Wicked Problem: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 Wicked Problems
  • 0:45 Definition
  • 1:25 Characteristics
  • 2:13 Design Thinking
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Wicked problems are seemingly impossible to solve, so what connection do they have to design thinking? In this lesson, we'll explore wicked problems, some examples, and how design thinking may be the best approach to a solution.

Wicked Problems

Melting ice in the Arctic. Intense heat waves in odd locations. Frequent wildfires. Tropical storms, one after another, with prolonged and more damaging consequences.

A common wicked problem in the world today is the issue of global climate change.
wicked, problem, climate, change, design, thinking, Horst, Rittel

We've all seen the results of what scientists believe is global climate change. The effects of various chemicals coupled with the result of human activities like using aerosol sprays or driving less environmentally-friendly vehicles are responsible for altering the globe's atmosphere and creating a situation reaching near crisis proportions.

Design theorist and professor Horst Rittel wasn't specifically referring to climate change when he coined the term ''wicked problem,'' but a wicked problem it is, nonetheless.


A wicked problem, according to Rittel, is a social or cultural issue or concern that is difficult to explain and inherently impossible to solve. These are the crises that we long for answers to, but answers do not come easily. These include issues like education design, financial crises, health care, hunger, income disparity, obesity, poverty, terrorism, and sustainability.

Unlike simpler problems that may boast a quick fix and an easy answer, these problems may be complicated, interconnected, or just deemed ''too large'' to fix, yet they plague our governments, communities, and society as a whole.


In creating the concept, design theorist Horst Rittel identified 10 common characteristics of wicked problems. They are:

  1. Wicked problems lack a definitive formula.
  2. There's no stopping rule for determining when a solution has been discovered.
  3. Solutions are only good or bad, not true or false.
  4. Each wicked problem is unique to itself.
  5. Solutions are not immediate and cannot be tested.
  6. There is no trial and error when finding solutions, only implementation.
  7. Wicked problems are interconnected or symptoms of other problems.
  8. Wicked problems have more than one explanation.
  9. There is no exhaustive list of possible solutions.
  10. Those who try to solve wicked problems are held responsible for their actions.

Design Thinking

So, why was a design theorist tackling the notion of wicked problems? In short, the design thinking methodology is a way that designers work to find solutions to problems. Rittel believed its methodical, collaborative approach could provide systematic, solution-oriented problem-solving. It combines people with different backgrounds, skills, and experience that work collaboratively in a process-based approach to solve complicated issues.

The design thinking process works through these stages to arrive at a solution:

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