Design and the Difficulties of Complex Problem-Solving

by Jaime Krakowiak & Diana Griffin

Interconnected. Globalized. Complex. These words describe not only our contemporary world and the systems we’ve developed to deal with it, but also, equally, the problems that plague it. As these problems increase in scope and impact, we struggle to redefine them, to pin them down so that we can get to work on solving them. Increasingly, however, we have been forced to recognize that such problems are by definition indefinite and ‘unpindownable’. These complex problems pose particular challenges for design—a discipline widely understood as an approach to solving problems. Complex problems may, in fact, be unsolvable; the difficulties they present in their mutability, messiness, and expansiveness must be addressed by creative insights applied strategically on a scale that design is currently unequipped to carry out. It will require a fundamental shift in society’s understanding and perception of design, brought about by a shift in the understanding and perception of their role by designers themselves.

The complexity of contemporary problems was already being expressed four decades ago by theorists such as Herbert Simon, who compared well- and ill-structured problems, while Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber formulated a definition of wicked problems that would later be taken up by Richard Buchanan. Their definitions of ill-structured and wicked problems overlap in the shared recognition that these kinds of problems are elusive, mutable, and confusing—resisting definition because their definition is constantly shifting. Buchanan sums up this issue as one of indeterminacy: where determinate (well-structured) problems have definite, identifiable conditions, the conditions of indeterminate (ill-structured, wicked) problems are fluid and unfixed. Like liquid mercury, these problems can be made to appear solid and bounded when considered from outside or applied with artificially structured definitions, but any attempt to intervene reveals their amorphous nature as they slide, shift and reform, avoiding imposed solutions. In the course of these amoebic changes, a complex problem often merges boundaries with neighbouring problems, so that the systems surrounding each become messily entangled. And in a world of globalized systems, such shifting, tangled problems quickly expand their reach to a scope previously unimaginable.

Imagine trying to solve such a big, messy, shifting problem. What does it take? For Simon, it simply requires enough information from long-term memory (experience), instructions (strategy), and the external world (context), in order to create a well-structured problem out of one aspect of a larger ill-structured problem. What this computational theory fails to account for, however, is the ability to then make the connection from one well-structured aspect to another. How does the problem-solver move from one stepping stone to the next when, in a complex problem, the shape and position of each step is fluid and changing? In the context of design as a problem-solving activity, the ability to make such leaps comes from creative insight.

Philip Johnson-Laird in his essay “The Structure of Problems” begins from the Gestalt definition of insight as “a creative process… that depends on a sudden restructuring (UmstruktuierWlg) or recentring (Umzentrierung) of the perceptual field” (4). Note that he calls it a process; insight is not just the “Eureka!” moment, it also includes the strategic process that enables that sudden flash of understanding. By undertaking this process, which according to Johnson-Laird consists of mechanisms that form tactics, that in turn form strategies, one can develop the range of experience that informs and enables a sudden restructuring of perception, that is, insight. That insight can then become a mechanism in the next cycle of the process, eventually fuelling further insights. Carrying out a cyclical strategy of creative thinking should then enable problem-solvers to make the connections between different aspects of a complex problem, thereby moving towards a solution. So why, then, are complex problems still unsolvable?

The answer to this question lies in a simple matter of practical limitations. Both Simon’s process for structuring ill-structured problems and Johnson-Laird’s development of a strategy for creative thinking rely on accumulating a wealth of experience to be applied and evaluated in the real-world context of a problem. That accumulation, application, and evaluation takes time—much more time than any single person, or even any one organization, can put in before the problem placement (in Buchanan’s terms, the tools “from which the designer fashions a working hypothesis suited to special circumstances” (18)) evolves beyond the current scope of the problem-solver. In short, there are not enough people working on these problems; we need more problem-solvers—more designers.

The problem of getting more designers may seem apparently simple—just train more designers—but it is itself a complex problem. In order to train more designers, there must be a three-part shift across society in the way that design is perceived and understood.

  1. A shift in design literacy. Chris Pacione, in his article “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy,” calls for a widespread increase in design literacy. He believes that ubiquitous design literacy will usher in a new age of innovative problem-solving, and makes reference more than once to the idea that ‘everyone can design’. A more precise statement is that everyone can understand design, or should be able to; everyone should learn the basic skill sets of design thinking, as they do the basic skill sets of scientific or mathematical thinking. By incorporating the skills of design literacy—creativity, empathy, abductive logic, and so forth—into our education system, everyone would have a stronger base of problem-solving skills, and more people would have the opportunity to pursue those skills to the level of rigor and expertise that defines a designer.
  2. A shift in design as a discipline. Before such utopic notions of widespread design literacy can find a grounding in reality, however, there must first be a shift in the perception of design’s role in our society. Educators and policy-makers will not see the value in incorporating design literacy into their curricula until it is accorded an equal value to the core disciplines of the arts and sciences. Buchanan claims that design is a new liberal art, an art of experimental thinking. As such, it belongs neither as a subset to the traditional liberal arts, nor to the sciences, but is a discipline of its own, on par with each. In order to facilitate design literacy as a tenet of education, design must first solidify its own legitimacy as a discipline and as a profession.
  3. A shift in what it means to be a designer. The first step in achieving this legitimacy is for designers in their own practices to define and accept the responsibility that accompanies the role of designer. Until designers consistently practice their craft with integrity—a recognition of the consequences of their work, and a sense of responsibility for those consequences—design will not be respected as a discipline. Designers, on an individual level as well as collectively, must approach their work with serious intention before design will be taken seriously outside of the profession. Designers must imbue design with substance, and value that substance as much as its trappings of cleverness and aesthetics, before design will be seen as substantial and accorded value in the wider world.



To the uninitiated “design” refers to the narrow technical and creative process used to produce something: a piece of furniture, a website, a garment. To interactive designers it is a much broader and more complex process. In order to achieve the desired widespread literacy and legitimacy designers will have to find ways to inform and educate the public, educators and policy makers.

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