Book Review: Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

September 3, 2012

Author: Jon Kolko

Publisher: Austin Center for Design

Publication date: March 2012

Format of print edition: Paperback; 8.5 x 8.5 inches; 176 pages

ISBN: 978-0-6155931-5-9

List price: $45

Free online edition: Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving


In this “Handbook & Call to Action,” Kolko introduces the idea of wicked problems—large-scale social issues that plague humanity, like poverty and malnutrition—then describes the role of design in mitigating these problems. Starting with the example of his experience with Project Masiluleke, Kolko points out that traditional approaches cannot deal effectively with complex social and cultural problems. Such wicked problems always interconnect with other problems, are costly to solve, and often lack clear methods for understanding and evaluating them.

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Traditional ways of tackling wicked problems include the following:

  • top-down government policy-making and funding that are too broad and complicated to deal with the real issues
  • companies’ being motivated by revenue generation and mass production to maximize their profit margins
  • standard project-based frameworks with finite engagement periods that are too short and too shallow to create long-lasting social impact

Kolko suggests that it is possible to mitigate wicked problems through what he calls social entrepreneurship—entrepreneurship that aims to create social capital by adding value to the community rather than focusing only on creating economic wealth.

Skills for the Social Entrepreneur

Many in the target audience for this book—comprising design educators and designers—might be a bit perplexed by the broad range of skills they would need to be effective social entrepreneurs. Kolko discusses not only skills and techniques, but also how different a social entrepreneur’s posture should be—and why—to ensure greater social impact through design. Although he describes some conventional skills such as interviewing and sketching ideas, the degree of immersion and the responsibilities that social entrepreneurship requires are far deeper and wider than those of conventional design activities.

Kolko states that—unlike for typical design activities—the key to social entrepreneurship for designers is establishing empathy for the population with whom they’re working. Since the problems designers tackle as social entrepreneurs require a long-term commitment and immersion, mere understanding is not enough. Designers should not design for users who are not part of the design process, but design with users who are part of the target group. Designers also need to be flexible, confident in embracing constraints, and able to tolerate ambiguity, because unlike understanding, empathy is frequently illogical and circumstantial. Designers have to deal with not only the pragmatic, but also the conceptual and the fleeting to create truly good experiences.

Kolko introduces the participatory design technique as a powerful tool for the designing-with approach. In participatory design, a designer should act as a facilitator, extracting creative information from users and, in the end, translating it into actual products and services.

Kolko proposes several essential skills and techniques that allow a designer to best attain this goal:

  • Be an approachable, compassionate, and passionate facilitator who enables users to comfortably participate in the design-with process.
  • Generate new service or product concepts by synthesizing the data and disconnected ideas that users provide and iteratively testing their inferences.
  • Visualize concepts through sketching, role playing, and storytelling—even when you have only limited information.

Kolko presents some important tips relating to finance—although they may not be sufficient for would-be social entrepreneurs:

  • To ensure sufficient income, you must be able to evaluate project value effectively.
  • Organize a project with limited resources, and establish a proper financial model to keep it running.

The author discourages too much dependence on grants. Readers should realize that only devoted realists with the proper business acumen are likely to succeed as social entrepreneurs.

Teaching and Learning

Kolko next shifts his focus to teaching and learning, describing three common models of design education:

  • Bauhaus—which focuses on craftsmanship
  • integrated product development—which focuses on integrating marketing, design, and engineering
  • design thinking—which focuses on strategy and innovation

Kolko states that all three models of design education “advance the message that design is inextricably linked to consumption,” but he fails to give any proof that these models cannot be or are not used in other, non-consumptive contexts.

The author then presents a solid, deliberate, and awesome curriculum template, whose aim is to mix the best parts of the three common models of design education, leaning most heavily on the integrated product development model, with its interdisciplinary approach, and emphasizing the designer’s role as facilitator.

As Kolko argues, subject-matter decisions determine the design outcome. The curriculum translates this fact into courses like “Interaction Design, Society, and the Public” and “Theory of Design and Social Entrepreneurship.”

The curriculum Kolko presents is first and foremost a design curriculum. Students learn to design interactions with the intention of changing people’s behavior. However, the template is not convincing in terms of teaching the skills social entrepreneurs need. The course “Entrepreneurial Practice” does not include typical MBA topics like innovation, business development, and leadership. The course “Studio: Foundations” seems rooted in user interface design and leaves it to students to invent new ways of prototyping behavior.


The book describes three methods of conducting research that focus on gaining empathy:

  1. Contextual inquiry is a method that helps us to understand what people do and why they do it. This method provides a way of capturing work’s complexities: information flow, the cultural qualities of a working environment, and the sequence of routine tasks.
  2. Participatory design is a broad label for creative activities that involve users. In this method, designers act as facilitators or visual translators for people who may not be skilled or confident in expressing their ideas.
  3. Cultural probes make use of a documentation device such as a workbook, worksheet, disposable camera, or tape recorder that researchers give to participants, providing instructions on how to record the information a project needs. It’s a research method with a user lens.

Kolko shares five methods of synthesizing data and developing ideas. This phase is important in connecting the interpretation of research findings to the development of design concepts. The methods are as follows:

  • A 2x2 is an organizational diagram that lets you illustrate the manner in which many different things compare across two dimensions. For a single data set, a 2x2 can show trends, outliers, and areas of saturation and scarcity. Within the context of design, this type of diagram can describe opportunities for impact and areas ripe for innovation.
  • Theory of change is a tool for modeling how short-term changes can lead to long-term impacts. It is useful primarily within the context of solving social and humanitarian problems, but it is applicable in any context where human efforts intend change—such as problems of engineering, policy, or design.
  • A concept map is a diagram of knowledge that supports meaningful learning through forming connections.
  • Semantic zoom leverages the concept map as a base visualization. It resembles a mental map with different zoom levels.
  • Insight combination is a method of quickly generating lots of design ideas and explicitly tying these ideas to contextual research and the cultural nuances of your target audience. It is similar to a brainstorming session.

Kolko shares additional methods for creating new designs—such as scenario planning, use cases, storyboarding, journey maps, body storming, and service blueprints. Of particular relevance is the body-storming method, in which design activities occur in an environment that provides a typical context in which an activity would actually take place. Though Kolko describes these methods only briefly, each method’s relevance to the research and design phases and their output are clear.

The book closes by shifting its focus to creating and running a business. The author emphasizes the importance of achieving financial goals through the revenue-and-worksheet and 3-tier-subsidy methods, providing easy-to-understand examples. In describing the development of a product-and-feature roadmap, Kolko advises against planning a product with lots of features, stating that it’s best to identify a product’s capabilities based on whether they provide critical social value.


Kolko argues that designers need the skills of a social entrepreneur to tackle wicked problems effectively. However, in the commercial world, designer and entrepreneur are two separate roles. It’s unclear why this should be different in a not-for-profit context. Although it’s possible to combine the roles of designer and entrepreneur successfully in one person, this is an exception rather than the rule.

Kolko’s proposed curriculum is first and foremost a design curriculum—and a very promising one. While it is not convincing as a social-entrepreneurship curriculum, it is arguable whether one curriculum should even try to address both design and entrepreneurship.

Kolko advocates making students aware that they can position design within any context and teaching them how to deal with situations in which the circumstances may be complex and far from ideal. This is a very valuable proposition—one that would benefit every design course. It is admirable that Kolko wants to place the emphasis on solving social problems, but students must realize that making this choice has consequences as well. 

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