Transition Design – changing design, changing designers, changing the world…
Nearly 50 years ago Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World took design to task for its social and ecological carelessness, but now a new design discipline challenges business-as-usual in design education and practice. Pioneers of Transition Design, Gideon Kossoff and Terry Irwin, discuss this emerging field with Ann Marie Newton and Disha Singh
We are faced with a plethora of large-scale societal problems today: One in three do not have access to a clean toilet1, and inequality exists in gender, income and race. Climate change has made itself so evident everyone has to consider the consequences: sea levels are rising, wildfires and heat waves scorching our green and pleasant land brown2.
It’s pretty bleak here on Planet Earth, and if that wasn’t enough, one dystopian future about privacy has come true as Simon McCarthy-Jones writes in the New Statesman3. What was once considered Black Mirror fiction, a social credit rating, is reality in China4. So how on earth could design possibly save us from all this?
Evolving from Service Design and Design for Social Innovation, with the same goals for positive change but with a much more ambitious scale, Transition Design is our hope for the future. It is a body of knowledge that has emerged out of necessity. Transition Design recognises the earth’s finite resources, the interconnectedness of systems and the knowledge of indigenous peoples.
Transition Design is a new area of theory and practice to be aware of. It’s not a fad, but proposes an alternative way for us to inhabit our precious planet. The ecology of Transition Design is sometimes a blend of interactions, tensions and epiphanies as we discovered when we met with two of its pioneers, husband and wife team: Gideon Kossoff (currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University) and Terry Irwin (currently Professor and Head of the School of Design. The seeds of Transition Design were sown when Irwin met Kossoff at Schumacher College5 nestled in the Devon countryside. Their meeting was pivotal, their interactions laid the groundwork for the emergence of what is arguably one of the most important practices in design today – Transition Design.
The relational aspect of Transition Design is embodied in the fact that this emergent practice and field of knowledge was born not from a single visionary thinker, guru or genius. As feminist theorist and academic Karen Barad says “…individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating”. Here Barad poses for us the idea that individuals are not separate entities, that they do not pre-exist their interactions but rather emerge as part of that interaction, in an ever-evolving way. Agree with Barad or not, Kossoff and Irwin embody this sense of entangled interaction, that they are who they are because of each other. Neither of them could have come to this point without the other, and like Transition Design itself, they are ever evolving. A starting point of Transition Design requires us to acknowledge our own transitional selves designing the self as an activity of open innovation with others. Learn more about Irwin and Kossoff’s story, their hopes for the future and how Transition Design intersects with Innovation Management in the interview below.
Ann Marie Newton (AMN): Terry, in your Ted Talk6 you speak about ‘epiphanies’ that led you to breakfast with Fritjof Capra7. Could you speak about how that breakfast influenced your own personal transition? And how was it to experience what you call ‘epiphanies’?
Terry Irwin (TI) : Hmm, I think, the breakfast with Fritjof certainly affected my trajectory for the rest of my life, but I think I have to back up from the breakfast and first say that you know after I left my company it was really pulling his book The Web of Life off the shelf and rereading it again that produced the Epiphany because it was that section on systems that made me think “Oh, well, we always said we were systems designers8, so the way Fritjof is going to talk about systems in nature, I’ll probably see parallels” but actually, I only saw contradictions, and my epiphany was that we had actually been designing against the natural dynamics found in living systems instead of with them. I think epiphanies are those moments where the insight is so big and your realisation so enormous, you’re almost paralysed in that moment. If you had to put it in words, you couldn’t because the realisation is ‘holistic’, not linear. All you can do is sit with it and begin unpacking it over time – if you realise you’ve had an epiphany.
“I think epiphanies are those moments where the insight is so big, and your realization is so enormous, you’re paralyzed in that moment. If you had to put it in words, you couldn’t because the realisation is ‘holistic’, not linear. All you can do is sit with it and begin unpacking it over time…”
Often, we aren’t present enough to know when an epiphany happens, and because I had just left my company, I was in a different space, a space of nothingness. That produced the conditions for an epiphany. So, I had the luxury of acknowledging it and then, unpacking it. Meeting Fritjof, post epiphany was a really nice validation because he was so generous with his time; he consented to meet with a total stranger, showed up with a stack of books and encouraged me to go study with him at Schumacher College in the UK. I was very lucky. I was able to meet the person whose work produced the epiphany, very soon after I had it and that is rare. Normally we can’t acknowledge a moment like this because we are head down, butt up making a living, meeting deadlines. I should also admit that that all of this coincided very neatly with a midlife crisis.
TI: Going to Schumacher College put me on a completely different path and gave me the opportunity to study outside my discipline of design. I gained deep insight into systems, systems dynamics and the natural world. And, of course, I met Gideon there, who was administering the MSc program in Holistic Science that I was enrolled in and he also built the incredible library there. It was quite synchronous; our interests complemented each other, and we’ve been working together ever since.
Because Gideon came out of a completely different discipline, (anarchy studies, social theory, and social ecology), our collaborations have taught me almost as much as the Master’s in Holistic Science did.
“Because Gideon came out of a completely different discipline (anarchy studies, social theory and social ecology), our collaborations have taught me almost as much as the Master’s in Holistic Science did.”
AMN: From your perspective Gideon: how did it feel meeting Terry from the world of design?
Gideon Kossoff (GK): Well, I think you (Terry) took quite a long time to persuade me that design was the appropriate area for me to be developing my ideas. We didn’t use the term transition design at the time – we were thinking in more general terms about sustainability – but I think I’m now more or less convinced that design needs to be at the core of transition efforts.
TI: 15 years later.
GK: I still feel a bit on the outside of design but it’s ironic because the first course I ever did in the whole area of ecology was on ecological design at a place called the Institute of Social Ecology, in Vermont. The course was very heavily influenced by permaculture9 and by various radical approaches to alternative technology of the late 60s and early 70s; there were parallels between how ecological design was being taught and what we’re doing now, and I can see how that over the years this was all being composted at some deep level of my mind. In a way what we’re doing now is extending the logic of early ecological design to the world, or society, at large. This logic had laid dormant for a long time. Now I’m thinking about it maybe an awareness of the importance design was always there.
AMN: What took you to Schumacher?
GK: The first course I did at Schumacher was with John and Nancy Jack Todd. They were, two of these early renegade, ecological technologists. They started off at The Institute of Social Ecology10, but they went on to found their own Center called the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts – the way they were thinking about creating symbiotic technological systems was way ahead of what anyone else, to my knowledge was doing at that time. So anyway, I was always very interested in the Todds and I had seen some of their work in action when I was in Vermont, so I leapt at the chance to study with them when, many years ago, they went to teach at Schumacher. I went back a few years later as a volunteer and ended up getting a job there administering the MSc in Holistic Science, which Terry mentioned. I began to realize that the whole palette of ideas that were being explored in holistic science – like self-organisation, emergence, mutualistic interrelatedness –represented, in a scientific discourse, the political and social sensibility that I’d begun studying at the Institute for Social Ecology. It seemed to me that there was a very important and powerful convergence between this non-authoritarian, basically anarchistic, orientation towards social, political and economic organization, and the new understanding of the natural world represented by holistic science.
“It seemed to me that there was a very important and powerful convergence between this non-authoritarian, basically anarchistic, orientation towards social, political and economic organization, and the new understanding of the natural world represented by holistic science.”
GK: So, I began to ponder what it was holistic science and radical, non-authoritarian social theory had in common, how they could inform each other and that all eventually fed into transition design. This question was really at the centre of my PhD thesis11 which was in design. What was it about the radical tradition that I was interested in that resonated with this holistic science teaching at Schumacher College? and…
TI: Why is design relevant?
GK: Yes, how could they be brought together in the context of design as a way of thinking about radical social and political economic reconstruction.
TI: When I completed my MSc at Schumacher they invited me to stay on and teach design on the program, along with Gideon. Then in 2007, we moved to Dundee to begin doctoral studies in the Centre for the Study of Natural Design at the University of Dundee.
We had been working there for about two and half years when I was offered the job as Head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon and stupidly thought I could finish my PhD while working. So, we moved to Pittsburgh and Gideon was able to finish his PhD, but unfortunately, I never finished mine.
My remit at Carnegie Mellon was to help redesign all the curricula at the Doctoral, Masters and Undergrad levels. Soon after my arrival we also hired Cameron Tonkinwise and he and I, along with a few of the other leaders (with Gideon consulting in the wings), integrated transition design into the new curricula. Had we not run a collaborative, consensus-based process I don’t think we would have been able to integrate Transition Design into curricula, nor would we have had the support of the faculty. Creating a doctoral program in the subject and integrating it into curricula gave it traction in the world and hopefully impact within design education.
GK: Cameron had his own areas of transition theory with which he was familiar but we weren’t, however but he wasn’t so familiar with some of the areas that we were talking about.
TI: Often in my lectures I will say transition design and the framework, really emerged out of a conversation between a designer, a philosopher and a social ecologist. I think there was a special intellectual chemistry among the three of us, partly because we came from such different disciplines, but also because of our shared conviction that Society must transform, and humans need to find a different way of inhabiting the planet. The framework itself emerged out of an argument the three of us had around our dining room table, about whether or not we needed a framework. As it turned out we did, but some of our conversations have been quite heated over the years… we don’t always agree, and that is a good thing.
“I think there was a special intellectual chemistry among the three of us, partly because we came from such different disciplines, but also because of our shared conviction that Society must transform, and humans need to find a different way of inhabiting the planet.”
GK: Yes, to some extent the framework reflected our respective areas of interest….
TI: (Terry draws the framework)
TI: The four areas of the framework are: vision, theories of change (TOC) (which is one of the important contributions from Cameron Tonkinwise), and mindset and posture. My own Ph.D. work in Dundee was based on the study of worldview as a leverage point for shifting things and this idea of transitioning oneself remains very important to me. The last area, New Ways of Designing arises out of the previous three areas. Cameron also suggested areas such as social practice theory, socio-technical transition theory, visioning and back-casting, which have proved to be critical to Transition Design. From the beginning, all of us felt that a more rigorous way of thinking about the future was needed.
What’s in a name?
AMN: In naming transition design – why ‘transition’ and why ‘design’ and how important is naming?
TI: I think the name emerged naturally. When Gideon and I were at Schumacher College, Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Town Movement moved to Totnes and held the very first meeting of the Transition Town movement there in 2005 and Gideon and I just happened to go to that meeting. So, we’ve been aware of Transition Towns for a very long time and Cameron had been watching what the socio-technical transition people were doing — we all felt that ‘transition’ was becoming a meme, especially in sustainability circles. In fact, the Symposium12 that we’re convening week after next brings together representatives from all the main transition related initiatives, including ‘Just Transitions’, ‘The Transition Towns Network’, ‘Socio-technical Transitions Research Network”, The ‘Commons Transition’, ‘Rapid Transitions’ and also ‘Form for the Future’s Systems Change School’.
GK: And, ‘The Next System Project’
TI: So, we didn’t just dream the name up. We feel this idea of transitioning is really important. One-off projects aren’t going to be enough anymore. Entire systems, entire societies must transition toward more sustainable futures, and that must be intentional which makes it ‘design’. Herbert Simon called design the process of changing an existing situation into a preferred one and that is very much what is needed on a large scale.
“One-off projects aren’t going to cut it anymore. Entire systems, entire societies must transition toward more sustainable futures and that must be intentional, which makes it ‘design’., Herbert Simon called design the process of changing an existing situation into a preferred one and that is very much what is needed on a large scale.”
TI: I think the other thing about transition and the reason it resonates with people, is it implies a process or a movement towards something. It implies that there’s a process that may take a while and there may not be a final destination. ‘Transitioning’ may be an ongoing process we’re always engaged in. This verb oriented, future-oriented connotation that comes with the word ‘transitions’ feels very appropriate.
It’s about mindset, not a miracle process
Disha Singh (DS): Could you tell us a little about the limits of transition design in your opinion or any challenges you see at the moment?
TI: There are many challenges and it’s important to say that what we are currently doing is starting a conversation about the need for a new area of design focus that is inherently transdisciplinary and aimed at systems-level change. Most areas of design focus are based upon the designer as primary expert (such as Design for Social Innovation, and Service Design). Transition Design will require experts from multiple disciplines as well as communities to come together to address the complex, wicked problems confronting us in the 21st century. Designers will not be ‘the’ experts.
So, one of the big questions that transition design asks is ‘what knowledge and skill sets are needed by the teams of people working on these issues’ and ‘can we develop design led tools and approaches that we can give to these teams?’ It’s important to emphasize that no single group of people, no single institution can answer these questions. So, we are very clear about the fact that all we can really do is start the conversation and contribute our ideas and thinking and share those with as many people as possible.
It will take years to constitute a new area of design focus such as this and a diversity of cultural and geographic perspectives are needed. I often say to my students: most of you don’t remember a time when service design did not exist, but I do, it began as a conversation and Carnegie Mellon was one of the places where it began, and we held the very first conference on service design, but it took thousands of designers talking about it. That was over 27 years ago now and most of that was pre-age of social networking.
Part of the reason transition design has gained traction is because social networking exists. Our ethos, (mindset and posture) is about sharing everything we do because we fundamentally believe that we can’t get it right working alone, but a lot of us working together, just might be able to, and I think this has enabled Transition Design to gain more traction – we aren’t trying to ‘own’ it. We’re letting an inclusive, organic process unfold and we are hoping to build an international network, so that it won’t be primarily a white, western perspective. Our co-collaborator, Cheryl Dahle, who is going to be teaching a course with us at Schumacher College, is encouraging us to focus on inclusivity in the coming year and given what is happening in this country and beyond, I think this makes a lot of sense. Examining issues around uneven power relations is another important question, so there are many more issues to examine and many more perspectives to include. There is much more work to be done. Nevertheless, we’re sharing whatever we can, and I’ve been saying for the past several years, we are actively trying to ‘disown’ Transition Design. We want people to know Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design is working on it, but I’d love to see it taken up here at Central St. Martins, I’d love to see it going on in many places.
GK: We’re always trying to bring in people who might help develop it better. So, for example, Terry brought in Stuart Candy, futurist, because we knew there was a lot here (points at Vision on the drawing) and we weren’t even touching on and that is his expertise.
TI: I would say one of the biggest challenges is keeping it from becoming a templatized or ‘branded’ process. I would say Service Design is more process-based and templatized than we would like Transition Design to be. Once a new process emerges, there is a tendency with some folks to want to run every single problem through the process and think it will work—it’s a one-size-fits-all-approach. With large, complex systems problems you can’t do that—it won’t work. In these cases, developing a new/different mindset and leveraging approaches or practices from other fields and disciplines is a better way to work. With complex problems, each situation is going to be different, so we will need a palette of tools and approaches that can be configured in situation and place-specific ways.
I’m a bit worried about the approach being co-opted by industry who may want to trademark it and try to make it a trademarked process, which in my view would be a problem.
DS: If you could let us know what do you see as the intersection for Innovation Management and Transition Design?
TI: Well, can you define Innovation management for me? What do you say that is?
AMN: Oh well for us it is about the implementation of ideas, that’s a really simple short answer
TI: Well, I think design is always in a way about implementing ideas. Isn’t it? If you argue after Herbert Simon’s definition, which I mentioned before, as changing existing situations into preferred ones, you always have an idea (stated or implicit) about what you’re going to change it into. So, I think the intersection is that in order to transition a system or address a wicked problem it will take many designed interventions, situated at various levels of scale over various levels of time. Each one of those interventions is going to be about implementing a concept or an idea of some kind (some might be innovation management solutions) but these various interventions would be connected to each other and the long-term vision in a Transition Design approach. What would you say Gideon?
GK: I agree.
AMN: There is something in how we talk about framing the problem, looking at problems differently. It goes back to mindset and that worldview.
TI: I will talk about that in my lecture, context.
The next Transition for Transition Design
DS: I have one last question. What do you think is next transition for transition design?
TI: I think the challenge of building a network platform is very important. We also believe that a Transition Design network shouldn’t be comprised of only educators. Ezio Manzini’s DESIS network is centred around design programs in universities, but we believe that Transition Design will require both design practitioners as well as design educators, working together in transdisciplinary teams and on transdisciplinary projects in a kind of loose affiliation.
Another challenge is the duration of Transition Design projects; they will likely continue for many years or decades and will require practitioners and researchers to have patience and stamina. It means working on fewer projects and it will be incredibly important to take the time to lay solid foundations for the work. We must ask how do you maintain continuity over time as people come and go? How can we build champions within communities who can maintain the continuity? Another challenge is how to frame transition design projects, and how do you find funding for them. I’m not sure if it’s going to be easy to do them for profit.
AMN: Especially, if they are ever evolving and longer.
TI: I mean it’s a different challenge for practitioners because they must work quickly in order to ensure a profit margin and that will be a challenge for Transition Design projects; having run a design firm for many years I know what that’s like.
AMN: We have run out of time. Wonderful. Thank you.
- Wateraid https://www.wateraid.org/uk/
- Schumacher College: https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/
- Terry Irwin Ted Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-te2OsCFWlc
- Fritjof Capra: http://www.fritjofcapra.net/
- Terry cofounded MetaDesign MetaDesign | Branding Firm
- Permaculture: “The word ‘permaculture’ comes originally from ‘permanent agriculture‘ and ‘permanent culture‘ – it is about living lightly on the planet and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature. “ https://www.permaculture.org.uk/knowledge-base/basics
- Institute of Social Ecology is an educational institution based in Vermont, USA. http://social-ecology.org/wp/about/about-the-ise/
- Gideon Kossoff Doctoral thesis: Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: A Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society. 2011. University of Dundee.
- Symposium: Transition Together, June 21-23, 2018 /www.schumachercollege.org.uk/events/ITDS