What is it about design that makes it so well suited to solving complex problems? Why is design thinking such a promising avenue for business and government tackling seemingly intractable problems?
Design is a broad arena of activity with a rich history, developed theory, and passionate practitioners. It encompasses a myriad of techniques, tools, philosophies, and craft. At least in part, design can be seen as an approach to solving problems and in that guise has several fundamental qualitiesas a practice and as a mind-setthat make it effective in the face of complicated issues. Better suited, in fact, than analytical approaches grounded in a scientific mode of observe, hypothesize, test, iterate. While analytical approaches are excellent at driving operational improvements in efficiency and effectivenessreducing waste, optimizing processes, and the likethey are poorly suited to bridging the chasms that open up in the face of disruptive technological, social, and political change.
A complex problem is typically characterized by a system of causal relationships wherein the effect of a change in one part of the system may have long-term and difficult-to-predict consequences. Such problems are often “chaotic” in the sense that small changes can have large impacts, and large changes may have little or no impact at all.
Complex problems can also arrive suddenly: the collapse of a currency; the global financial crisis; soaring oil prices; a natural disaster requiring urgent, coordinated action. A complex problem often involves ambiguity and requires a model as an approximation to the problem space. Unknowns are common, and the boundaries of the problem space are often ill defined. While “wicked problems”  are inherently complex, not all complex problems would be considered wicked.
The design of a manufacturing supply chain can be considered a complex problem influencing, and being influenced by, product design on the one hand; logistics and the drive for efficiency on the other. Similarly, the design of a freshwater solution for developing nations and remote communities is also complex.
What, then, characterizes design as an effective method for identifying, defining, and potentially solving such problems? These are:
- A deconstructionist perspective to the problem;
- Abductive thinking and synthesis beyond the problem’s definition;
- Handling ambiguity through multiplicity and the suspension of judgment;
- Critique; and
Design is most notably associated with abductive thinking and synthesisthe leap of insight that pulls together two seemingly disconnected ideas and demonstrates a powerful connection. But equally valuable is the ability to look at the components of a problem spacethe physical, financial, social, or systemic constraintsin isolation and critically examine them.
This quality is at the heart of the designer’s ability to set aside constraints, to think beyond the problem as it has been defined, and open up avenues for discovery and exploration that would otherwise remain closed. (Taking advantage of those avenues relies on the abductive thinking and synthesis skills we will discuss here.)
Deconstruction provides the framework for asking “what might be?” by isolating the components that make up what is. It is, in part, a process of asking whether something must necessarily be. It is the vehicle through which design challenges assumptions and tacit beliefs. And, in so doing, it lays the foundation for truly insightful synthesis to take place.
This form of thinking allows us to challenge the sacred cows of an industry. Should shareholder value trump worker rights in business? What would happen if all foreign debts were forgiven? Is the user always right, or are they sometimes selfish and misguided, and is this one of those times?
Deconstruction helps us to ask better research questions, thereby allowing us to learn things that may never have come to light. Knowing that an assumption is really an assumption provides for an opportunity to learn something critical.
Abduction and Synthesis
Of all the qualities of design, abductive thinking and synthesis are perhaps the most critical.
In synthesis we see the epitome of the breakthrough idea, the ability to pull together disconnected ideas and arrive at something new and meaningful: the folding bicycle, the bamboo computer case, public bike sharing, Zipcar.
Methods for encouraging and facilitating abductive thinking and synthesis are not well explored, but they do exist . They include the need for immersion in the problem spacethrough research, observation, and reflectionand a willingness to deliberately play with seemingly absurd connections.
To return to an earlier example, what if shareholders were viewed as capital service providers for workers? What if the enterprise were viewed as a collective endeavor with capital rated as one input with no greater importance than the knowledge and expertise of the workforce? How would that new conceptualization play out in areas like dividends and ownership, intellectual property, and organizational longevity?
By looking at a car with square wheels, engineers were forced to reinvent automobile suspension systems. The connection of absurd (on the surface) concepts led to breakthrough thinking in a problem space considered largely solved and resigned to incremental improvement, at best, by previous design teams.
And this is one of the most valuable applications of abductive thinkingto break new ground in areas thought previously to have been well and truly tapped out. For businesses this is a thoroughly intriguing idea: Instead of trying to expand and broaden their products and markets, the most profitable route is often to reconceive the problem.
Abductive thinking does not happen in isolation. Nor can it be turned on like a tap. When engaging in this activity, a lifetime of observation and experience is brought to bear. The designer practiced in this mode of thought may be capable of making such leaps of insight quickly and unconsciously, but there is no possible timetable for such activities.
Having seen my fill of project plans with “Synthesis: 2pm-5pm” on them, I remain convinced that this remains a poorly understood, but no less critical, quality of design.
Like all problem-solving ideologies, design attempts to ultimately arrive at a single solution. But design is inherently exploratory, baking in phases of generative, dispersive activities aimed at deriving a large set of possible solution paths followed by phases of reflection, critique, and testing to narrow and refine.
At each of the refinement phases, the aim is not to select a single “best bet,” but instead to choose the several most promising avenues of inquiry for further exploration. When designers are attempting to solve complex problems, the constant multiplicity of the design process helps them to avoid dead ends and anchoringthe psychological bias that can lead to purely derivative, rather than truly creative solutions.
Exploring a multiplicity of ideas in parallel helps the team to embrace ambiguity, work with assumptions and what-if scenarios, and make progress while further information is sought. Since complex problems are never completely well known, the ability to work with ambiguity and multiple, concurrent streams of ideas are a crucial quality in attempting to design a solution.
Hand in hand with the ability to reserve judgment and retain multiplicity is the need to critically review and assess concepts in a group environment.
In the face of complex problems, individuals or small teams will often break off during the generative phases to come up with ideas separately. The team will later reconvene to review and critique each idea.
Critique is one of the foundation skills of the design studio. It involves a number of different skills: setting aside ego, thinking critically, and offering language-neutral evaluation and feedback.
The aim of critique is to build up an idea, not shoot it down. Each concept represents a form of going out on a limb (or at least, it should) and good critiques will encourage innovative and disruptive thinking. Negativity, criticism, and “yes, but…” thinking serve only to reinforce safe ideas and lead to incrementalism in the concepts presented.
Design encourages disruptive thinkingwild leaps of insightthrough critique. As a team, individuals are able to safely explore ideas in the absence of ego and criticism.
An equally essential skill in critique is the ability to receive feedback and remain open, to avoid becoming defensive or taking the feedback personally. Learning and practicing critique early and often is one of the most valuable and unique qualities of designand designers.
Without critiquewithout a process of openly and honestly giving and receiving feedbackthe problem-solving process is more likely to degenerate in politics, overinvestment in bad ideas, and siloed thinking.
There is a growing trend in business to understand customers. And in many respects, good marketing has, for the better part of 50 years, been aimed at gaining a better understanding of the people who will ultimately use the products and services that a business or organization chooses to offer. This understanding is typically a projection outward from the organization, looking at motivations, behaviors, and needs as an influence to purchasing.
Design, by comparison, attempts to gain understanding of the customer from the perspective of the customer. Design aims to look back at the organization, its products and services, through the eyes of the people for whom those products and services are being designed.
This understanding, or empathy, is important for several reasons, but most notably: It allows for the design of products and services that are truly meaningful, and it affords the organization an opportunity to see itself as others see it, allowingshould it choosefor a critical reflection on its own role and value in the lives of its customers to take place.
Empathy enriches the solution with an understanding of the context of a problem, the setting in which it occursthe distractions, the disruptions, technology, importance, and place within the broader setting of the person’s life. In so doing, empathy enables the problem to be more broadly defined, which in turn provides opportunity for the problem itself to be reframed.
Let me touch on two common characteristics of design that do not appear in the above list: observation, or research more broadly; and iteration.
Design is underpinned by the designer’s ability to not only look, but also to see. To look at a group of adults talking in a bar and see an opportunity to change behaviors; to look at a child engrossed in a game and see “flow.” The act of observation is not unique to design or design thinking, and design research is not the sole domain of the designer. It is in the seeing, in the sense-making, and in the questioning of what is observed that design sets itself apart.
Researchers, academics, marketers, and engineers all look around themselves to gather information. They measure, study, and observe. The distinguishing quality of design lies not in this act of looking but in the perspective gaineda perspective firmly rooted in the shoes of the customer. And the answer to understanding that distinction lies not in the observation, but in the first two qualities noted abovedecon-struction and synthesis.
The second missing characteristic is iteration. Whether sketching or prototyping, design processes are inherently iterative. But iteration is a fundamental component of most generative and creative endeavors. An engineer designing a bridge or a ship will iterate through many, many revisions. A scientist will test and revise his or her hypothesis; a management consultant will explore iterations of a business model.
A lifetime ago, as a consultant statistician, I remember developing, testing, and discarding dozens of models for how a new transit option in Sydney would affect ticket sales on public transport.
Iteration is everywhere. It is in the parallel exploration of a multiplicity of ideasand the resultant power of that explorationthat design lends itself to solving complex problems.
Design is, at heart, an approach to solving problems. In particular, design is well suited to the solution of problems for which there is no incremental, step-wise path. Complex problems require an approach that decries constraints and linear improvement, looking instead to make intuitive leaps and arrive at breakthrough solutions.
The qualities of design described here allow for these intuitive leaps to take place through the application of synthesis and abductive thinking. They allow for constraints to be tested and discarded through the application of deconstruction. They allow for ambiguity to be embraced and explored through a process that inherently supports multiplicity, and also through critique. And they allow for an understanding of the end recipient of the products and services under design to provide opportunities to reframe, broaden, and define the problem in ways that lead to more meaningful solutions for those recipients.
These qualitiesdeconstructionism, abduction and synthesis, multiplicity, critique, and empathyare not the sum total of design. At the same time, there is also a designer to take into consideration. So while these qualities of design make it well suited to solving particular types of problems, the depth and extent to which these qualities reside in the designer also form a critical factor in the success or failure of a project.
But in the same way that the existence of good and bad engineers does not stop engineering from being an excellent approach to solving particular types of problems, the existence of good and bad designers does not stop these qualities of design from being particularly relevant in the solution of complex issues.
I would like to thank my colleague and friend Janna DeVylder for her help in clarifying the ideas contained in this article and Todd Warfel for reviewing and providing feedback on the article during its development.
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem/; See also Buchanan, R. http://research.informatics.buffalo.edu/Faculty/Scott/INF420/down-loads/Readings/2-What%20is%20HCI/Wicked%20Problems_excerpt.pdf/
2. Kolko, J. Method of Design Synthesis. Oxford University Press, in press. http://www.methodsofsynthesis.com/
Steve Baty is principal of Meld Studios, a Sydney-based design studio. He is a strategist with more than 14 years of commercial experience working with major Australian and international brands on strategy and design, including Westpac, Qantas, Telstra, oneworld, YHA Australia, Harvey World Travel, Panasonic Australia, Maersk Line, youship, NSW Department of Education and Training, Department for the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, FujiXerox, and the Australian Museum. Baty serves as the vice president of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and chair of Interaction 12, the IxDA’s annual conference. He is an editor and contributor to Johnny Holland magazine (www.johnny-holland.org); and a contributor to UX Matters magazine (www.uxmatters.com). In addition, he is the founder of UX Book Club, and co-organizer of UX Australia. Baty holds a master’s in eCommerce and an MBA from the Macquarie Graduate School of Management and a B.S.in mathematics from UTS. He likes to fish, but doesn’t get to very often.
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