Course Overview & Structure

Course Instructors: Terry Irwin & Gideon Kossoff
Teaching Assistant: Audrey Reiley

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 10:00 – 11:20 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,’ ‘sustainability 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, 2023 Transition Design Seminar course will be taught entirely online using Zoom, Miro, and Medium platforms. All class sessions will be recorded in Zoom for use within the seminar cohort only. If any student has a concern/issue connected to recording sessions, please ask to speak with the instructor at the conclusion of the first class.

This is a seminar course with five collaborative, team-based assignments. Each student will be assigned to a team of 5-6 people and will collaborate with team mates to discuss assigned texts and complete the assignments. There are four components to this course: 1) topical lectures (via zoom); 2) readings (accessed via the seminar website); 3) in-class discussions (via Zoom); 4) five assignments (via Miro and Medium).

  1. Topical Lectures: There will be a wide range of brief lectures that frame the course modules and provide a theoretical foundation for the diverse topics covered in the seminar. The assigned texts directly inform the five assignments and students will be asked to speculate upon and demonstrate these connections on the project work. All classes will be recorded so students will retain access to the lectures in this form (instructor slide decks will not be shared/distributed.)
  1. Readings: This is a seminar class and therefore involves extensive reading as the basis for class discussions and to inform the five assignments. Approximately 45 minutes – 1 hour of outside reading that has two components: 1) the seminar website page for that class and 2) assigned readings. We suggest reading the seminar website page for each class, prior to completing the assigned readings as it will frame and contextualize the reading(s).
  1. In-Class Discussions: The success of a seminar depends upon the thoughtful and fulsome participation of all students in the class and a willingness to ‘play with’ and ’speculate’ upon the ideas communicated in the assigned readings. The format and ’spirit’ of the class is not to encourage contentious debate and intellectual ’sparring,’ but rather to create a collaborative, supportive and speculative space of inquiry where students are able to pose questions, offer alternative (or even radical) ideas and points of view without fear of ridicule or criticism. We believe that the seminar should be rigorous, characterized by lively debate and critique, welcome multiple viewpoints and cultural perspectives and acknowledge that sometimes we must agree to disagree. To achieve this, we encourage a mindset and posture in which people are willing to encourage and accept diverse perspectives, show up willing to listen and change their mind (as opposed to simply waiting to talk) and realize that if a text or another’s opinion is ’triggering’, it is often because our ideas/values/beliefs are being challenged. We believe this is an essential part of a university education and is fundamental to the conception and creation of new socio-economic-political paradigms. Students will be graded upon their in-class participation in class discussions. Students will be graded on their verbal contributions during class and/or their contributions to the Zoom Chat during discussions.
  1. Five Assignments: There will be five team-based assignments, that have both a Miro and Medium component. Teams will work within Miro templates that will require work outside class (each of the 5 modules has one worksession to enable teams to work on the assignment during class). Collectively, these 5 assignments are intended to introduce students to systems thinking as well as the emerging Transition Design approach to solving wicked problems and seeding/catalyzing systems-level change. Assignments will be introduced at the beginning of each course module and will be due on the first day of the following module (please see course calendar). The theoretical readings, in-class discussions and the class pages on this seminar website are all designed to inform the applied work on the five assignments. One of the reasons that project teams will read/comment on the assigned texts together is so they can more directly apply the theoretical ideas to their assignments. 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. 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. All students should have received an email with the zoom link we will use for the entire semester. 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 January 18th. 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.

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 free Medium account, and complete a comprehensive article about their process and insights from the mapping exercise (Miro). A team ‘editor’ will upload their article to that team’s section in the Medium course publication. 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 page. 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 Perusall 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.