Design is not problem solving
New visions call the old paradigm into question
Charles Eames, besides being one of the most recognised and influential designers of the twentieth century, was also a poetry lecturer at Harvard for some time. The legendary interview  he gave in 1972 on the occasion of the Qu’est’ ce que le design? exhibition still holds his fascinating intensity and powerful poetic expression more than forty years later. During that conversation, Eames explained his views on many aspects on the nature of Design and Design Thinking that are still discussed today. One of the most interesting statements refers to the boundaries of design:
— What are the boundaries of design?—Madame Amic asked. Eames replied:
— What are the boundaries of problems?
Charles Eames was a pragmatic revolutionary: He was deeply convinced that designing was primarilysolving problems. Along with his wife and partner, Ray, they created some of last century’s flagshipproducts under this motto. «We are not artists, we solve problems», they said.
But, what is a design problem? In his book Da cosa nasce cosa, versatile designer Bruno Murani explained his ideas on the matter in 1981. Guided by the rigid and dogmatic Cartesian method, he systematically analysed designers’ process from the moment they address a functional problem until they devise a material solution. «Designing is easy when you know how to do it. Everything is easy when you know what to do to get to the solution of a problem», he said. Considering that any cookbook is a design methodology book, and taking a green rice recipe as an example, Munari placed problems at the origin of a linear design process. «The projective method –Munari explained– simply consists of a number of required operations, arranged in a logical order dictated by experience. His aim is to achieve maximum results with minimum effort». His book soon became a guide for a whole generation of designers and one of the key elements for the development and dissemination of projective culture in the late twentieth century.
Since then, design has been enriched with a number of conceptual and methodological tools to identify, characterise and solve human problems. A number of observation and analysis methods imported from anthropology, psychology or social sciences have allowed to place the person at the centre and make empathy a key aspect of the process. A determined holistic, collaborative approach has allowed to redefine problems more broadly, thus facilitating connections and intermingling.
The sequential processed proposed by Munari has finally given way to an iterative and cyclical journey that encourages learning and allows to correct errors in focus. Thanks to this, design has successfully become the ultimate activity to solve human problems.
«Designing —as industrial designer José Manuel Mateo explained— is only about constantly solving problems from the particular to the general and viceversa». Is this the key area of focus around which all our work should revolve? The distinguished engineer and designer Sir James Dyson has no doubts in this regard. «Our mission is simple —he said— we solve problems that others seem to ignore». For a large number of designers, engineers or marketers, problems lie at the origin and ultimate end of all design activities. «Designing is not inventing but solving» prominent communication expert Norberto Chaves recently said.
Other authors qualify these statements by saying that designing is not only about solving problems but also about identifying, defining, characterising or structuring problems, to name only but a few of the activities mentioned. «Your goal is to be a problem finder, not just a problem solver», creativity expert Keith Sawyer explained. But this approach does not affect the core of the issue: problems have been at the forefront of design activities for almost fifty years.
However, a number of reputable voices are calling attention to the fragility of this vision and the risks involved in identifying design with problem-solving. The prestigious curator of MoMa’s Department of Architecture and Design in New York, Paola Antonelli, said that methodological common slogans like “form follows function” and “design is problem solving” «have been responsible for a great deal of soulless design and architecture». Designer and typographer Matthew Butterick expressed this idea with the same forcefulness: «Solving problems is the lowest form of design».
Designers, like the rest of humanity, do not just solve problems: we are fascinated by problems. We are so passionate about them that we often cannot escape their spell. In a famous experiment  carried out in 1999, doctors in Psychology Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris showed the limitations of human perception when faced with a problem. In this study, they showed a group of volunteers in a short video where two basketball teams dressed in white or black passed a ball to each other. Before starting, the subjects were asked to solve a simple problem: How many passes does the team in white make? At one point, an actor dressed up in a gorilla costume came on scene and, after making a few grins, left the court. Virtually all respondents successfully solved the problem but, rather surprisingly, 50% of participants said they had not seen a gorilla, and even accused researchers of having changed the video when it was shown a second time.
The experiment, popularly known as “the invisible gorilla”, shows the power of problems to capture our attention and make us blind to any event that goes beyond its dynamics. It may seem ironic, but the fact is that the better the counting, the less likely it is to notice the gorilla’s appearance. How can we adopt a holistic view and keep people in the centre of the process, if the search for a solution captures all our cognitive resources? «The field of consciousness —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said— is tiny. It accepts only one problem at a time».
Building on a growing number of field studies, many cognitive researchers argue that design is a richer and more complex concept than just problem-solving. Now we know that designing involves solving problems but it does not mean solving problems. Design as a creative activity should not focus on avoiding undesirable states but on opening up new possibilities in real life, which is radically different. It is not a question of undergoing the problems of a dysfunctional, uncomfortable and overwhelming reality, but of creating a unique possibility in it. «Inventing possibilities —philosopher José Antonio Marina said— is a task inherent in a creative intelligence».
A large number of designers have abandoned the old problem-centred paradigm to focus on design as an exploratory activity of new possibilities. A process geared not towards finding solutions but towards creating cultural proposals capable of transforming reality.
In an ambiguous and changing world, deeply influenced by uncertainty and crisis, identifying and solving problems is no longer helpful to us. New creative actors in the 21st century must cease to be merely problem solvers to become visionary researchers, explorers of new opportunities. Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction –Quentin Tarantino’s famous film– finally became a new Doctor Livingston, an explorer open to discovering creative and hidden possibilities at the boundaries of problems. The new task of designers is no longer to solve problems but perhaps to discover gorillas. Design is again a beautiful metaphor for the humanity’s condition.
Carlos Alonso Pacual
Published in Proyecta56.
 “What is design?” interview of 1972 with L. Amic that served as a basis of the exhibition with the same name, published in: Neuhart, John & Marilyn; Eames, Ray, Eames design, The work of the office of Charles and Ray Eames, Harry N. Abrams Inc.
Publishers, Nueva York, 1989, pp. 14-15.
Edition in Spanish: Eames, Charles, ¿Qué es una casa? ¿Qué es el diseño?, GG mínima, Editorial Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2007, p. 21.
 Munari, Bruno (1981), Da cosa nasce cosa. Appunti per una metodologia progettuale. Gius. Laterza e Figli Spa., Roma e Bari, 1981. Edition in Spanish: Munari, Bruno, ¿Cómo nacen los objetos? Apuntes para una metodología proyectual, Editorial Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 1983, p. 10.
 Ibíd., p. 18.
 Mateo Hernández, José Manuel (2014), Celebración del Día del Diseñador Industrial Dominicano, “El diseño como Recurso para el Desarrollo”, Conferencia: Un diálogo interno desde el diseño (Apuntes para una metodología del diseño), Centro de Diseño Industrial del Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo, INTEC. (República Dominicana), July 2014 http://www.diseñadorindustrial.es/files/CONFERENCIAINTECMATEO.pdf
 Dyson, James. The quote appears on the website of Dyson Company in Spain: http://www.dyson.es/aspiradoras.aspx
 Chaves, Norberto, Con o sin símbolo, FOROALFA, , published on 05/02/2014. http://foroalfa.org/articulos/con-o-sin-simbolo
 «Your goal is to become a problem finder, not just a problem solver.» Sawyer, Keith (2013), ZIG ZAG, The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA, p. 155.
[8 ]«But in the hands of mainstream practitioners and instructors, twentieth-century clichés such as “form follows function,” the modernist motto originally uttered in slightly different form by Louis H. Sullivan, and “design is problem solving” (about which more later) have been responsible for a great deal of soulless and lobotomized design and architecture.» Antonelli, Paola, Talk to Me, Published in conjunction with the exhibition Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, Department of Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 24-November 7, 2011, p. 6. http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2011/talktome/essay/ «Solving problems is the lowest form of design.» Butterick, Matthew (2012), Reversing the Tide of Declining Expectations, Talk given at TYPO Berlin, 18 May 2012. http://unitscale.com/mb/reversing-the-tide/
 Selective Attention Test, form Simons & Chabris (1999): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo The Monkey Business Illusion, Daniel J. Simons (2010): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY Learn more about this illusion and the original “gorilla” experiment at: http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/
 Marina, José Antonio (2000), Crónicas de la ultramodernidad, Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona, 2004, p. 182. Article originally published under the title: «La inteligencia política», El Cultural, ABC, 14-11-1997.
CARLOS ALONSO PASCUAL, an architect from the University of Navarra (1984) and an Industrial Designer from the Istituto Europeo di Design di Milano, Italy (1989), has as a passion for creativity and material culture. Empirical and sceptical in nature, he is a creator fascinated by the emotional dimension of design, determined to understand how people assign meanings to objects. Read more