Mitigating complex problems through the language of design

Our final assignment for the first quarter is to describe the difficulties in solving complex problems. For those super-complex problems we affectionately refer to as “wicked problems,” there seem to be an endless amount of difficulties that continually shift as personal, cultural, and governmental environments are ever changing. 

Before getting into what Cheyenne and I would consider to be one of the main difficulties in solving complex problems, we have to start with the question, “Why does solving complex problems matter?” Even though the answer may seem obvious it is worth emphatically stating that complex problems are everywhere and they affect everyone, and as such we may, at best aim to mitigate rather than truly ‘solve’ them.

In looking at the seemingly infinite list of complex problems it is apparent that one of the main difficulties or hindrances to solutions being found is the lack of a common language among problem solvers.  This rest of this paper will provide an argument for what this common language could be and thoughts on how this language should be taught.

What should be the new “problem solving language?”
To quickly define our terms, language will refer to any set or system of signs, sounds, symbols, or gestures used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another.

And problem solvers will be individuals who devote cognitive, financial, time, and/or skill resources to solving a complex problem.

With these definitions in mind, let’s turn to identifying what this common language could be. Being students at the Austin Center for Design it may seem trite to say that design and design thinking could be this new problem solving language. However, when looking at the essence of both complex problems and the field/profession of design it seems to be a natural fit. In his article entitled, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Richard Buchanan positions design as “an integrated discipline of understanding, communication, and action,” with practitioners being tasked with deeply understanding the novel intricacies of a situation or problem as to create something that affects human experience for the better. Since wicked problems are “complex”, and designers, according to Buchanan, are tasked with inventing new areas of expertise and understanding with each problem they have to solve, it makes sense that the language used in design could become the new language for solving, or mitigating complex problems. Chris Pacione of the Luma institute would most likely support this idea of design being a good candidate language of problem solving as he compares design literacy to math literacy in his article, Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy. Pacione asserts that concepts and skills such as inquiry, evaluation, ideation, sketching and prototyping as foundational for solving problems.

So if design is to be this new language for problem solvers, what should be the foundational symbols of communication for this language? In addition to having an understanding of inquiry, evaluation, ideation, sketching and prototyping (Pacione), Cheyenne and I feel that another critical component to being fluent/literate in design is having a solid understanding insight. Insight by both designers and non-designers alike can sometimes be viewed as this mystical “aha” moment designers get seemingly on a whim. In reality, insight can be cultivated and better understood through rigorous methods in the areas mentioned above (inquiry, evaluation, etc). This understanding of insight is critical, such that furthering literacy of insight methods is a crucial part of innovation and argumentation. In turn, strong innovation is key to finding solutions to complex problems.

How should we teach the language of design/design-thinking?
When looking at how to teach the language of design and design-thinking we need to ask ourselves what is the end goal of our educational efforts? Are we trying to make designers out of everyone or are we trying to facilitate dialogue and collaboration among designers and non-designers? Cheyenne and I would argue the latter to be the goal. In his article on wicked problems, Richard Buchannan contrasts specialist professions that exist in science with the more generalist profession of a designer who seeks to have a broad integrative understanding of many different fields. Based on our readings and the discussions we have had with guest lecturers it seems that this movement of design-education within organizations seeks in some ways to turn specialists into designers. Cheyenne and I wonder if there are better ways to go about widespread design-education as to maximize the skill sets of great designers and great specialists in the purpose of collaborating to solve complex problems.

One of the ideas that consistently surfaces as we discuss the idea of teaching design to outsiders in the context of intensive seminars or boot camps is the fear of teaching people just enough to unintentionally design something that does more harm than good. It seems that there is relative consensus among classmates and instructors that people become good designers through interactions and feedback with people who are better designers than they are. This generally occurs over a longer period.

Cheyenne and I feel that a different and possibly more effective approach to design education could be:

  1. Establish more institutions that create great designers
  2. Teach all problem solvers (everyone) the value and basic tenants of design and what makes a great designer
  3. Create better channels and methods for communication between designers and specialists
  4. Create spaces and roles for a team of designers to exist in organizations that currently do not have said team
  5. Create platforms for apprenticeship for designers working in environments where they feel like they have hit a professional wall
  6. Help designers themselves with the skills necessary for more effective external and transparent communication of insights and non-linear thinking.

We’ll let you all know what our fellow classmates and instructors think in a future blog post.