Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design

Thomas Wendt

The current global crisis highlights the need for new ways of thinking about futures outside the bounds of rationalist thinking, scientific instrumentalization, and global capitalism. It seems quite obvious that the same rationalist thinking that resulted to the current crisis will not be sufficient to counteract it. So what are the new skills designers need to navigate complexity toward more sustainable futures?

This talk will argue that metis, or the use of cunning intelligence to adapt to unforeseen variables, is one of the most important, albeit underdeveloped, skills for designers working on future scenarios. Metis is often associated with trickster archetypes from Greek mythology, such as Prometheus and Hermes, to modern fictional characters such as Pozzo from Waiting for Godot or Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to real individuals such as The Situationists and (arguably) 4chan trolls. All of these figures are characterized by their ability to act without planning, to adapt to a multitude of potential situations, comfort with not knowing the future, and the ability to provoke—often through the use of pranks, propaganda, and direct intervention—for the purpose of presenting alternate ways of thinking about the future.

As designers working on issues as large as climate change, social justice, and crumbling civilization. the use of cunning intelligence to adapt to changing circumstances and cleverly outsmart power forces working against them becomes increasingly important. Logic, reason, and rationalism will simply not suffice to resist unsustainability.

The trouble with cunning intelligence, however, is that it is often positions itself as ethically neutral. The trickster lacks concern with the the future, and thus is not bothered with whether an action is right or wrong but only with whether it sustains existence or intervenes on an established belief that needs rethinking. So in addition to exploring the role of cunning intelligence for complex design challenges, I will also formulate a means for articulating the use of metis in sustainable, responsible ways. Examples of cunning in action will be pulled from both active design projects and theory.

Material for this presentation is based on research completed for my second book, Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design.


Thomas Wendt is an independent design strategist, author, facilitator, activist, educator, and speaker based in New York City. He splits his time between client engagements and independent scholarship.

His client work includes building sustainable human-centered design capabilities through workshops, training programs, and coaching, along with projects encompassing early stage design research, co-design, and service design. Thomas has worked with clients ranging from large companies to nonprofits and activist groups.

Thomas’ books include Design for Dasein: Understanding the Design of Experiences and Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design. In his spare time, he enjoys escaping to a remote cabin in the woods whenever possible, single malt scotch, and practicing yoga.