June 19, 2010
Design is the fundamental act of intelligence; it is the making of plans to shape the world to our needs. This book examines the theoretical foundations of the processes of planning and design.
Different types of design – creating an urban plan, drawing a floorplan, or drawing up a business plan – share characteristics; their reasoning, processes, and problems all have similarities. For a long time, the dominant theories in these areas have attempted to use objective, mathematical methods for design. But as researchers in many fields are beginning to discover, design problems are “wicked”: they cannot be brought under control by rational or scientific means.
Forty years ago, as Herbert Simon was writing his classic work on design, The Sciences of the Artificial, which argued for the general applicability of rational methods, Horst Rittel, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and former head of the Hochschule fur Gestaltung, Ulm, was describing the characteristics of design problems that make such rational methods inappropriate. Best known for his idea of “wicked problems,” Rittel, who was trained as a mathematician and systems analyst, studied the process by which designers in many different fields worked and pioneered a school of design theories and methods that attempted to rehabilitate the use of rationality by recognizing its limits and developing practices that did not depend on demonstrably false assumptions about rationality.
Rittel’s work is of relevance to any field planning for the future. He recognized the central nature of human values, and explored how to design when these questions of value are of primary importance.
Jean-Pierre Protzen is Professor of the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley. He was Horst Rittel’s colleague and collaborator for over twenty years and since Rittel’s death in 1990 has continued teaching Rittel’s work at Berkeley.
David J. Harris was Protzen’s student at Berkeley, and his dissertation, “Design Theory: from Scientific Method to Humanist Practice,” relied heavily on Rittel’s work. He currently works as an editor and writing coach.