all programs and curricula.

That redesign is really part of the entire ecosystem we’re building in the program.  At the undergraduate level we have three areas of design focus: an established area of focus, which is service design; a developing area, which is design for social innovation; and an emerging area called “Transition Design”.

We see those three areas as being on a continuum – the further along, the greater the depth of engagement and time-frame of the design intervention. Service design is mainly working within existing socioeconomic and political paradigms, whereas design for social innovation begins to challenge those paradigms and to look in particular at alternative economies. Transition Design fundamentally challenges the way we live, work, and interact, and contends that most of our societal paradigms are going to have to undergo a fundamental shift if we are going to transition to a sustainable way of occupying the planet.

This gets students to scrutinize and challenge the very systems that we are embedded within, and to become aware of the need for designing for long horizons of time. They learn to do this through a framework that encompasses the visioning of radically different futures – using everything from speculative design proposals to the storytelling techniques of science fiction, understanding theories of change, challenging our own mindset and values so as to create more collaborative solutions, and embracing new ways of designing.

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IDH: What about graduate-level courses and programs? How do they factor into this ‘fundamental redesign’ of the curriculum, and how does Transition Design come into play at those higher levels?

What ties this new curriculum together is that these three areas of design focus are all being taught at all levels within the curriculum. Transition Design shows up at the undergraduate level through our design studies “spine”, and then two of my colleagues and I teach a required seminar in Transition Design for all of our masters and doctoral students. But it’s the PhD students who are actually undertaking research in Transition Design to help us flesh out what it is. We’ve relaunched our doctoral program and you can now do a four-year PhD in Transition Design.

IDH: Interesting, so the PhD students are actually helping to define and shape what the concept and the program look like. But how does Transition Design apply in a career setting? It seems like such a complex and abstract concept, and one that doesn’t lend itself to short-term private sector gain. How do graduates apply what they learn practically and find their place in a world that hasn’t “transitioned” yet?

Right now with Transition Design, we’re just at that point where we’re working with PhD students to develop a few case studies. But it’s slow work, it’s speculative work, and we all very understandably want to say, “Wow, that’s interesting. Give me an example,” and as yet, I don’t think you can. That’s the next stage and you won’t see anyone working explicitly as a “Transition Designer” for another few years.

But ultimately, we feel quite strongly that design is an applied discipline. You’re not really designing if you’re not ultimately making things. Now, some of those things may not be tangible artifacts but you’re still making things. The readings and discussions in seminars are completely tied to the hands-on principles being taught at the studio level, and our program is one that has always engaged very closely with industry. That emphasis on collaborating with our industry partners brings a very practical, applied flavor to the program. Most of our students are going on to places like Google or Microsoft and all over Silicon Valley. Some go to nonprofits but they’re mostly going into industry.

But it’s not just that our students have the “practical” skills to work in industry; it’s that industry is becoming more practical about the reality of transition, and the principles of Transition Design are gaining validity in the private sector. We can point to any number of Fortune 1000 companies with 2050 initiatives underway that recognize the importance of thinking in these long horizons of time. Increasingly, you see them challenging their own economic paradigm – taking on concepts like the triple bottom line that require them not only to work to make a profit, but for the betterment of people and communities, as well as the environment. They’re realizing that they are in fact going to have to work in fundamentally different ways if we’re all going to survive on this planet.

I think every design program, in all fairness, is in a constant ongoing conversation about how you walk that line between theory and practice, because if all you’re focusing on is practice, then you are by default a vocational school. It’s the theory and the conversations we have about these bigger issues that are needed for educating somebody for life, for the long arc of their career, and to keep pace with changing technologies and changing cultural values and norms.

IDH: It sounds like Transition Design isn’t just about keeping pace with changing values or systems, but working actively to shape them. That’s not something that any one designer can do. So would it be fair to say that Transition Design is something that’s applied not only over a longer timeline but at a much larger scale than other design interventions?

That’s right. I’m part of a small group of people working in the social innovation space who developed the Social Design Pathways resource at the Winterhouse Symposium a couple of years ago. One of the tools we created was a matrix to try and explain the scales at which designers work. Down in the lower left is an individual designer working on an individual project, but in the square that’s on the far upper right is a designer working as part of a transdisciplinary team on systems-level change. I would say Transition Design sits in the upper right corner of that matrix. It’s the difference between creating a school garden to grow healthy food, for example, and working at the scale of political and cultural change to reform national policies and food systems.

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IDH: So presumably those kinds of interventions are also too large and complex for any one discipline to address on its own. You’ve mentioned transdisciplinarity a few times in our conversation. Can you explain why that’s so crucial for the next generation of designers to master?

I think the ability to work in transdisciplinary teams is actually a fundamental skill that should be taught within all disciplines, because when you look at what have been termed the “wicked problems” confronting us in the 21st century, those cannot be solved within any one discipline. Issues of overfishing, loss of biodiversity, the war on terrorism, practically any gnarly problem that you can name is going to take people from various backgrounds, disciplines and professions working together to create multi-faceted solutions at multiple levels of scale.

We all know there’s no silver bullet to any of these things. You need people working at the level of policy. You need people working at the grassroots level. For many of these solutions, you need engineers and chemists, and politicians. So designers have a fundamental role to play not only as members of the team, but also because they are uniquely suited to help choreograph the teams and facilitate and catalyze the work that goes on within them. Not only do students have to learn to collaborate but I think increasingly, they need to learn facilitation skills. An important area in the Transition Design framework is mindset, and a lot of what we talk to the students about is, “If you’re gonna work in this space, you also have to work on yourself and you have to be willing to ask: how do I need to change in order to do this work?”

IDH: We’ve been talking about paradigms that need to undergo a fundamental shift, but what about design education itself? Do you feel that there’s a current in Transition Design that’s challenging existing design education programs?

I would not even necessarily pick on design. I think education in general needs to be fundamentally rethought. Education has become so siloed that we can no longer connect the dots that need to be connected in order to address problems. [Environmental educator] David Orr writes very eloquently in his book, “Earth In Mind”, about the dilemma of education and design education in particular and this inability of students to connect the dots when you’re deep down within a disciplinary silo. This is the way the paradigm still works. I run a school that is so embedded within a siloed institution that it’s ridiculously difficult to collaborate. Once things become physicalized in structure, it’s very hard to change them. Our mindsets and our ideas about what we need to do are always so far ahead of the physical structures that we’re embedded within, it takes a long time for the two to align, if indeed they ever do.

What I think we desperately need is to teach the importance of a much broader and deeper context. We’re always going to need people that are superlative form givers, so I’m not going to criticize any program that believes that beautiful form giving is first and foremost what they should be doing. I am going to say I hope as you’re teaching that, that you do have some strand about ethics and the connection to the bigger issues and the larger systems that we will always be embedded within. This is always going to be the beautiful tension: You want to make beautiful, useful, delightful things that also solve problems, and so I’m never going to let go of our wood shop, for example. I like it that students are over there making amazing furniture. But I also want them to think about where the wood’s coming from and where that table is going to go when it’s useful life is over.

IDH: So what’s the future of Transition Design in education? How are we going to transition to this new way of thinking, teaching, and learning?

We are hoping that Transition Design won’t be “owned” by Carnegie Mellon. We think it’s an important conversation that needs to happen throughout the design field. We were recently at the AIGA Conference in New Orleans and we put together a monograph that we passed out to all the design educators. We’re also launching an institution-neutral website for Transition Design so multiple perspectives and voices can inform its evolution. Overseas, The University of Palermo in Buenos Aires is integrating Transition Design into their master’s program, EINA University in Barcelona has started a research track in Transition Design, and Schumacher College in the United Kingdom is incorporating Transition Design into their Masters Program. We’re planting the seeds, but it’s a process. I remember when service design was at this very stage – just something people were beginning to talk about, and it took time to build it into an accepted discipline. So we draw the parallels very overtly and say, “We’re trying to intentionally start something just like service design was twenty years ago and here’s why we think it’s important.”

It’s the students who are ultimately going to figure out what Transition Design is and will be. With our PhD students, we’re developing templates for Transition Design case studies that will allow people to evaluate and critique existing projects from a Transition Design point of view. And from there we’ll start to develop truly Transition Design-based solutions and projects. Figuring that out is probably a five-to-ten year process. That’s how ideas get seeded, catalyzed, and mature. I’m now sixty-one years old. You folks are going to be the generation that figures this out.

All images courtesy of Terry Irwin and Carnegie Mellon School of Design

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