Fil Salustri's Design Site

Site Tools


Table of Contents

Design as Problem-Solving

What is the difference between designing and problem-solving?

Designing is often described as a kind of problem solving ([PB88] [Dor96a]).

  • The dictionary defines a problem as “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome; a thing that is difficult to achieve or accomplish.”
  • Synonyms from the thesaurus include “difficulty, trouble, worry, complication, difficult situation.”

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, includes this definition:

  • “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. It occurs if an organism or an artificial intelligence system does not know how to proceed from a given state to a desired goal state. It is part of the larger problem process that includes problem finding and problem shaping.”
  • The entry also refers to many problem solving techniques commonly associated with designing: means-end analysis, brainstorming, morphological boxes, lateral thinking, analogy, abductive reasoning, and so on.

We cannot think of a situation where designing occurs but problem solving does not occur.

  • It is easy to think of Simon's seeking of preferred situations as equivalent to problem solving: the problem is to find the preferred situation.
  • Problem solving can also include discovering or deciding how to solve the problem.
    • This is consistent with Simon's devising courses of action.
  • In virtually any discipline, one can argue that problem solving is fundamental.
    • For instance, the artist’s problem is to create a form or expression that appropriately captures the emotion, idea, or thought that the artist feels the need to express.

On the other hand, not all problem solving is designing.

  • For example, finding the roots of a quadratic equation a problem that students have to solve, although there is clearly no designing happening.

So as a kind of problem solving, designing only applies to some kinds of problems.

  • While there may be others, the authors think that a distinctive problem type is a wicked problem, defined as follows [Con05]:
    1. The problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution.
    2. Stakeholders have radically different world-views and different frames for understanding the problem.
    3. Constraints and resources to solve the problem change over time.
    4. The problem is never solved.
  • These are all also typical characteristics of design problems.
    • But not every design problem necessarily satisfies all of these characteristics.
  • One could possibly measure the degree of wickedness of a design problem by noting the extent to which these characteristics are exhibited by the design problem.

So, we propose that wickedness can distinguish designing from problem solving in general.

  • The boundary layer between problem solving and designing is the region in which wickedness vanishes.
  • It can vanish slowly - one characteristics at a time - and this is the thickness of the layer.
  • Note: this means that all wicked problems are solved by designing.

See Also


[PB88]. G. Pahl and W Beitz. 1988. Engineering Design: A Systematic Approach. Springer-Verlag.
[Dor96a]. D. Dorner. 1996. The logic of failure. Metropolitan Books, New York.
[Con05]. J. Conklin. 2005. Dialogue Mapping: building shared understanding of wicked problems. John Wiley & Sons, New York. (link)
research/designing_as_problem-solving.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)