Framing Transdisciplinarity from the Perspective of Human Centered Design

In a previous post, I had introduced the concept of transdisciplinarity as a means to conceptualize the space I inhabit with my research and work through the use of Czarniawska’s joy at the discovery of anthropology and its methods for understanding humans in the context of organizational studies (Czarniawska, 2008). Today, I would like to explore whether what I do* with the informal economic systems that I study as a complex, adaptive, human dominated yet emergent socio-technical-ecological system (STES) in the east African context can be said to be an inherently transdisciplinary activity albeit informed and inspired by the methods and tools of human centered and participatory approaches to project and intervention design. It has been noted for long enough (Vaughan, 2017) that design is expanding its boundaries of scope and purpose, and, that simultaneously, the complexity and context of design challenges are themselves expanding the boundaries of knowledge and expertise required for the efficacious implementation of such projects.

I will use two cases to explore and discuss this situation analysis of a strand of emergent design practice in order to contextualize elements of their transdisciplinarity in the context of the literature exploring the role of design’s skills, capacities, tools and methods, as well as the ubiquitious thinking tools, not to mention sticky notes, that characterize the thinking that occurs at various stages of the design process (see Kolko, 2010). It is my hypothesis that we will discover that it is the thinking tools of design practice (including the methods) that are the most important contribution that design can make to increasingly complex and transdisciplinary design challenges, while the process allows space for divergence and convergence of conceptualization as well as room for exploration and experimentation in a manner rarely acknowledged or deliberately facilitated in other disciplines, particularly in the sciences and in business.

As my blog post dated April 2006 – 15 years ago – shows, business and management had rarely if never accommodated the time for collaborative sensemaking (aka what designers do together with a sticky note) until the 2006 campaign to launch design thinking in collaboration with Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek had succeeded in diffusing these new methods and tools for creative approaches to problem discovery and problem solving in the guise of “design thinking”. Today we take it for granted that whiteboards and post-it notes are de rigeur in any kind of meeting, regardless of the discipline, when we as practitioners enter a project space (see Valtonen, 2020).

Transdisciplinarity and Design

Gonera and Pabst (2019) introduce the context in which I will speak and reflect. The focus of their research is on the use of design thinking (DT) as facilitation tool to improve transdisciplinary collaboration, user-focus, and innovation outcome in publicly funded transdisciplinary industry-academia research and innovation consortia (Gonera and Pabst, 2019). When I first introduced DT as a facilitation tool in a publicly funded transdisciplinary project, it was for the Dutch government, specifically the food security department of the Ministry of Economy and their collaboration partners in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One could say this was a similar context to Gonera and Pabst (2019) but the emphasis of my research is on the use of design thinking as facilitation tool for uncovering and framing design challenges which have traditionally been called “wicked problems”, most famously by Rittel and Webber (1973).

That is, the focus of our work has been to use the full capacities of design’s methods, tools, and skills to better design projects and programmes, and conceivably could include the cases of the RICs used by Gonera and Pabst (2019) as the objects of our design approach. For instance, we introduce the use of design’s methods and tools as aids to thinking when considering the design of public-private partnerships (PPPs) for sustainable agricultural value chains (Bhan and Doorneweert, 2013). It is our belief, documented in an internal report to the relevant Ministerial departments in the Hague, that the initial conceptualization of funding calls for such multi-stakeholder projects, which are transdisciplinary by the nature of the call, can make or break the success of the funding call and its subsequent portfolio of projects. That is, we proposed a more designerly approach to the design of such programmes at an earlier stage than the actual technical response to the funding call, and applied the basic human centered design process as the means to facilitate problem discovery at the inception phase, within the government departments planning their funding programming and resource allocations prior to the call. It was made clear to our government partners that such an approach would improve – in the words of Gonera and Pabst (2019) – ” transdisciplinary collaboration, user-focus, and innovation outcome”.

It was also clear that a refresh of the mental models of the stakeholders involved was required for improvements in design of such programmes and their output of a portfolio of funded projects that aligned with policy goals for coherent and impactful outcomes. If indeed the donor government wanted to see more agile and responsive PPPs with greater socio-economic impacts among the target audience of such projects, then it was their responsibility to provide the foundation of human-centered transdisciplinary research that was contemporary and relevant to their policy goals as opposed to the long established tradition of relying on the third parties applying for funding to define user needs.

That is, the design process is flexible enough to provide the phases required for any level and scale of addressing problem discovery, and its flexibility can be increased internal to the discipline by dropping subdisciplinary labels that allow for cross-pollination of tools from one subdiscipline to be applied in wholly different contexts and outputs under the branding umbrella of ‘design’. At the moment, the legacy of design’s entrance as its own discipline and research traditions (see Cross, 1982) may be hampering its own trans-sub-discplinarity as a means to expand its capacities and tools as its applications expand in purpose, scope, and complexity. Dorst (2018) effectively summarizes this challenge in his own words so:

Confronted with the new complex networked reality we have created for ourselves, we struggle to step back and create new approaches: our disciplinary and organizational structures hold us back from doing so. (Dorst, 2018)

Transdisciplinarity for Contemporary Design Practice

Knapp and her colleagues articulate the massive changes under way, at a global systems level, and on a planetary scale, that provide – at once – the backdrop against which design is changing and expanding, as well as the context of the operating environment within which it must act (Knapp, Reid, Fernández-Giménez, Klein, & Galvin, 2019). As they synthesize in their abstract, with emphasis added:

This review offers insights into the interaction between science and practice, including the importance of social processes and recognition of different ways of knowing, as well as how to conduct collaborative approaches on a variety of scales and think about how to generalize findings. (Knapp et al. 2019)

Complex sustainability problems are undeniably the focus for a whole of society approach for innovative responses on the scale required for the rapid transition of global systems in response to challenges such as climate change. And, it is when design brings down its subdisciplinary boundaries that it can offer the expanded capacities required from it if it is indeed to craft a novel role for itself even as it undergoes changes in response to what is now being demanded from it (for eg. Valtonen, 2020). One could say that ‘design thinking”s popularity has created additional pressure on demands for design to perform, as Lauren Vaughan does in her introduction to doctoral research in design practice (Vaughan, 2017).

As Valtonen says, the pandemic has raised its own challenges implying an even “greater need for us to be able to address uncertainty and align ourselves with even more radical transformations” (Valtonen, 2020), and, I suspect, will give rise to more transdisciplinary formulations of design, as well as less subdisciplinary boundaries for methodology and tools. Blomberg and Karasti (2012) already make the case for ethnography’s role in the participatory design process, particularly in the Scandinavian tradition (Gregory, 2003), as a means to inform the design of the design project itself. The case of the remote resilience project introducing custom designed tools for planning and sensemaking for informal economic systems can be used as an exemplar of the necessary transformation of design, its role, the role of the designers and researchers, and the crossing of disciplinary boundaries whilst leveraging the capacity of design’s thinking tools and methods to facilitate the optimal outcome. Here, the focus of research is the project’s design rather than the design outcome of the project, and a diagram is used to identify the timeline of design research inputs, the conventional subdisciplinary sources of methods and tools, and the transdisciplinary inputs.

As Dorst says, problems will have to be reframed in order for the necessary transdisciplinarity to take root within what should still be called design projects, or more literally designer projects, if it is to continue to act as glue (Kelley and VanPatter, 2005). Each wicked problem – a factor mentioned by all the design scholars’ cited as a reason for the increasing transdisciplinary nature of designer’s projects or the projects in which designers are invited to the table to provide their contribution – is by nature of its own definition (Rittel and Webber, 1973) unique, complex, and can rarely be informed by what worked in the past (Dorst, 2018).

It is here that one can begin by reframing the added complexity to design challenges in the immediate post-pandemic systemic shock era as an opportunity for design to deeply question the underlying values that shape outcomes, however subtly, that the discipline may have implicitly and tacitly integrated due to its legacy and roots in facilitating successful commercial outcomes. One cannot design for the greater good of non-human stakeholders, for instance, without questioning some of the definitions of good design such as that which consumers’ value or growing sales figures as a metric of successful design, which, if left tacit, may inadvertently raise barriers to the successful outcome of non-commercial applications of design’s capacities and skills. Dorst (2018) explores these challenges and barriers, and acknowledges the limitations of established academic practice. Addressing this may also require crossing subdisciplines in addition to disciplines in order to craft design projects that utilize the most relevant and appropriate methods and tools for the problem at hand.



Bhan, N., & Doorneweert, B. (2013, December). Using the methods designers use as aids to thinking the case of public-private partnerships in sustainable agricultural value chain development. In 2013 IEEE Tsinghua International Design Management Symposium (pp. 277-283). IEEE.

Blomberg, D. J., & Karasti, H. (2012). Ethnography: Positioning ethnography within participatory design. In Routledge international handbook of participatory design (pp. 106-136). Routledge.

Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design studies, 3(4), 221-227.

Czarniawska, B. (2008). Organizing: how to study it and how to write about it. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal.

Dorst, K. (2018). Mixing Practices to Create Transdisciplinary Innovation: a design-based approach. Technology Innovation Management Review.

Gonera, A., & Pabst, R. (2019). The use of design thinking in transdisciplinary research and innovation consortia: challenges, enablers, and benefits. Journal of Innovation Management, 7(3), 96-122.

Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74

Knapp, C. N., Reid, R. S., Fernández-Giménez, M. E., Klein, J. A., & Galvin, K. A. (2019). Placing transdisciplinarity in context: A review of approaches to connect scholars, society and action. Sustainability, 11(18), 4899.

Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design issues, 26(1), 15-28.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

Valtonen, A. (2020). Approaching Change with and in Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 6(4), 505-529.

Vaughan, L., ed (2017) Practice –Based Design Research. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

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