Course Overview & Structure

Course Instructors: Terry Irwin & Gideon Kossoff School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Teaching Assistant: Scott Dombkowski

This site is the syllabus and course schedule for the Transition Design Seminar in The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. This syllabus is presented in an open source format as a resource to other design educators and interested researchers. An international network is emerging, comprised of design programs integrating Transition Design into coursework and research strands: The University of Palermo, Argentina; EINA University, Barcelona; Schumacher College/Plymouth University, UK; University of Technology, Sydney; RMIT University, Melbourne; Aalto University, Finland; Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway; The American University, Cyprus; The University of the Aegean, Greece.

This course aims to familiarize students with the concept of ‘transition,’ ‘transition theory,’ and ‘systems-level change,’ which can now be found within many fields, disciplines and grassroots movements and initiatives such as: The Commons Transition; Just Transitions; Transition Town Network; The Great Transition Initiative; Sustainability Transitions Research Network; The Next Systems Project; and the School of Systems Change, to name a few. Transition Design is a new field of design research, study and practice that proposes design-led transition toward more sustainable futures.

There are 5 components to this course: 1) topical lectures;  2) readings;  3) in-class discussions;  4) in-class exercises;  5) five assignments.

Topical Lectures, Readings & In-Class Discussions: This is a seminar class based upon topical lectures and extensive readings that inform class discussions. Each class has a list of both required and supplemental reading. Required texts should be read thoroughly and we recommend giving the supplemental texts a quick skim to see if there are subjects that may resonate. We strongly recommend that students use either paper print-outs or annotated PDFs to highlight key areas of texts and take notes that will inform class discussions. Students are expected to be able to spontaneously summarize the assigned texts, build upon the ideas represented in them and pose questions for further reflection. This will require that each student develop a rigorous practice for reading and note taking to fulfill the requirements of the course.

Discussion Formats: Because this is a relatively large class, there will be only a few discussions with the entire class. Instead, you will break into small groups to discuss the readings and the issues, questions and take-aways that arise out of them. These will be shared, through a variety of approaches, with the larger group and will provide insights and content for your Medium posts.

In-Class Exercises: Instructors and the teaching assistant will, throughout the semester, develop a range of in-class exercises designed to challenge students to engage more deeply with the topics being discussed. Because of the large class size, these exercises and some discussions will take place in small groups to provide an opportunity for deeper engagement with the text and ideas.

Five Assignments: Instructors will assign five group-based assignments that will require work outside class. 1) Mapping wicked problems and identifying stakeholder groups;  2) Mapping a socio-technical systems transition;  3) Developing future visions;  4) The spatio-temporal matrix;  5) Designing systems interventions. Collectively, these 5 assignments are intended to introduce students to an emerging Transition Design approach to solving wicked problems and seeding/catalzying systems-level change. Assignments will be introduced in class, but will require homework outside class. Some assignments will have final presentations during class time and others will not. Large project canvases will provided to each group to fill out in analog form. These may be photographed and uploaded to the Group’s Medium site: All assignments will be documented/submitted in a team medium site. More information about these assignments can be found in the Assignments and Requirements and Grading pages of this website. The course schedule and content will be updated on a regular basis so please check the appropriate class page prior to each class.

Accessing Readings: There is a dedicated website page for each class in this course that contains a description of the content, a reading list and discussion prompts. Whenever possible, external links to the readings have been provided. Readings that are not publicly available are indicated with an asterisk and can accessed by CMU students via the class BOX folder, organized by the class TA. Readings may change slightly throughout the semester, so please do not download the entire box at once. Check back frequently to look for changes and updates. (External educational partners who are unable to access some texts should contact us directly at and they will be sent directly).

More information can be found in the Requirements and Grading section of this website.

How to Use the Course Website

This website serves as the syllabus for the Transition Design Seminar course. It has been designed for students taking the class as well as external educators and researchers who may wish to replicate the course or use information and materials to supplement courses they may already be teaching. An overview and schedule of the course can be found on the Course Calendar and Classes pages. Prior to each class, students should check all three of these page types:

  • Classes pages: In the ‘Classes’ section of the website most classes have their own a separate page (classes devoted to presentations do not have a class page). Each page contains an overview of the topics covered, discussion questions/prompts and required and supplemental texts with links. Students are required to review the class page and complete readings prior to the class. Remember that some readings may only be accessed via BOX.
  • Additional Resources pages: Every class page has a corresponding page in the ‘Additional Resources’ section of the website. These pages contain videos and links to relevant information that can provide a quick overview of topics and a ‘soft entry’ into concepts. Peruse the Additional Resource page before starting the readings!
  • Assignments pages: In the ‘Assignments’ section of the website, there is a separate page for each of the 6 assignments. Here, a detailed account of the assignment is given as well as a step by step process for completing it. These pages also contain visual examples and concepts diagrams. Note: the corresponding Class pages provide only a brief overview of the assignment with a link back to the ‘Assignments’ page. Make sure to always check this page for a full understanding of the assignment.

This website will be continually updated throughout the semester and assignment due dates may shift, so please check regularly for the most current information.

Course Texts

Please purchase at least two of the six recommended courses texts below. Together these texts set the context for the seminar and are an excellent foundation for the serious student who wants to continue working in the areas of Transition Design and Design for Social Innovation beyond this seminar. You should peruse them during the course of the semester and reference them in class discussions.

A NOTE TO OUTSIDE USERS: Many of the text links connect to a closed-access CMU Box site where students download excerpts from books and articles, some of which are out of print. Whenever possible we have linked to outside sources. Some journal articles may be accessed through a user’s academic affiliation. To access these course readings for a class you’re teaching, please contact:

Required & Supplemental Readings & Additional Resources

Each class has a list of required and supplemental (non-required) readings as well as additional resources. We have placed Additional Resources for each class in a separate section of the website that includes: topic-related videos, conceptual diagrams and links to related websites and articles. We suggest that you peruse all of these prior to engaging deeply with the readings. The videos especially provide a good overview to the class topic and readings and set a broad context and ‘soft entry’ into the subject matter. Most videos are quite short but we have included a few that are longer.

Course Objectives & Learning Outcomes

By the end of the semester, students should demonstrate:

  • A familiarity with a range of transdisciplinary discourses regarding change and transition within complex systems. An understanding of how knowledge, concepts and theories outside the field of design are relevant to informing new, more responsible and appropriate approaches to design.
  • A familiarity with the range of large, ‘wicked’ problems confronting society in the 21st century (climate change, pollution, growing gap between rich/poor, terrorism, loss of biodiversity, etc.). The ability to identify the roots and consequences of wicked problems and map/visualize their interconnections and interdependencies. Understanding of how these wicked problems form the greater context for almost all design problems and solutions.
  • An understanding of the complex stakeholder relationships inherent in complex, wicked problems and the ability to identify conflictual relations among stakeholder groups (that need resolving) as well as areas of alignment/agreement (that can be leveraged in conceiving and implementing interventions).
  • An understanding of the dynamics at work within living systems (emergent properties, self-organization, network dynamics, systems level relationships etc.) and how these ‘systems dynamics’ can be leveraged in designing for and within complex socio-technical and natural systems (the environment).
  • Familiarity with the concepts of ‘visioning’ and ‘backcasting. An understanding of the importance of thinking in long horizons of time in order to inform the design of short, mid and long-term solutions at multiple levels of scale.
  • Familiarity with the ways in which pre-industrial societies lived and designed relatively sustainably ‘in place’ for generations. Familiarity with global/local concepts such as cosmopolitan localism as a strategy for transition design.
  • Familiarity with Socio-Technical Transition Theory and the study of historical socio-technical transitions as the basis for seeing and catalyzing systems-level change.
  • Familiarity with the concept of everyday life and the reconception of lifestyles as a strategy for sustainable design. Understanding of Max-Neef’s theory of needs as an aspect of transition design and a useful tool in developing design objectives.
  • Understanding of the concept of worldview and its influence on design and designers and an understanding of the characteristics of a holistic/ecological worldview.
  • Familiarity with a range of discourses, approaches and theories related to the acquisition of collaborative skills, more mindful approaches to design and the concept of ‘designer as catalyst for change’.
  • An ability to use existing projects, solutions and initiatives as the basis for transition design solutions that are tied to longer-term visions and use a range of approaches such as amplifying, connecting and ‘solving for pattern’ (Manzini 2015) as strategies for implementation.