Transformation Design I – origins

I recently got accepted for the master studies in Transformation Design at the Braunschweig University of Art. So a lot of people have asked me what Transformation Design actually is.

For one, it’s new. There is a Wikipedia article about it, but it hasn’t been translated to any language other than English yet.

So, since it was -and still is – difficult for me to describe in simple terms what’s it about. Therefore, I’m going to present it here, one part after another.

Today, I’ll start with how the idea came up, and from which core elements it started evolving.

taking a holistic approach.

In 1998, two guys at Harvard mentioned the idea that we there is a need for, and economic value in, a new type of design. One that uses a holistic approach and works in an interdisciplinary way.

When your knee hurts 3 days a week, you can take painkillers to get rid of the pain. But painkillers don’t fix your knee. Doctors do that. So you go to an orthopaedist. He examines your knee, and might indeed find out that it is damaged and needs to be fixed. You undergo surgery, spend some weeks walking with crutches, and after a year your knee hurts again. Since you already learned that taking painkillers only works for so long, you don’t wait so long until going to the doctor. This time, you choose another orthopaedist. He not only examines your knee but its whole working complex, including your upper & lower leg, knuckle & foot. And it turns out the problem originates from your shoes, and can, therefore, be fixed by using special insoles.

Here, the second doctor took a view at the bigger picture. He wasn’t just fixing symptoms, but looking for the real problem.

This is not supposed to say that Transformation Designers are basically orthopaedists for companies. But it shows that holistic approaches, by taking wider views, might find solutions that might not have been considered otherwise.

reconnecting companies and customers.

There has also been a book written by a wife-and-husband team of Harvard business administration professor and Volvo CEO, discussing the need for companies and governments to realign themselves with how people live.

Transformation Design designs structures and systems to better suit the way people live & what they need. [Because as obvious as this might sound, it hasn’t always been the central aspect] Most relevant factor for how stuff is done has always been cost. Also, there has often been a lack of a better understanding of needs & possibilities.

Therefore, one of TD’s central methods is to get all existing and possible stakeholders together, help them differentiate between symptom and the actual problem, and brainstorm approaches for solving the latter one. This Process is called co-creation and has the benefits of already including everyone involved.

reorganising public service.

One of the first to do this was non-designer  Hilary Cottam, who started this type of approach in the 90’s. She worked on new systems to support an ageing population as well as creating new approaches to chronic disease and unemployment. She also proposed the “learning prison,” in which the staff gets to be less guard, more facilitator. The prisoners spend their time doing things that actually help them leading a civil life afterwards.

Though this proposal hasn’t been implemented by now, it shows the possibilities of designed transformations.


The Method called “design thinking” was developed by IDEO, which arose from the fusion of three industrial design agencies. Therefore, it was at first mainly used for product design issues. Following the definitions of So-Young Kang from Awaken Group [the ones who made the video featured at the beginning of this article]  this can be considered “Design Thinking 1.0”

Later on, branding got a bigger Issue. People started applying this Method to the design of customer-centric experiences like services and events, in addition to products. Therefore, “Design Thinking 2.0” is focused on Experience Design.

Following the blurred Lines from there, we end up exactly here, at “Design Thinking 3.0: Transformation Design”


Create form out of the nature of the task with the means of our time. This is our work.

-Ludwig Mies van der Rohe


So where have you seen any signs of transformation design? Drop a comment If you like!

Also published on Medium.

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