Earlier today I received back from an editor the revised version of an article I have in the works. Whilst reviewing the changes I came across the following comment in amongst the annotations: Design is not a “problem-solving technique”...
I completely disagree with this statement. At least, I disagree with it's generality. Design might not only be... or you might say that it is at least in part an approach to problem-solving. To dismiss the role of design in solving problems seems wildly revisionist at best, and blind to the growing application of design in business and government to the solution of complex, knotty problems.
But it raised the question of: what do I mean by 'problem-solving'? in order to argue whether or not design is, or isn't a problem-solving technique.
So, let's start with a broad definition of 'problem-solving' as given at wikipedia.org. "Problem solving is a mental process and is part of the larger problem
process that includes problem finding and problem shaping. Considered the most complex of all intellectual
functions, problem solving has been defined as higher-order cognitive process that requires the modulation
and control of more routine or fundamental skills.
Problem solving occurs when an organism
or an artificial intelligencesystem
needs to move from a given state to a desired goal state."
The initial phases of a design project focus on the problem finding, through design research and analysis. Problem finding, also according to Wikipedia can be described as: Problem finding means problem discovery. It is part of the larger
problem process that includes problem shaping and problem solving. Problem finding requires intellectual
vision and insight into what is missing. This involves the application
Problem shaping, on the other hand, "means revising a question so that the solution
process can begin or continue. It is part of the larger problem process
that includes problem finding and problem solving. Problem shaping (or problem framing) often
involves the application of critical thinking."
If we look at design again, the early stages involve "Exploring possibilities and constraints by
focusing critical thinking skills to research and define problem spaces
for existing products or services—or the creation of new
Obviously, in the various forms of design - graphic, interior, interaction, industrial, etc - the medium through which the movement from given state to desired goal state occurs varies. In graphic design the focus is on the use of visual communication; industrial design has a focus on form. The given state and goal state will also influence the most appropriate choice of design method. In the case of interaction design, we're applying our design techniques to shift behaviour from a current state to that desired future state, and we do that through the design of a single, or series of interactions.
Clearly, to me at least, design fits the description for a technique which can be applied to solving problems. More than that, the application of design to solving problems is occuring every day, in thousands of studios and organizations around the world.