TedTalk – Tome Wujec: Got a Wicked Problem? First, Tell Me How You Make Toast

I love TedTalks, how they communicate important ideas and also inspire at the same time.  It’s a good way to get your brain working and thinking about new things.  The TedTalk I watched recently was about a topic near and dear to my heart: Systems Thinking.  Systems thinking is something that we talk about in design, and is also one of the key mantras behind the work that Engineers Without Borders does.  The talk is by Tom Wujec, and is called “Got a wicked problem? First tell me how to make toast“.

I love this talk because it discusses a problem that many designers think about on a daily basis, but in a way that anyone can understand.  Th experiment started when he first asked people to make a drawing of the toast process.  He received hundreds of different drawings from many different people.  Some were good quality, some were bad.  Some had tons of steps, others only had a few.  Although they all had similarities, no two were exactly the same.

Some of the terms below might seem complicated and make your eyes start to glaze over, but they’re actually very simple.  Nodes are tangible objects in systems (like the toaster, a person, a piece of bread) and links are simply connections between the nodes.

In the “making a piece of toast” example, there are on average 4 to 8 nodes (take bread out of bag, put bread in toaster, press down on lever, etc.).  Studies have found that more than 13 nodes makes the system too complex to be easily understood, and less than 5 nodes is too simplistic (with 5 to 13 nodes being the “sweet spot”).

toast 1

Breaking a system down into steps or pieces is something that people intuitively know how to do, even if they’ve never thought about it before.  For most people, it is easier to do the exercise on post-its or small pieces of paper so that they can be rearranged afterwards (which allows much richer drawings and more complex systems).  As any good designer knows, when making a model of a product or system, you must allow the person testing the model to understand that it is not perfect.  If people see a perfect model they don’t want to damage it or say bad things about it, out of politeness.  But an ugly model made of straws and tape makes anybody feel confident that they may be able to suggest an improvement or alternate configuration.

“The ease with which we can change a representation correlates to our willingness improve the model”

toast 2

After doing this exercise by yourself, the next step is to try it again in a group.  Although this might sound counter intuitive (won’t it get all messy and confusing?), it’s actually an important step of the process.  Designers learn that often something needs to get messier and messier before it becomes a clear idea, since people build on top of the ideas of others and thrive on the diversity of different ideas.  Groups working in silence actually do it better, and more quickly, and still add lots of great new layers of complexity to create a better idea of what the system is really about.  People without an arts background might be skeptical at first and be afraid to draw in front of others.  But drawing actually helps us to understand, and this could be a good exercise to try at your next board meeting.

Wicked problems were an idea I first heard of a few years ago during my graduate degree (studying Interdisciplinary Design at Carleton University).  During my first year seminar, this was the main topic… how do we solve wicked problems?  Well, first of all, what exactly is a wicked problem?  Basically, most of the major social issues we face today are “wicked”.  This means they are very complex, and difficult to solve.  You cannot solve an issue like climate change by simply recycling, it involves actors from many different spheres (citizens, companies, governments, etc.) and in many different fields (manufacturing, public policy, farming, transportation, etc.).  There is no single solution that is easy and will fix everything.  However, Tom believes that you can understand these complex systems by using these techniques.  Once you understand the system, it might actually be possible to start thinking about how it can be changed to solve a problem, even a wicked one!

If you want to learn more about these techniques, you can check out some best practices on their website.

I would love to hear if you have any other ideas or techniques for trying to solve wicked problems.


About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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