Alternate to Dubberly Paper
Updated: Mar 6
Welcome back Humantific readers. This week we are taking on the challenging task of deciphering and sharing a few thoughts on an important, rather surprising, recently republished paper, originating in the design community, authored by Hugh Dubberly entitled: “Why we should stop describing design as “problem solving.”
Since we are deeply involved with innovation related methodologies via Humantific practice as well as in the context of NextD Journal, the Rethinking Design Movement, the Design for Complexity Movement *1 and related books we had a hard time imagining not offering an alternative to the very forceful Dubberly paper…:-)
Many of our readers, with deep creative problem solving skills would no doubt find the Dubberly paper to be rather perplexing. Undoubtedly well-intentioned, the paper consists of two central parts: the first is extensive, memory-lane commentary by the author on design community history and its heroes. The second part consists of highly critical, not so enlightened commentary, on a not well defined methodology. It is the second part that we found to be surprising in its uninformed accusational stance.
There seems to be some terminology confusion in the design community around the term “problem solving” and the Dubberly paper is not the first time the confusion has appeared.*2 One might imagine that such an important paper would do some sorting out around the term, clarifying what it means to the author and what process is actually being referred to, since the subject is so broad, but none of that appears in the lengthy Dubberly paper.
What the author is making reference to as “problem solving” is never clearly defined. While lots of criticism is present, what is absent is any picture, any model, or example of what is being criticized. In that absence the Dubberly paper creates a rather slippery strawman argument that is difficult to make much sense of.
ENGINEERING / MECHANICAL
The closest Dubberly gets to actually describing what he is aiming his criticisms at has to be derived from his various word combinations. Taken literally Dubberly seems to think problem solving is “machine ethos”, a “mechanical process with a clear beginning, middle and end”. “planning for manufacturing”, “checklists”, “individual objects detached from context”, “ignoring social-technical systems”, “not objective”, “linguistic act”, “mechanical feedback”, “straight line”, “algorithm guaranteeing results”, “isolated”, “not generative”, “linear process with milestones, delivery dates and hours”, “engineering“, and last but not least “leads to one correct answer”.
Yikes! Perhaps the references to “mechanical” and “engineering” are the most revealing. The design communities war with engineering spans many decades and has numerous valid points of difference. The Dubberly paper seems to return to that war, this time positioning “problem solving” as problematic. In doing so the Dubberly paper often comes across as fighting the last war, being positioned as forward motion.
Of course differencing is common in a competitive marketplace but instead of precision strikes the Dubberly paper is essentially engaged in carpet bombing an entire subject. The destructive irony of carpet bombing problem solving is that it's a subject with several direct connections to the aspired to context of complexity that conventional design does not possess. That's one of several head twisters appearing in the paper.
As I considered the possibility of constructing a response to the Dubberly paper it seemed clear that it was beyond my duties to table definitions that the author himself did not provide. Instead it made more sense for me, in this limited format, to focus on simply pointing out, more precisely to our readers, the various claims in the lengthy Dubberly paper that DO NOT APPLY to Creative Problem Solving (CPS).*3
As many or our readers will know, CPS is a global community of knowledge with a methods history that predates the design methods movement. Vast upstream methods, framing, facilitation, cocreation, team dynamics and inclusive culture building knowledge is known to exist there. Oddly the Dubberly paper is written as if the CPS community does not exist. The paper seems to model the dynamic where design is having a convincing conversation with itself.
DOCUMENT REVIEW PROCESS
Context: In beginning to read an important paper, like the Dubberly document, the first thing I do is look for the context which it intends to be applied. This can best be explained by this quote from the paper itself; “The world today faces multiple intertwined crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic depression—on top of economic disparity, racial injustice, global warming, and more, which arose in a context of large and intertwined technological, economic, and social changes.” Clearly the Dubberly paper is intending to arrive on the scene to express interest in moving design in the direction of highly complex organizational and societal situations. This is the context articulated by the papers author.
References: Understanding the context and considering the papers title, the next thing I do is go to the back of the paper and look at the references. There I found an impressive list of design community heroes, 60+ people, literature references, etc. Oddly I noticed that although the subject purports to be about “problem solving” there is NOT ONE reference to or from the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) community, no pioneers, no literature, no models, no process knowledge, no current practitioners. This absence provides me a good preview sense of what is to come inside the paper.
Scale: A quick scan of the beloved design heroes dutifully referenced in the Dubberly paper including Milton Glasser, Paul Rand, and Massimo Vignelli, suggested that other than Chrisopher Alexander and Horst Rittel, very few of them were involved in the context being referenced in the paper, that of complex organizational or societal transformation. Truth be told: This is an ongoing weakness that exists in plain sight within the design communities that is rarely acknowledged. The vast majority of design experts referenced in the paper were operational in what we define in NextD Geographies as Design Arena 1 and Design Arena 2. Never-the-less all of those cited experts regardless of what scale they were working, from logos to posters to buildings, seem to have an opinion on that problem solving thing which becomes a central part of the Dubberly paper…:-) Rather than pointing out that there are many uninformed depictions/descriptions of problem solving to be found in design literature, spanning decades and the various operational arenas, the author instead suggests that pointing in the direction of problem solving was the problem. Seeing this too helps me understand what I am looking at in the paper
With those three considerations in mind I then looked at the various criticisms being leveled against this thing referenced as “problem solving”.
To say I was surprised to see what I found in the Dubberly paper would be an understatement. Honestly, I am not certain how to best describe what I saw there. Should I call them misfires, misinterpretations, misrepresentations, false narratives, gaslighting, errors, competitive depictions, head scratchers or simply take-no-prisoners marketing. Perhaps Head Scratcher is the best term as it implies perplexity.
PERPLEXING HEAD SCRATCHERS
Being practice and methodology focused I could go through the 25+ identified Head Scratchers seen in the Dubberly paper point by point but that would be tedious. To keep it simple and manageable for our Humantific readers: Suffice it to say that none of the Head Scratcher statements below apply to Creative Problem Solving (CPS). Most are rather odd combinations of misrepresentation, omission and or avoidance.
The many colorful Dubberly descriptive attributes such as checklists, recipes, fixed in time, watchmaker, broken gear, isolated, etc. seen in the paper do not apply to CPS. Frankly speaking from a methods perspective, many of the Head Scratchers border on utter nonsense, recognizable to anyone who has attended even an introductory CPS workshop. The Dubberly paper has got to be one of the most surprising documents on the subject of problem solving that I have ever seen.
Head Scratcher #1: “Problem-solving is misleading because it implies that designing is an algorithm guaranteeing results, a mechanical process with a clear beginning, middle, and end.”
Head Scratcher #2: “While checklists may be helpful, the design process is a generative conversation having more in common with play and world-building than problem-solving.”
Head Scratcher #3: “The first misconception is that the world is composed of “problems” and that each problem can be neatly carved out from the next, fixed in time, and defined in an objective way so that anyone can find a lasting “solution”—like a watchmaker replacing a broken gear.”
Head Scratcher #4: “In fact, most issues facing the world (and designers) are not isolated, not static, and not clear; they are “systemic,” connected in networks of cause and effect, ever changing, and defined largely by one’s point of view.”
Head Scratcher #5: “Describing the design process as problem-solving suggests that it proceeds in a straight line and can be managed…”
Head Scratcher #6: “In the early stages of most design projects, the path forward is unclear; often not even the goals are agreed upon, much less the means.”
Head Scratcher #7: "As yet, innovation has no recipe; it does not happen on a schedule. No one can guarantee a solution—or a “hit” product— because the process is largely unknown."
Head Scratcher #8: “Each situation is particular, and the “right ” design process must be found—just as the “right” design “solution” must be found—by experimentation, by trial and error, by iteration.”
Head Scratcher #9: “One reason designers describe their work as “problem- solving” is to make it less frightening to potential clients. Proposing a linear process with milestones, delivery dates, and hours makes it seem manageable.”
Head Scratcher #10: “For example, the double diamond may seem like a set of instructions but is in fact a promise, an aspiration, a goal.”
Head Scratcher #11: “The problem-solving frame also positions the design process as repeatable and designers as objective professionals, experts for hire capable of solving problems of any type.”
Head Scratcher #12: “It turns designing into a commodity that consulting firms, schools, and the media can sell more readily. In short, it’s marketing.”
Head Scratcher #13: “Describing the design process as problem-solving suggests it leads to one correct answer, when no answer is “right.”34”
Head Scratcher #14: “Describing the design process as problem-solving suggests an optimal solution can be found, but this is rarely possible; most “solutions” merely satisfy or suffice—“satisfice.”
Head Scratcher #15: “Policy questions differ from engineering questions.”
Head Scratcher #16: “Describing the design process as problem-solving suggests that the problem— the goal—is known, defined, clear, that what to do is understood and that the designer merely needs to figure out how to do it.”
Head Scratcher #17: “Describing designers as problem solvers suggests they have “expertise” other stakeholders may not have.
Head Scratcher #18: “But while designers may be more experienced in designing, they are no more knowledgeable about the situation than other stakeholders.38”
Head Scratcher #19: “Describing designers as problem solvers may create asymmetry—a power imbalance—by putting them in control of the situation and disenfranchising other stakeholders who rightfully “own” the problem and who should “own” its definition.”
Head Scratcher #20: “A further consequence of framing design as problem-solving is that outsiders may impose their beliefs on insiders. This may happen, in part, because the frame of problem-solving obscures key questions:”
Head Scratcher #21: “The framing of design as problem-solving emerged with the industrial age; it has roots in mass production, which requires that plans be nearly perfect because mistakes are expensive.”
Head Scratcher #22: “While framing a problem may suggest solutions, prototyping a solution may likewise affect the framing.”
Head Scratcher #23: “The association of problem-solving with manufacturing may lead to another distorted view: that designing is concerned primarily with individual objects detached from context.”
Head Scratcher #24: “To focus on problem solving is to divert attention from the far more important function of problem definition and to confuse the continuing process of system regulation with the episodic activity of seeking specific goals and the much more frequent and radically different activity of averting specific threats.”
Head Scratcher #25: “In other words, framing design as problem-solving reduces it to a mechanical feedback process seeking a clear, unchanging goal.”
IS THAT PROBLEM FINDING?
One might ask: What kind of design methods related problem finding is that? In the context of complex situations problem finding for design consists of suggesting the problem is problem solving? In considering application to complex situations no other problems exist in current design methods? That seems like a no-go that flies in the face of what is already known, what has already been more precisely articulated by others involved in the Rethinking Design Movement.
Current design / design thinking methods are known to be fixated on, stuck on, discipline-based framing around product, service and experience which does not scale to complex fuzzy situations. Where is that problem finding description in the Dubberly paper? Numerous additional problematic methods related issues are known to exist but are also abscent. Is this feel good problem finding for designers that we are looking at in the Dubberly paper? As far as I could determine, beyond the carpet bombing of problem solving and the suggestion to add the holistic thinking part of systems thinking there was not one coherent problem finding comment in the Dubberly paper that reflects what is already known and already tabled.
Among the most surprising misfires in the Dubberly paper is that it reflects no awareness that most leading designerly oriented innovation practices have already integrated aspects of CPS into their hybrid approaches. In particular those practices working in fuzzy complex situations upstream from product, service or experience briefs have redesigned the front end of their approaches with CPS open framing know-how.
Although making reference to questions that have no one-right-answer, the Dubberly paper reflects no awareness that most of the no one-right-answer exercises found in many design and design thinking workshops today originate in the CPS community, visible as early as the 1950s.
The Dubberly paper points to a famous quote by Russ Ackoff as important to the case being made by the author: “In 1979, Russell Ackoff wrote, “Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes.”
What the Dubberly paper fails to point out is that by 1967, “mess” had already been integrated into CPS methods and was already being taught in CPS workshops thanks to Sidney Parnes, a super inventive pioneer in that community. We included the circa 1967 Parnes 6 phase spiral process model that begins with “Mess”, later evolving into Mess Finding in our first book Innovation Methods Mapping.
So there in the Dubberly paper we see the author heralding the arrival of “mess” into the context of design in 2022 while simultaneously carpet bombing problem solving when the notion of “mess” has existed inside CPS methodology on the front end since 1967. See anything odd about that picture? For methodology veterans this kind of stuff grows weary.
For those who might not know: CPS is not only a generative cocreated conversation but it becomes the foundation of generative thinking in organizational and societal changemaking contexts. Continuously evolving, CPS has contained problem finding, generative and convergent thinking, as well as continuous cycle awareness since its early appearance in the 1960s. These fundamentals would typically be covered in most introductory CPS workshops.
Turning towards closing in this post, perhaps this is a good juncture to point out that what is going on in the Dubberly paper is the opposite of what we do in Humantific practice and what we teach in Humantific Academy. It is the opposite to what we suggest to clients as well.
We can differentiate without engaging in carpet bombing entire subjects, inside which are often useful knowledge nuggets that directly connect to the expanding contexts that we are engaged in. We are in constant search for and welcome those nuggets. For numerous years we have referred to this outreach and integration as Think Blending. Most certainly Carpet Bombing Subjects and Think Blending Subjects are two very different things.
In times of great change, when the foundations underneath many aspects of everyday life are shifting and the boundaries for design engagements are expanding it is the latter that we find most useful in real life practice. What the Dubberly paper does not clearly convey is that the age of hybrid methods is already here.
If you think the methods of logo design scale to wicked problems and or all the methods related answers are already inside design you have been drinking too much Kool-aid, as neither is the case.
I wish it was not so but the Dubberly paper conveys a rather odd, some might say misleading depiction of where the Rethinking Design Movement actually is, where it has been, how long it has been in motion, who is involved and where it is likely going. The Dubberly paper is arriving into that the party, not beginning the party as numerous folks in the community are involved and have been for many years.
Via NextD Journal we have had an ongoing campaign to include as many community views as possible. At best the Dubberly paper represents a partial picture of the Rethinking Design movement. Suffice it to say that lots of change drivers are missing from that Dubberly picture.
If I could say one thing about the Rethinking Design Movement it would be that much of the changedriving has come and is coming from outsiders and not the officially sanctioned institutions. We did not and cannot wait for those institutions as many of them move too slowly. Many are just now waking up to the realization and acknowledgement of the complexity shift. Journalistically speaking that is one of several interconnected and largely untold stories.
In addition, numerous folks/firms are already operating in the Design Arena 3 and Arena 4 engagements spaces and have been for at least a decade. Much has already evolved and been learned there. One thing we learned in Humantific practice is that adding systems thinking is not the silver bullet that alleviates all other problems with design methods in the context of complexity. Among other things, systems thinking does not contain methodology that creates systemic pictures of what the challenges actually are….nor does conventional design.
The good news is that 2022-2023 represents not the beginning of the rethinking cycle but late in the ever evolving party. Considering the complex issues facing many organizations and communities the design industry would be in trouble if the rethinking party was just beginning today. It is not.
In the big picture sense, we have noticed that there is something going on around the concept of time across the generations. We noticed that when it comes to internal problem finding designerly boomers tend to be defensibly not great at embracing problem finding/admission in their own industry and their depiction of time is that there is still lots of it.
In high contrast the arriving generation not only have an open appetite for problem finding but are on a different time schedule. Few of the arriving generation subscribe to the dancing around approach. Many of the deflection dynamics used and tolerated by the boomers for decades no longer fly with the arriving generation.
Truth be told, with many pressing problems facing organizations and communities, there is no longer endless amounts of time to be dancing around design related problem finding.
In our work we believe that part of our collective community responsibility is to be honest about what the issues are. With time pressing we owe that in the present to the arriving generation of future leaders. Time is of the essence. Let’s go do this.
Hope this is helpful readers.
*1: ADDITIONAL RELATED TO RETHINKING DESIGN
NextD Journal: Peer Review Series: UNPACKING Systems Shifting Design
NextD Journal: Peer Review Series: Facing Design; What [URGENT] Matters Now?: Round 1 and Round 2
Design Community Context 2020-2027
*2: ADDITIONAL RELATED TO CARPET BOMBING PROBLEM SOLVING
Kees Dorst: Understanding Design, 2003
Kees Dorst: Frame Innovation, 2015
UK Design Council: Systems Shifting Design, 2022
*3: CPS (Creative Problem Solving) is one of numerous innovation related communities of practice that we learn from, participate in and contribute to.