Course Overview & Structure

Course Instructors: Terry Irwin & Gideon Kossoff
Teaching Assistant: Matt Geiger

This site is the syllabus and course schedule for the Transition Design Seminar in The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. The Transition Design Seminar is a semester-long course that meets on Monday and Wednesday mornings from 8:20 – 9:40 am, EST and is delivered 100% online, using a combination of technologies outlined below. This course aims to familiarize students with the concepts of ‘societal transitions,’ ‘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 and that aims to prepare generations of designers to take up this important work.

The spring, 2021 Transition Design Seminar course will be taught entirely online using Zoom, Miro, Perusal and Medium technologies. All class sessions will be recorded in Zoom for use within the seminar cohort only. If any student(s) has a concern/issue about this, please ask to speak with the instructor at the conclusion of the first class.

There are 4 components to this course: 1) topical lectures (via zoom); 2) readings (accessed via Perusall & the seminar website); 3) online discussions (via Perusall) and in-class discussions (via Zoom); 4) five assignments (via Miro).

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 corresponding page on this website with 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 will use the online platform Perusal for reading, commenting and discussing texts, articles and extracts from books. This enables small, rotating groups of 3-4 people to read a text and enter into an online discussion. Participation in these discussion strings (created outside class) will be part of each student’s grade. Perusal enables discussion groups to highlight/mark-up portions of a text.

Discussion Formats: Discussion during class will take place both as a class and in small breakout groups in which more focused discussions can take place. A variety of approaches will be used. When working in small discussion groups, you may be asked to record your discussion visually using a Miro board to capture highlights, draw connections between ideas and identify principles important in expanding the Transition Design approach. The aggregate of these Miro discussion boards will provide a rich record of the learning over the course of the semester. Prior to class, students will work in small discussion groups, using the Perusall platform as a way to discuss the text and build upon ideas. This online discussion will be assessed as part of the grade.

Five Assignments: Instructors will assign five group-based assignments that will require work outside class. Collectively, these 5 assignments are intended to introduce students to an emerging Transition Design approach to solving wicked problems and seeding/catalyzing systems-level change. Assignments will be introduced in class, but will require homework outside class. 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. Required readings may be accessed via the Perusall platform, but we recommend downloading texts to build a Transition Design library. 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.

Technologies Used in this Course

This course will be 100% online/remote delivery. We will use several technologies/platforms for the seminar, and each student is asked to acquire access to these technologies and familiarize themselves with the interfaces. Please contact the instructors or the TA if you anticipate any difficulties in using and balancing these technologies.

ZOOM: by now, most students will be familiar with Zoom as the primary collaborative platform for the delivery of online courses at CMU. This seminar will use Zoom for both group discussions and small group discussions and project work. Most classes will consist of group lectures and discussions and work in Zoom breakout rooms. All students are expected to regularly update Zoom to ensure that they are current with this rapidly changing platform. Access CMU’s Zoom account via the normal web login using your CMU ID and password. All students are asked to keep their videos cameras on during the entirety of the class.

MIRO: Miro is the cloud-based, collaborative platform that students will use to complete the 5 assignments in the seminar. Each student is required to sign up for a free, academic account prior to the first class on February 1st. For most classes, students will be working with their project team in a Zoom breakout room while simultaneously working in their Miro boards. If available, students are encouraged to work on larger screens in order to easily work on the Miro boards.

PERUSALL: Perusall is a cloud-based, collaborative platform that enables students to read texts and discuss them in small groups online. Each student is required to sign up a free account in Perusall and all assigned readings for the seminar will be accessible in Perusall and students will be assigned to texts and small discussion groups on a rotating basis. They will read the text and begin a discussion string among themselves which will be assessed for a grade (see more about this on the Requirements & Grading page).

MEDIUM: Students will use Medium to submit each of the 5 assignments (in addition, each group will also submit hi-res PDFs of their Miro boards). Each student is asked to sign up for a Medium account, but each of the 6 project groups are asked to make a group submission and organize their 5 Medium posts under one ‘umbrella’ publication with the name of their wicked problem and team member names clearly marked. See the Assignments page for more information.

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 these pages:

  • Classes pages: Each class in the seminar has its own separate page which contains an overview of the topics covered, discussion questions/prompts and assigned and supplemental texts with links. Students are required to review the class page and complete readings and participate in a discussion in Perusal prior to the class. Remember that some readings may only be accessed via BOX.
  • Assignments pages: In the ‘Assignments’ section of the website, there is a separate page for each of the 5 assignments. Here, a detailed account of the assignment is given as well as a step by step process for completing it. Assignments will be carried out on the Miro platform using a pre-designed template provided by the instructors. Teams will collaborate via Miro and Zoom.

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 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.) and their connection to seemingly simple/more mundane problems at lower systems levels. 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 and systems-level change. Understanding of Max-Neef’s theory of needs as an aspect of transition design and a useful tool in developing solutions that are sustainable, place-based and that meet genuine ‘need’s.
  • 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, equity/uneven power structures, 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.