Designing for Social Change

How do designers help us understand 'wicked problems'?

Posted on 8th April 2016

Written by Marta Monge

When I tell people that I'm a designer, for many their expectations might be that invent I products, make chairs or create the user interface for a new app.

As an Industrial Designer I am trained with those skills however design is broadening its contributions beyond the conventional practices of making things, spaces and visuals.

Some designers are moving into the fringes where, we find more “wicked problems”, ones that involve purpose and society, economics and models for sustainability - beyond design, perhaps in politics, government, medicine or technology.

"designers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable direction"

Jon Kolko

No matter the outcome, it will likely follow the same framework of processes in order to reach the outcome.

This framework is an approach known as user-centered design, where the needs and lived experience of the end user is central to the development of the product, service or system.

The design team will continually look to the user and their needs to observe and test whether what they are making meets the users' needs; and through this research continually improve their design intervention.

A framework for User Centred Design

A framework for User Centred Design

Design research focuses on bringing understanding and perspective about the real lived experiences of users' and uses tools and methods like context, persona and scenario to capture and communicate users' needs.


Context is about modelling the big picture, the external macro environment.  It includes different factors that, especially in times of fast paced innovation, might directly or indirectly impact your topic of research.


Persona is a fictional character, an archetype that aims to sum up features of a broader group of actual people / users. A persona is not just a name and job description, but includes behaviour patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, with a few fictional personal details to bring the persona to life. 

Personas are shaped through embedded research, data, observation and interviews with the real people who you are designing for.


A scenario is a fictional story about the "daily life of" or a sequence of event with the persona as the main character. The story should be specific events happening that relate to the problems / research questions.

Scenarios help you see and understand where your intervention fits within the life of the people and context you are designing for.  Does the story sound plausible?  What are the constraints within the users' environment that you might need to consider?

So what does this look like in practice?  Below is an example from IKEA Foundation's collaboration with United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees where user centred design led to a product outcome to improve shelter for refugees.

Better Shelter - UNHCR and IKEA Foundation

We are introduced to the environment of the refugee camp and also Amina and her family, who have a very vulnerable baby Mohammed born premature; capturing context, persona and scenario before introducing the design intervention.

But its not always the case that a problem is "solved" by "making" something new. The market is already saturated with "stuff", increasingly designers have to consider "unintended consequences" of putting something on the market.

"Flat pack futures"

Scott Smith

When it comes to imagining the future...we often tend to polarise positions, between the "flawless, positive, conflictless", described by Scott Smith as "flat pack futures" and the "utterly negative, controlling, dystopian", forgetting what might lie in between.  The more, perhaps mundane, everday reality.

Seeing the bigger picture

Futures Cone

Futures Cone

The cone of uncertainty or the futures cone was a tool initially used in software development, but has now been adopted across sectors including business, finance, government.

It basically says that the beginning of any project, we don't know where it is going to take us, but we need to keep in mind all possible options.

As time progresses into the future, our degree of uncertainty about what the outcome will be increases, but this also includes our uncertainties about changes in context, persona & scenario.

What will be people's needs in 2030 and how will these be shaped by their context and the habits of their day to day lives?

It will 'probably' go this way, but What If? by opening up possibilities outside of what we might not have thought of, it can make a strong contribution towards analysing what we make next and help us develop a more robust and innovative outcome.

Uninvited Guests - Thingtank and Superflux

Marta is an interdisciplinary designer with Industrial Design training and a socially focused design practice.  She has worked with clients including VISA, Intel, Microsoft and London Design Festival.  Marta is part of the Near Now Studio, a pilot supporting innovation across arts and technology jointly sponsored by Arts Council England and Innovate UK.


Marta Monge