Background

This page presents an annotated collection of introductory literature references on Rittel and Webber’s distinction between wicked and tame problems. This collection is by no means complete, and intended neither to fully cover the extensive body of related literature referencing the distinction, nor all views on the topic. Instead, it aims to offer a straightforward entry point for those who are new to wicked and tame problems, with an emphasis on design. Suggestions for improvements of this page are welcome.

The concept of wicked problems was first articulated by Horst Rittel, and then labeled as “wicked” by C. West Churchman, at a 1967 seminar at the University of California, Berkeley (see Chan and Xiang, 2022, Footnote 1). Soon thereafter, Churchman published a guest editorial in which he discusses the distinction between wicked and tame problems:

C. West Churchman (1967). Wicked problems, Management Science, 14(4): B-141–B-146. DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.14.4.B141.

Rittel and his Berkeley colleague Melvin M. Webber then delivered a paper titled “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning” during a Panel on Approaches to Policy Sciences at the 1969 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston. With modifications, this paper was then published in the journal Policy Sciences in June of 1973. This seminal article lists ten distinguishing characteristics of wicked problems, and popularized the distinction between wicked and tame problems:

Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning, Policy Sciences, 4(2):155–169. DOI: 10.1007/BF01405730.

Despite Rittel and Webber leaning more heavily on the term ‘planning’ than on the term ‘design’, it was understood in the design field that wicked problems are generally synonymous with design challenges.

The scientific optimism of the early and mid-20th century suggested a broad applicability of rational methods in design and spawned the so-called Design Methods Movement. Rittel and Webber’s wicked/tame distinction was a part of a shift away from this attitude. The concept of wicked problems featured prominently in what would eventually be referred to as the demise of the Design Methods Movement. The following 1986 paper by Nigel Cross presents a snapshot of this development:

Nigel Cross (1986). The development of design methodology in architecture, urban planning and industrial design, Proceedings of the Eighth European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research, University of Vienna, Austria, 173–180. DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-4634-7_23.

Design theory being a relatively young field, recognition of the distinction between wicked and tame problems among design researchers developed gradually, as observed (and supported) by Rickard Buchanan in this 1992 article:

Richard Buchanan (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking, Design Issues, 8(2):5–21. DOI: 10.2307/1511637.

Since the turn of the millennium, recognition of the wicked/tame distinction in general, and of the notion of wicked problems in particular, has grown considerably across numerous fields, as shown in the following ngram:

Ngram of the phrases "wicked problems" and "tame problems"
Ngram of the phrases “wicked problems” and “tame problems”. Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer

It is fair to assume that this growth pattern is due to a combination of several factors, including:

  • An increasing recognition of the limited adequacy of rigid methods and formalism in the social and creative domains.
  • The amenability of tame problems to handling by computational processes and automation – especially in the age of computing and networking – resulting in a proportionally greater need to address wicked problems.
  • The increasing urgency of systemic and deeply interwoven social and ecological crises.

Early in the 2000s, Jeff Conklin compressed Rittel and Webber’s list of ten characteristics of wicked problems into a list of six:

Jeff Conklin interviewed by Karen Christensen (2009) Building shared understanding of wicked problems, Rotman Magazine, the alumni magazine of Rotman School of Management, Winter 2009:17–20.

Rittel and Webber’s wicked/tame distinction long suggested a a side-by-side relationship of two mutually-exclusive problem categories. This was addressed by Ray Ison et al. who instead describe tame problems as a (tamed) subset of wicked problems:

Raymond L. Ison, Kevin B. Collins and Philip J. Wallis (2015). Institutionalising social learning: Towards systemic and adaptive governance, Environmental Science & Policy, 53(Part B):105–117.

This, in turn, resonates with the relative positioning of scientific research and design put forward by Ranulph Glanville in the context of design research:

“it is inappropriate to require design to be “scientific”: for scientific research is a subset (a restricted form) of design, and we do not generally require the set of a subset to act as the sub subset to that subset any more than we require the basement of the building is its attic”

Ranulph Glanville (1999). Researching design and designing research, Design Issues, 15(2), 80–91. DOI: 10.2307/1511844.

Both the 40th and the 50th anniversaries of Rittel and Webber’s wicked/tame distinction have prompted publications that take stock of its applications and relevance:

Brian W. Head (2019). Forty years of wicked problems literature: forging closer links to policy studies, Policy and Society, 38(2): 180-197. DOI: 10.1080/14494035.2018.1488797.

Jeffrey Kok Hui Chan and Wei-Ning Xiang (2022). Fifty years after the wicked-problems conception: its practical and theoretical impacts on planning and design, Socio-Ecological Practice Research, 4:1-6. DOI: 10.1007/s42532-022-00106-w.

We hope these resources help you get familiar with the topic of this symposium. If you would like to receive further guidance, please do not hesitate to contact us at 50yearswicked[at]gmail.com. Here is one more thought to help you position the wicked/tame distinction within the broader picture of design (you may agree with it or you may have your own views, of course):

Wicked and tame problems are neither tools nor methods. They are theoretical concepts. As such, they offer little utility in contexts of design practice. Where design is thought, talked or written about, and where design is taught or managed, however, they provide powerful guidance. They are of particular value where design practice and design education are subject to administrative, organizational, and regulative frameworks, as they offer a plausible vocabulary to advocate for designerly ethics.