What is wisdom? What is design wisdom? This paper will explore the first question using established and emerging definitions. For the second question, I will propose that design wisdom is a fabric that emerges from the intersection of scientific and designerly ways of knowing and doing. Design wisdom can be used both for making sense of the future and for giving shape to the future.

What is Wisdom?

Before getting into the topic of design wisdom it is helpful to define what the word wisdom actually means. The Merriam Webster definition focuses on wisdom as something that you can gain and then hold onto or possess.

“Wisdom is:
: knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life
: the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand
: knowledge of what is proper or reasonable: good sense or judgment” [6].

Other definitions focus on wisdom as something that you both possess and use. These definitions of wisdom look toward its application in future life experiences.

“A basic definition of wisdom is the judicious application of knowledge” [8].
“Wisdom… is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight” [8].
“Wisdom is not simply knowing what to do, but doing it” [7].

Thomas Lombardo, in the most recent issue of the World Future Review, expands upon the role of wisdom in our future ways of living.

“Although wisdom is often associated with ‘lessons of life from the past,’ wisdom can be given a future focus, defined as the knowledge, desire, and capacity to create maximal well-being in the future, both for oneself and others.” [3]

For the purpose of this short paper I will combine these definitions to say that wisdom is about understanding the world as it is today and then doing something with that knowledge in order to “create maximal well-being in the future, both for oneself and others” [3].

Academics and Practitioners

The first definition of wisdom, i.e., wisdom as something that you can gain and then hold onto or possess, describes the academic perspective. We talk about basic research as that which adds to the body of knowledge. The second set of definitions, i.e., wisdom as something that you both possess and use, describes the practitioner perspective.

Figure 1. Analysis of messy data for the front end of design from Sanders and Stappers, 2012.
Figure 1. Analysis of messy data for the front end of design from Sanders and Stappers, 2012.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, claims that the work that practitioners do is much more important than the work that academics do when it comes to discovery, innovation and technological progress. After having moved from the applied side to the academic side and then back again, Taleb is harsh in his views on academia. A few quotes provide a glimpse of his position and tone of voice.

“Engineers and tinkerers develop things while history books are written by academics” [5].
“We don’t put theory into practice. We create theories out of practice” [5].
“Theory came later, in a lame way, to satisfy the intellectual bean counter (in a description of the design development of the jet engine)” [5].

Whereas Taleb’s book is certainly a powerful statement of the need to approach discovery from both sides (i.e., academic and practitioner), and is definitely worth reading, it is not clear whether academics will appreciate the message due to his tone. We need an approach that values the collaboration between the perspectives of academics and practitioners in the creation of wisdom that is more broadly defined.

What is Design Wisdom?

In order to talk about design wisdom, I’ll start with a framework that is useful for the analysis of the messy data characteristic of the fuzzy front end of the design and development process. Figure 1 shows the version of the initial framework that Pieter Jan Stappers and I introduced in our book Convivial Toolbox [4].

Figure 2. The generative side where ideas take shape. Figure 3. The analytical side where sense is made.
Figure 2. The generative side where ideas take shape. Figure 3. The analytical side where sense is made.

The framework for the analysis of messy data shows that the path of analysis starts in the lower left with the collection of data related to the topic or the phenomenon under investigation. The layers of analysis are based on Ackoff’s DIKW scheme (where the letters D, I, K and W stand for Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom), which distinguish different levels of sense making [1]. In the framework data are documented, organized and reorganized into information. Information is then transformed into knowledge as the analysis proceeds. Ideally, knowledge is further transformed into insight or wisdom. Theory is said to set the boundaries for this investigation and to inform the analysis process. Sometimes new theory is created as a result. Analysis moves upward and to the right, from the analytical side to the design side of the framework with crossovers between research and design taking place at every level of sense making. Bigger ideas emerge at higher levels of sense making.

Now I’m going to use the framework as a model of design wisdom and will start by deconstructing the framework into its core components.

Figure 2 shows the generative/creative side of the front end of the design space where new ideas and concepts emerge. It is here that designers explore the future. For years designers worked primarily in this space ideating, sketching and iterating on ideating and sketching. The goal of working in this space is to imagine the world as it could be and to give shape to the future.

Figure 3 shows the analytical side of the front end of design space where we use methods and tools to understand the world as it is today. This side of the design space is often referred to as research. Here is how it works. We usually start with a theory that informs the research plan. We collect data about the phenomenon being explored according to the plan. We then organize and make sense of the data by working our way up the levels until we get to the level of wisdom whereby we can feed back into the theory with confirmatory or contradictory evidence. Scientists use this model of the research process in order to discover and make sense of the world as it is today.

Use of the scientifically-based research process as a newer addition to design practice has grown dramatically since the 1960’s. Proponents of the design research process have tended to come from the social sciences and use research methods and tools to understand the current context in order to inform the design process. Designers have had mixed reactions to such design research since they are often more interested in what could inspire their creative process than in what could inform their creative process.

However as the challenges facing humanity have become more complex and urgent, designers are now finding that they need to be informed (and perhaps inspired) by the analytical side while they are generating and exploring ideas in the design space. When we are working with wicked problems and/or large systems that are dynamically changing, we need to combine the analytical and the generative sides of the design space.

Using the Framework for Design Wisdom

The framework for design wisdom
Figure 4. The framework for design wisdom as the bridge between the analytical and generative sides.

In the framework for design wisdom that is shown in figure 4 there is now a large space between the analytical and the generative sides. Optimists refer to the space as a bridge and pessimists refer to the space as a gap. But everyone agrees that we need to play on both sides of the bridge or gap to address the challenges that design is being asked to consider today.

So how do we play on both sides? Should we start on the analytical side and use the knowledge and wisdom gained there to inform the generation of ideas on the creative side? That is the approach that design research has been using to date. We start with the research phase and then move on to design. The arrows in figure 1 point this way.

But there are other ways to work the framework. We could, for example, start with generating ideas on the design side and then use the ideas as input toward a more analytical exploration. This is what is happening today in the design-led approaches such as design fiction (e.g., Dunne and Raby [2]). Here, designers make things (e.g., objects, prototypes, events, etc.) in order to make people think. To make them think about, for example, the prevailing and failing approaches to the tactical application of new technology.

Or we could work both sides simultaneously. Let’s look more closely at the large space between the left and the right sides. Think of that space as a fabric that weaves the results of analytical activities together with the results of generative activities. If we can work both sides simultaneously we can see the emergence of a new fabric. We can see that the generative side stirs and provokes the body of knowledge that grows on the left. From the generative side we can see doodles, sketches, probes, provocations, prototypes and provotypes that weave into the fabric. And we can see that the analytical side raises questions and challenges that perturb the generative activities taking place on the right. From the analytical side we can see patterns, principles, themes and insights that weave into the fabric.

So how will we work together to weave the new fabric of design wisdom? There are certain to be different types of people on the two sides who are out of their comfort zone when trying to adapt to each other’s ways of working. I propose that the iterative cycle of making, telling and enacting can be used to facilitate the weaving [4]. This is a design language that everyone understands and can use. It is simultaneously visual, verbal and enacted. The iterative cycle of making, telling and enacting can be put into action by:

  • Making, telling and enacting new kinds of stories,
  • Using people’s stories about their futures to evoke their making of new stuff,
  • Telling about and sharing ideas about future stuff, and
  • Putting the stuff that people make back inside their future stories, etc.

Benefits of Exploring the New Fabric

On the bridge between research and design in the future we will see the transdisciplinary collaboration of people with very different world views. We will see people who seek to understand the world as it is today, others who strive to make sense of the future as well as people who are driven to give shape to the future.

The framework for design wisdom reveals that the role of designers and design researchers is continuing to grow in scope and relevance for our collective futures. They are becoming the facilitators of participation, provocateurs and activists. They will continue to be the makers of stuff for the future.

In the near future practitioners, including designers, will be seen on equal but different standing with the academics. Both perspectives will need to be intertwined in weaving the new fabric on the bridge between academics and practice. The bridge/gap will serve as a place for the remixing of ideas from both sides. The bridge is the fabric upon which we make sense of and give shape to the future. The fabric of design wisdom.


  • [1] Ackoff, R. L. From data to wisdom. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 16. 1989. 3-9.
  • [2] Dunne, A., and Raby, F. Speculative Everything: Design, 
Fiction and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2013.
  • [3] Lombardo, T. The future evolution of consciousness. World Future Review: A Journal of Strategic Foresight, 6. 2014. 322-335.
  • [4] Sanders, E. B.-N., and Stappers, P. J. Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. BIS Publishers, 2012.
  • [5] Taleb, N. N. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.
  • [6] Wisdom. In Merriam-Webster online dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wisdom.
  • [7] Wisdom. In Urban Dictionary. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Wisdom. [8] Wisdom. In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisdom.