In conversation with Molly Steenson about her class at Carnegie Mellon, the idea of “design as problem-solving” came up, and I told her that problem-solving makes me angry. She naturally asked why.

Shortly after, a conversation with Jared Spool led to For an Edge Condition, Seeing the Problem is a Problem.

This comes up over and over again in the classroom and in client situations. So I thought I should make myself clear….

For an updated and more studied take on this, see Hugh Dubberly’s piece, Why we should stop describing design as “problem solving.”

My problem with problems

My complaint: when you set out to look for problems, problems is all you’ll find. When we set out to produce solutions, we tend to narrow our field of view in a way that makes us blind to underlying causes, and blind to the seeds of something better that already exist in the situation. They offer the chance to feed the possibilities, which is much different than fixing the problems.

The problems with “problems”

  • Applying cause and effect analysis in complex emergent situations, where the past cannot be used to predict the future, and where a more “True” picture would come from lenses of systemic emergence and/or cultural patterns and social practices.
  • Applying artificially shallow assumptions about human experience and behavior.
  • Either ignoring the question of system boundaries, or drawing artificial boundaries (“Billy is a bad kid” vs. “This family system has some troubling dynamics” or “Something is up with the population of kids Billy’s age in this community.”)
  • Focusing on “what’s broken and needs fixing” or “what’s harmful and needs to stop” causes possibility-blindness.

The problems with “solutions”

  • Complex situations famously and fundamentally absorb interventions into their own ongoing dynamics, so that “solutions” either have no effect on the system’s self-reinforcing patterns, or become a new part of those patterns, often producing surprising side-effects. “The solution becomes the new problem.”
  • In practice, solution-seeking very often leads to symptom relief rather than addressing the underlying dynamics.
  • Solutions often create or reinforce systemic dependency on outside problem-solvers.
  • Solutions are often heavy with the cultural baggage of the solution-designer, explicitly or tacitly injecting foreign values into the world of the people who must live with the solution.

What to do instead?

Here is a paragraph from Tsungjuang Wang’s article, A new paradigm for design studio education, that makes the point clear. (He cites Alain Findeli’s article, Rethinking design education for the 21st century.) Emphasis is mine.

“Alain Findeli asserts that design education is currently undergoing a paradigm shift that promises to revolutionize the field by articulating both a new methodology and a new end for realizing design projects. According to this author, design education is still conducted under the epistemological paradigm of positivism that is central to the university model of education.

Thus, a project in a design studio is presented as a problem that needs to be solved. The solution is identified and the project becomes the rational or causal link. Findeli believes that the entire design project needs to be conceived in a different way. Instead of a problem and a solution, there would be a system as it now exists and a system as it might exist in the future. The design would not be an application of art or science but an introduction of art or science to the system, resulting in a mutual change in both the art or science and the system. The role of the designer would be to understand the system and to work with it, not against it, for change.”

We need to expand our kit of approaches

  • Find the positive deviants, and help the community adopt their behaviors. Many situations include people who are “doing better” even though they share the same circumstances as everyone else. A little dose of process and capacity-building can help everyone else see what they’re doing differently and adopt it for themselves. (See for case stories in many different domains.)
  • Inventory the possibilities and gifts latent in the situation, and help people learn how to express and activate them(capacity-building approaches in international and organizational development reach for this, but my favorite manifesto for this idea is Peter Block’s Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community).
  • Notice patterns in people’s stories that signal a more desirable “adjacent future,” and probe for ways to attract more stories like those, and fewer stories of the negative status quo. Dave Snowden’s recent TEDx talk gives a nice summary of this idea.
  • Seek out ways in which the current situation is already pregnant with its own future. As John Thackara is fond of saying, “What needs to happen is already happening.” As dissatisfaction with the current paradigm / patterns / situation grows, people jump off and start pioneering their way into something better. No one can tell what it’s eventually going to look like, but these pioneering explorations are the “hopeful monsters” which can eventually grow to displace the old paradigm. They are born out of the lived experience of the situation rather than some kind of “innovation process.” They just need care, feeding, connection, support, and visibility.
  • Grow our understanding of how change actually happens, at system, group, and individual scales. Lasting positive change in the patterns of life rarely happens because a team of smart people launched their “solution to the problem” into the middle of it all. I don’t have a single link to offer here, but aim to offer more in the future. As food for thought, here is Guy Debord’s Perspectives for Conscious Alterations in Everyday Life in case you have academic tastes, and here is a plain language description of Social Practice Theory from The Guardian.

The more I spend time with other views and approaches, the more a problem-solution approach seems small, inadequate, impoverished, unlikely to foster the change we intend, more likely to simply put a new shine on the old status quo.


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Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design

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Marc Rettig

Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design