Design Thinking for Wicked Problems

Design Thinking for Wicked Problems

What is Design Thinking?
Design Thinking is both a mindset and a systematic process developed to foster innovation with end users/customers/visitors in mind. It’s especially useful when addressing “wicked problems”.

Hold up, what are “wicked problems”?
Wicked problems are ill-defined or tricky problems where both the problem and the solution are unknown at the beginning. “Tame” problems, on the other hand, are clear problems with a solution that’s available through some kind of technical knowledge¹.

When you have a wicked problem, a large part of solving it is actually defining the problem itself. Wicked problems aren’t evil, just challenging because there is no apparent single cause.


Don’t let the name scare you – wicked problems can be solved with the help of design thinking.

What are the principles of Design Thinking?
Design thinking considers what humans want, what can be done with technology, and what’s actually economically viable, to ultimately create something innovative. As Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO, more eloquently puts it: “design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

According to Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer of the HPI-Stanford Design Thinking Program, there are 4 rules or principles of successful design thinking:

The Human Rule

  • All design activity is ultimately social in nature, and any social innovation will bring us back to the ‘human-centric point of view’. 

The Ambiguity Rule

  • Design thinkers must preserve ambiguity by experimenting at the limits of their knowledge and ability, enabling the freedom to see things differently.

The Re-Design Rule

  • All design is re-design; this comes as a result of changing technology and social circumstances but previously solved, unchanged human needs.

The Tangibility Rule

  • Making ideas tangible always facilitates communication and allows designers to treat prototypes as ‘communication media’.

What is the process behind Design Thinking?
There are different versions of this list, but design thinking generally involves the following:


There are methods and tools used at each of these stages, and each stage can be iterative and cyclical. In general, design thinking explores all options, narrows down to the correct solution for the problem, and then repeats if necessary.



Because of this cyclical and iterative nature, design thinking may seem “fuzzy” or “ambiguous” when compared to more linear and analytical methods of science and engineering. In contrast, design thinking uses the tool of abductive reasoning to come to the most likely conclusion. Unlike deductive and inductive reasoning, abductive reasoning allows for the creation of new ideas. It’s the “logic of what might be”².

How do we use Design Thinking?
In the museum world, design thinking can help us tackle wicked problems. As human-centred institutions, museums are prime candidates for the design thinking mindset and greatly benefit from creative processes that promote visitor empathy.

Whether it’s taking the time to prototype and test new exhibit ideas, or simply listening to visitors about what would make their experience better, design thinking can make museums more relevant, accessible, and successful. Check out Design Thinking for Museums for some great strategies.

One last thing…
You don’t need to be a designer to think like one!

-Luyi Wang, Interactive Designer


Additional Resources:


¹Beinecke, R. (2009). Leadership for Wicked Problems. The Innovation Journal 14.1, 1–17.

²Martin, R. (2009). The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business Press.


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