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Solving the Wicked Problem of Domestic Violence

Solving the wicked problem to empower women to flee domestic violence and find safe shelter.


One in four women will expierence domestic or dating violence in her life time. One reason for such high numbers of abuse rates is that the problem lies deeply rooted in gender inequality. While domestic violence does not see a gender, it’s important to know that violence against women stems from men having power over women.

Women in abusive relationships can face years of abuse, getting more violent over time. Being manipulated and/or isolated from loved ones, a woman trying to flee may not be aware of all of her options.

Problem Statement:

“Gender inequality promotes domestic violence”

My Process:

I followed a process called the Systematic Approach to Design, a process based off of Design Thinking Principals. This process is beneficial when the problem, or final product is not clearly defined.

Wicked Problems are systematic problems that cannot be solved by one solution. By nature wicked problems are:

  • Reactive
  • Never-ending
  • And Multi-threaded

01 Definition:

  • Design Problem Statement
  • How Might We Question
  • Explanation of Problem’s Significance


In the definition stage of the project I worked on clearly understand the wicked problem. I started off with some high level research to prove yes in fact domestic violence is a problem in North America. And yes design thinking principals can be applied to a solution.

I stated with a design problem statement to direct my research. Research provided more insight into the problem, and I became more empathetic towards women fleeing abusive relationships. At this time I zoomed into solving the problem for women fleeing, and created a How Might We Question. HMW Questions prepare the design thinker for a more innovative solution based off of users specific needs.

02 Discovery:

  • Quantitive + Qualitative Data
  • User Research
  • Design Values
  • Empathy Maps
  • Personas


Creating Design Values at the Beginning of the process grows empathy for the people effected by domestic violence.

Design Values impact the project in several productive ways. When the final solution isn’t defined, design values can provide a guideline of how to shape your solution. These values encouraged me to put the people effected by domestic violence at the heart of every decision made during the process. And empathy brings out the emotion in design, that will add a unique perspective to solving the problem. In creating design values, I learnt more about who I am as a designer.

03 Divergence:

  • Looking at other industries for inspiration.
  • Transformation Design


To Diverge and come up with the right solution, I looked at a variety of industries to glean insight from the way they empower people, and challenge new ways of thought in their communities.

At the beginning of the divergence phase I asked myself two questions: 1. How do organizations empower people in their communities? 2. How do people inspire change of thought?

I was able to explore all sorts of industries. Not all of my findings held much value. And sometimes I felt like I was moving further away from a possible solution. However I did find great inspiration in the groups listed below:

Linguist - Julia Penelope challenged a new way of thought by stating the way we speak with natural language encourages victim blaming. Our sentence structure doesn’t allow for the dominant group to consider their dominance. e.g: I When the dominant group (men) hears the term “women’s issue”. The term implies it’s only issues that effect women. The dominant group can check out, as this is an area that doesn’t involve men. However if we changed our language the way Julia suggests the term would read “women issues are caused by men”. By adding the cause to the subject we force a paradigm shift. The dominant group’s attention is now focus on their privilege.

Taddy Blecher’s Education System empowers students to enrol in education programs. Once a student has graduated from the program, and only when they’ve gained employment — they would pay the tuition for another student. This creating empowerment to seek education for South Africa’s youth.

Sick Boy Podcast destigmatizes the boundaries around discussing the truths about illness. In each episode the hosts interview someone living with an illness to encourage healthy open conversations about it.

HackerYou empowers students to take control of their education and kickstart a career in the tech industry. Mentors are assigned to each program, to aid in learning from the perspective of an alumni. And “bootcamp buddies” are assigned to new students to act as a point in contact for extra circular questions/life advice. Aiding in students taking control of their career, the curriculum is condensed and created to give students necessary skills to make it in the industry quickly.

04 Convergence:

  • Bringing Transformations together.
  • Rolling out product in full scale environment.


This is a mood board I designed based off insights from research, which is applied to one part of my solution - redesigning shelters for women fleeing domestic violence.

Convergence is the final step in the Systematic Approach to Design process. Here is where I creatively blended insights I collected from research, divergent, and transformation.

I solved the wicked problem of empowering women to flee domestic violence using Integrative Thinking — the ability to constructively use the tension between opposing models to generate a creative resolution. There are 3 types of Integrative Thinking, and I worked with the las approach called Hidden Gem Integration. I found this approach useful because in divergence I landed on truly opposing models that didn’t really fit together to come up with a solution. However I did like small pieces of what each model incorporated.

The pieces I took from divergence were:

  • You can empower people by creating a community that gives back/supports one another - Taddy Blecher’s school.
  • You can encourage distigmatizing areas in pain by encouraging open and healthy conversation about the area publicly - Sick Boy Podcast.
  • If we change our natural sentence structure to move away from victim blaming, we can inspire new ways of thought - Julia Penelope.

My Solution:

From research I found areas of the problem that really make domestic violence a lot more wicked. These are the problem areas I addressed:

  • We as a society aren’t talking about domestic violence.
  • There isn’t enough safe housing, women are being turned away from shelters.
  • Women in general don’t feel or believe they deserve better lives, and stay in abusive relationships.
  • Stigma around the problem blocks women from empowering other women.
  • Programs to help women gain education and employment are offered in shelters. These programs are not successful because they are not well funded by the government.

Solution Part One:


When we talk about this issue we remove the dominant group (John/men) from the conversation completely. We’re geared as humans to ask questions and asking questions is really good in this case. Although we’re not asking the right questions because we’ve removed John completely out of the conversation.

I have designed a series of posters for public transit commissions to post on bus shelters and in vehicles. The purpose of this campaign is to draw attention to the problem. My secondary intentions with this advertisement campaign is to remove stigma, and show women they deserve to live life away from abuse.

I decided to make it an advertisement because I know from my persona creation, that social media campaigns are not successful. Abusers often isolate their victims, no phones/ no social media. Or if the abuser hasn’t isolated their victim, they check their victims search history/phone activity. This type of control is very dangerous for victims. However if they see a sign, their abuser can’t control that. And seeing a sign that addresses their living situation, could encourage victims to acknowledge they do deserve to live life away from abuse.

Taking from the Sick Boy podcast in the divergence phase, I was inspired by their openness to talk about illness. I transformed this inspiration into a phrase “Let’s talk about it” and added it to the end of each poster. My intention for this was to invite people to talk about the poster they saw on their commute with someone they know If we talk about it we can remove stigma around the issue together. Secondly I was really inspired by the linguist Julia Penelope’s work. So I brought our natural sentence structure to the posters i created to showcase how the abuser shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.

The design of the posters:

  • The posters needed to be bold to draw attention to themselves.
  • The content design is short so it’s easier to read and digest.
  • Bold fonts with high contrasting colours aids in legibility.

Solution Part Two:

A community of women helping women fleeing abusive relationships + Shelter Redesign

My goals for the community and shelter are to never turn women away. As well as providing a space where women can learn new skills to ensure they’re successful after fleeing and not return to their abusers.

The community:

Taking from Taddy Blecher’s school - students after graduation empowering potential students to pursue education by paying the tuition for them. I transformed that idea into a system so shelters never have to turn away women fleeing. My idea is once a woman is out of the shelter and has successfully gained employment and a new residence she can apply to house the next woman seeking shelter. The applicant would go through a throughout security screening process of course, but once she passes she can open up her home to other woman in the community. If shelter is at capacity when a woman arrives seeking shelter, the shelter can put the call out to available spaces within the community.

Furthering transformation design, this solution picks from HackerYou’s “Bootcamp Buddy” model. For the woman fleeing, living with another woman who has made it out of the sam struggles could be comforting.

This solution could help in heightening security for the woman fleeing. Research proves that if an abuser finds his victim after she has fled, it could result in a fatal consequence. Some shelters are nondescript, and only release their address to those who need it. However moving into someone else house could make it even harder for the abuser to find his victim.

The Shelter Redesign:

This is definitely a secondary solution, creating a more supportive community being the first. From interviewing a woman who works at the Redwood Shelter ( a shelter for woman fleeing domestic violence in Toronto) I learnt that shelters are really doing all they can with the limited support they have from the government.

I did some research and designed some things that could the women’s expierence at shelters.

Private Rooms:

  • Residents would have privacy by having exclusive access to a fob to grant entry into their private rooms.
  • Rooms would be interior decorated to have a more home like atmosphere, rather than looking like a dorm room.
  • Panic Buttons will be located in each residence, so the residence has added security and control over their living quarters.
  • Larger rooms for women who have children, and designated areas in the rooms for the woman to play with their children. This is important so the woman can feel like she is independently raising her children.
  • Bright lit rooms, with highly secured windows. Natural light boosts mental health, and improves productivity.
  • A thermostat in each residence in which residents can control. Depression, and anxiety disorders drastically change peoples body temperatures.
     Communal Space:
  • Areas around the space where people can retreat to, outside of private rooms. This allows residents to feel safe and that they have some control over what they participate in or not.
  • A garden — “horticultural therapy”. Gardening boosts self esteem, and even improves heart health. It’s an activity that all ages can participate in, and helps mothers connect to their children.
  • An easy-to-navigate environment, this particularly important for people who are anxious, depressed, or in crisis.
  • Laundry needs to be at easy access.
  • Kitchen stocked with nutrient rich foods.
  • Comfortable group session spaces - a place to host talks and group conversations fostering community participation.
  • Classrooms.
  • An area that is open to the public and away from the privacy of it’s residents. This will help build a bond with the outside community and help remove stigmas of shelters.

Programs for Residents:

  • Lessons for therapy or self expression - painting, pottery, photography, writing, or guitar lessons.
  • Trade College Tuition
  • Coding / Programming Skills
  • Talks by previous residents

Future Considerations:

To be honest the hardest part in solving this wicked problem was acknowledging the lack of support from the government for shelters.

From an interview I had with a Social Worker at the Redwood Shelter in Toronto:

“Funding isn’t just a municipal issue. And if we can improve funding [provided by the government] we can improve so much more about our shelter. But we’re feeling the pressure of coming up with quantitive data to give to the government, to prove we’re doing good work. Tell me, how do you put on a number on a woman's mental state, and the amount of work we’ve invested in her to bring her self esteem up so she doesn’t return to her abuser?”

The federal government organized a budget and released this information in March of 2016, saying it will spend almost $90 million over the next two years in construction and renovation of shelters and transition homes.

So this means a few things: 1. Rural areas around our country can now afford to build shelters. 2. And much older existing shelters can get a bit of a face lift.

The problems we’re still faced with are:

  • How do we fund support of current residents transition through the system?
  • How are we going to afford to keep the lights on, and manage the basic necessities of these new shelters?

So the next steps would be to research and understand how voting effects change in funding in specific areas. As well as find a way to push the government to change policies, and fund shelters for women fleeing domestic violence.