Revisiting Rittel and Webber's Dilemmas: Designerly Thinking Against the Background of New Societal Distrust

Pieter E. Vermaas*, Udo Pesch

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
9 Downloads (Pure)


In this article, we posit designerly thinking as a family of design approaches that some believe are able to effectively respond to wicked problems. We will scrutinize this premise by revisiting Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber's 1973 article in which the notion of wicked problems was originally introduced. In it, Rittel and Webber note the emergence of a general sense of distrust in professionals in the 1960s and interpret it as a loss of confidence in the then leading approach to addressing societal problems: systems-based planning. Rittel and Webber formulated three dilemmas that societal problems pose, of which the second is their wickedness, and argued that planning does not resolve these dilemmas. In the 2010s, an emerging distrust in professionals has arisen once more, raising the question of whether designerly thinking is equipped to address societal issues. Our review and discussion of Rittel and Webber's three dilemmas reveals that designerly thinking currently does not resolve any of them, as there can always be groups that will oppose certain solutions. We argue that designerly thinking cannot overcome societal pluralism, but that designers can and should interpret social distrust as an invitation to discuss the consequences and their societal equity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)530-545
Number of pages16
JournalShe Ji
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Designerly thinking
  • Planning dilemmas
  • Rittel and Webber
  • Societal problems
  • Wicked problems


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