A complete primer on transition design

This article was originally published by Medium.

In the past, there have been many attempts to leverage design as an agent for positive social change, but few of these have articulated how to undertake, lead, and catalyze such change. Nor have they identified or incorporated the areas of knowledge and investigation required to do so. Transition design acknowledges that we are living in transitional times and takes as its central premise the need for societal, systems-level change for more sustainable futures and the contention that design has a key role to play in these transitions.

Transition design is complementary to and borrows from myriad other design approaches (such as design for service and social innovation), but is distinct in several ways and therefore generates a corresponding body of new skill sets. All of these can deepen and enhance designing within shorter horizons of time and more mainstream contexts.

The idea of and need for transition is central to a variety of current discourses concerned with how change manifests and how it can be initiated/directed (in ecosystems, organizations, communities/societies, economies, and even individuals). These approaches inspired the term transition design, a new area of design focus that is informed by knowledge outside design, such as science, philosophy, psychology, social science, anthropology, and the humanities in order to gain a deeper understanding of how to design for change/transition in complex systems.

The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University uses a heuristic model to characterize four different but interrelated, mutually influencing areas of transition design. These areas are 1) Vision; 2) Theories of Change; 3) Mindset & Posture; 4) New Ways of Designing.


In short, transition design:

  • Uses living systems theory as both an approach to understanding problems and designing solutions to address them.
  • Develops design solutions that protect and restore both social and natural ecosystems through the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between people, the things they make and do, and the natural environment.
  • Sees everyday life and lifestyles as the most important and fundamental context for design.
  • Designs solutions for short, medium, and long horizons of time, at all levels of scale of everyday life (the household, the neighborhood, the city, the region).
  • Looks for emergent possibilities within problem contexts and amplifies grass-roots efforts and solutions that are already underway.
  • Links existing solutions together so that they can function as steps in a larger transition vision.
  • Distinguishes between wants or desires and genuine needs and bases solutions upon maximizing the satisfiers for the widest possible range of needs.
  • Sees the designer’s own mindset and posture as an essential component of transition designing.
  • Calls for the reintegration and re-contextualization of diverse transdisciplinary knowledge.

For more information on transition design, see transitiondesign.net or check out School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University’s syllabus for a Transition Design course.

About the Author:

Terry Irwin is the Head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and has been teaching at the University level since 1986. Prior to joining Carnegie Mellon in 2009 she was an adjunct professor of design at Otis Parsons College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, and California College of the Arts (1989-2003), San Francisco and was a lecturer in design at University of Dundee, Scotland. She has lectured and guest taught at numerous schools in Europe and North America including Art Center, Los Angeles, The University of Washington, Seattle, Arizona State University, Tempe, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, University of the Arts, London and Bolzen Bolzano, Italy and the ICIS Centre, Denmark among others. Terry was a founding partner of the San Francisco office of MetaDesign, an international design firm with offices in San Francisco, Berlin, London, and Zurich and served as Creative Director from 1992 - 2001. In 2003 Terry moved to Devon, England to do a Masters Degree in Holistic Science at Schumacher College, an international center for ecological studies. After completing her studies, she joined the faculty and taught design thinking to students with backgrounds in biology, ecology, physics, sociology and activism. In 2007 she moved to Scotland to undertake PhD studies at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Terry's research explores how living systems principles can inform a more appropriate and responsible way to design and she is currently working with the faculty at CMU to incorporate 'design for society and the environment' into the heart of the curriculum. Terry holds an MFA in Design from the Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland.