Course Introduction & Context

Course Instructors: Terry Irwin & Gideon Kossoff School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Teaching Assistants: Hannah Rosenfeld & Allison Huang Spring, 2017

This site is the syllabus and course schedule for the Transition Design 2 Seminar required for masters and doctoral students in The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. The course format includes lectures, student-led discussions, exercises and a project that will be completed in three parts over the course of the semester.

The course is designed to accommodate up to 50 students for lectures, and the group is divided  into 2 smaller sections for discussions and applied activities. Discussion sessions are facilitated by student discussion leaders with support from Teaching Assistants and PhD students. The course is co-taught by faculty members, Terry Irwin and Gideon Kossoff, each of whom contribute lectures and attend one of the two discussion groups.

This syllabus is presented in an open source format as a resource to other design educators and interested researchers. Discussion topics based upon the weekly readings can be found on the “Join the Conversation” section of this website and will be open and available to anyone who would like to participate. The discussion string will be migrated to a newly designed website mid-way through the semester.

The course schedule will be updated on a regular basis so please check the Calendar prior to each class. Readings for each class will either be included as links or will be uploaded to a BOX Folder one week ahead of time. Readings may change slightly throughout the year, so please do not download the entire box at once. Check back frequently to look for changes and updates. Readings in the BOX are marked with an asterisk and cannot be accessed externally. We have, however, provided bibliographic information for all readings.

Transition Design

Transition Design acknowledges that we are living in ‘transitional times’ and takes as its central premise the need for societal transition (systems-level change) to more sustainable futures and and argues that design and designers have a key role to play in these transitions. This kind of design is connected to long horizons of time and compelling visions of sustainable futures and must be based upon new knowledge and skill sets.

In the past, there have been many attempts to leverage design as an agent for positive social change, but few of these have articulated how to undertake, lead and catalyze such change. Nor have they identified or incorporated the areas of knowledge and investigation required to do so. Transition Design is complementary to and borrows from myriad other design approaches (such as design for service and social innovation), but is distinct in several ways and is therefore generating a corresponding body of new knowledge and skill sets that can deepen and enhance design within more traditional and mainstream contexts.

The idea of and need for transition is central to a variety of current discourses concerned with how change manifests and how it can be initiated and /directed (in ecosystems, organizations, communities/societies, economies and even individuals). These approaches inspired the term ‘Transition Design’, a new area of design focus that is informed by knowledge outside design such as science, philosophy, psychology, social science, anthropology and the humanities in order to gain a deeper understanding of how to design for change/transition in complex systems. Transition Design:

  • Brings together two global memes: 1) the recognition that whole societies and their infrastructures must transition toward more sustainable states; 2) that these transitions involve systems-level change and a deep understanding of systems dynamics.
  • Uses living systems theory as both an approach to understanding wicked problems and designing solutions to address them.
  • Develops design solutions that protect and restore both social and natural ecosystems through the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between people, the things they make and do, and the natural environment.
  • Sees everyday life and lifestyles as the most important and fundamental context for design.
  • Designs solutions for short, medium and long horizons of time, at all levels of scale of everyday life (the household, the neighborhood, the city, the region).
  • Looks for emergent possibilities within problem contexts and amplifies grass-roots efforts and solutions that are already underway.
  • Links existing solutions together so that they can function as steps in a larger transition vision.
  • Distinguishes between ‘wants’ or ‘desires’ and genuine needs and bases solutions upon maximizing the satisfiers for the widest possible range of needs.
  • Sees the designer’s own mindset and posture as an essential component of transition designing.
  • Calls for the reintegration and re-contextualization of diverse transdisciplinary knowledge.

For more information on Transition Design, see the website.

The Transition Design Framework

We use a heuristic model to characterize four different but interrelated and mutually influencing areas of Transition Design. These areas are 1) Vision; 2) Theories of Change; 3) Mindset & Posture; 4) New Ways of Designing.