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Design, Wicked Problems & Throwness

Horst Rittel is one of the seminal residents in my 'Berkeley Bubble'. Recently a friend and colleague sent me an article about ‘double-wickedproblems’. I have become ever more aware of the increasing number of references to ‘wicked problems’ in all forms of media that seem to have missed Rittel’s deeper insights. This brought up the concern I have about the use and miss-use of the term ‘wicked problem’. The term ‘wicked problem’, first introduced by Rittel in West Churchman’s seminars at Berkeley, was in reference to his conceptualization of the impossible challenge of dealing with significant social issues using traditional, rational, ‘problem solving’ methods.

In most cases what are miss-diangnosed as ‘wicked problems’ are actually complex or complicated problems that can be simplified or broken into smaller 'tame' problems allowing for a straight forward 'problem solving' approach to be taken. This approach is believed by many to be capable of developing solutions that, in the aggregate, successfully deal with the 'wickedness' of the problems initially attacked. If they were really 'wicked problems' this would not be the case. The problem is (pun intended) that ‘wicked problems’ are not ‘problems’. ‘Wicked problems’ are the result of ‘appearances’ when complex realities are looked at through a ‘problem solving’ lens. Other lenses—other approaches—render a different set of 'appearances'.

Heidegger’s term for the complex reality of existence is ‘throwness’:

Heidegger captures his own version of Rich’s insight by unpacking the word
geworfenheit (werf _ to throw, geworfenheit _ being thrown), which has been
translated as “thrownness.” Heidegger treats being-in-the-world—Rich’s taking
“everything on at once”—as “the prereflective experience of being thrown
into a situation of acting without the opportunity or need to disengage and
function as detached observers” (Winograd and Flores quoted in Weick; Designing forThrowness).

When confronting this complex reality—i.e. ‘throwness’—of the world’s most challenging issues with strategies based on rational ‘problem solving’ the ‘wicked’ nature of the issues make their ‘appearance’, which leads to a paralysis of reasoned action. Horst Rittel avoided the paralyzing attributes of ‘wicked problems’ by taking a political stance towards these issues using a formalized process for managing argumentation—IBIS (issue based information system)—thus resolving any 'wickedness'.

Other stances including aesthetics, morality, and spirituality can and have been used by others to deal with 'throwness'.

My own strategy for dealing with ‘throwness’ has been drawn from a 'design' stance. Erik Stolterman and I have presented some of the foundations and fundamentals of this stance in our book The Design Way. A 'design' stance provides a very different kind of ‘appearance’ when confronting ‘throwness’. An ‘appearance’ that provides frameworks for action rather than paralysis.

How different stances lead to different ‘appearances’ can be seen using the example of how our solar system ‘appears’ from a geocentric—earth centered—point-of-view versus a heliocentric—sun centered—point-of-view.

geocentric viewpoint

heliocentric viewpoint 

The ‘appearance’ of the solar system is much more complex, convoluted and irregular when viewed from a geocentric viewpoint than when viewed from a heliocentric viewpoint. In the same way, complex issues nested in complex realities—i.e. 'throwness'—‘appear’ dramatically different when viewed through different lenses—for instance a ‘problem solving’ stance versus a 'design' stance. The habit of labeling and viewing nearly every challenge in life as a ‘problem’ has obscured the other possible ‘appearances’ of  ‘throwness’ and has consequently inhibited wise actions on our parts. 'Wicked problems' can be dissolved using a 'design' stance allowing for the possibility of wise actions.


  1. Harold,

    Thank you for this! As one might expect, Rittel's concept of "wicked problems" has become a buzz word, hyped and trivialised.

    You might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:


    Tom Ritchey

  2. Thanks for this reference Tom. Looks very interesting. Nice to see this level of serious consideration of WP. I will attempt to get a copy through the library.

  3. Harold, thanks for pointer to the Heideggerian view on "thrownness". I had to dig a little bit further to make sense of that concept. See

    1. David

      Thanks for the link. This is a difficult concept to appreciate but seems seminal to design and designers.

  4. thanks also ... i have my doubts that designers do actually solve wicked problems ... some might but so do people at NASA and FAO and WHO etc., so im skeptical of the universal claim

  5. I think designers 'dissolve' wicked problems by taking a completely different approach to action. They advance into the future rather than retreat into the future.

  6. I think designers 'dissolve' wicked problems by taking a completely different approach to action. They advance into the future rather than retreat into the future.

  7. I think designers 'dissolve' wicked problems by taking a completely different approach to action. They advance into the future rather than retreat into the future.


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