Solving Complex Problems
Steve Baty | Meld Studios | firstname.lastname@example.org
3. Handling ambiguity
through multiplicity and the
suspension of judgment;
4. Critique; and
[ 1] http://en.wikipedia.
lem/; See also
Buchanan, R. http://
September + October 2010
[ 2] Kolko, J. Method
of Design Synthesis.
Oxford University Press,
in press. http://www.
What is it about design that
makes it so well suited to solving complex problems? Why is
design thinking such a promising avenue for business and
government tackling seemingly
Design is a broad arena of
activity with a rich history,
developed theory, and passionate practitioners. It encompasses a myriad of techniques,
tools, philosophies, and craft.
At least in part, design can be
seen as an approach to solving
problems and in that guise has
several fundamental qualities—
as a practice and as a mind-set—that make it effective in
the face of complicated issues.
Better suited, in fact, than analytical approaches grounded in
a scientific mode of observe,
hypothesize, test, iterate. While
analytical approaches are
excellent at driving operational
improvements in efficiency and
optimizing processes, and the
like—they are poorly suited to
bridging the chasms that open
up in the face of disruptive
technological, social, and political change.
A complex problem is typical-
ly characterized by a system of
causal relationships wherein the
effect of a change in one part of
the system may have long-term
and difficult-to-predict con-
sequences. Such problems are
often “chaotic” in the sense that
small changes can have large
impacts, and large changes may
have little or no impact at all.
Design is most notably associated with abductive thinking
and synthesis—the leap of
insight that pulls together two
seemingly disconnected ideas
and demonstrates a powerful connection. But equally
valuable is the ability to look
at the components of a problem space—the physical,
financial, social, or systemic
constraints—in isolation and
critically examine them.
This quality is at the heart
of the designer’s ability to set
aside constraints, to think
beyond the problem as it
has been defined, and open
up avenues for discovery
and exploration that would
otherwise remain closed.
(Taking advantage of those
avenues relies on the abductive thinking and synthesis
skills we will discuss here.)
Deconstruction provides the
framework for asking “what
might be?” by isolating the components that make up what is.
It is, in part, a process of asking whether something must
necessarily be. It is the vehicle
through which design challenges assumptions and tacit