Many times design is referred to as “Problem Solving”, sometimes by seasoned designers. But how true is such an expression? While this is often a metaphorical expression meant to point out the main focus of design as functionality and meeting specific needs, such an oversimplification overlooks aspects of process, strategy and methods whose individual direct results are not the actual solutions to specific problems, but are iteratively interconnected in a loop of “design thinking”.
In the context of design, we can define a problem as a situation or situations where you have the opportunity to make a positive difference, and problem solving as the efforts to change that situation (actual state of things) into the desired situation in future (goal).
It follows that, problem solving can only be approached as a stage in the design process, and its preceded by other activities like identifying the problem and supported by actions like formulating methods and strategies, testing solutions and monitoring performance, all of which are elements of the greater design umbrella.
Global Problem Solving Vs. Local Problems
Other than in the brief, where the global problem is established, there are local problems which are “barriers” or issues to be overcome for the product, service or system to achieve its goal. These barriers make the distance between the current state of things and the desired results, which is for the design to actually work. So, sometimes problem solving can be viewed as each individual effort that is made in overcoming each of these barriers e.g. a product shape that increases the cost of production, a screen with too much information, a database with slow queries or a brand that lacks adequate contrasts on a background. These local problems can be solved or overcome, but do not alone lead to the completion of the global problem defined in the briefing, whose solution is continuous and iterative rather than systematic.
Specificities Of Problem Solving
Designers don’t get to be told: “This is the problem to be solved” by the users, but instead are confronted with the reality of frustrated users running in to non-completely articulated or defined problems in their interaction with products or systems. It is from the points of frustration that the designer visualizes the inherent problem and look for opportunities to meet still unexpressed needs.
For design goals to be achieved, specific fixed requirements or constraints have to be put in place. However, freezing the constraints does not narrow the problem, but only establishes a convenient model of the problem which can be used for testing of solutions.
Therefore, problem solving in design just covers aspects of facilitating removal of the barriers encountered in the way towards achieving the design goals. Determining what are the real problems is characteristic of design and various methods are employed to redefine the problems and find solutions.