Seeing problems in new ways — how (re-) framing contributes to tackling societal challenges

  • Problem frames and corresponding solutions ‘co-evolve’, meaning that solutions are not always generated after the problem has been framed, but that they can also inform the way a problem is framed.
  • Social innovation practitioners use various sophisticated principles and practices to generate problem frames, including qualitative and explorative research, solution generation and prototyping, systemic design principles, and thinking and reflection tools
  • As a result, problem framing is not a step-by-step process, but rather an organic process that requires specific and high-level expertise to navigate

Fruitful frames

Psychotherapists and social innovation practitioners are not the only professionals who use frames. Framing manifests itself in multiple professional disciplines. Politicians, activists and journalists often skilfully play with frames when trying to influence how the public thinks about certain societal problems and how they should be addressed. For example, framing anti-abortion as being about ‘pro-life’ might change the way we think about abortion and as a consequence about the required policy and legislation.

What do we know about creating frames?

Literature provides some preliminary answers to the question of how we create fruitful frames. The focus in sociology and policy has predominantly been on the way that frames are used, not so much on how these frames are generated. The design research field provides some more insight into how frames are generated. Most influential is a study by Dorst and Cross (2001) presented in this often-cited article, in which they show that design is a process of co-evolution of problem and solution. They write: “It seems that creative design is not a matter of first fixing the problem, and then searching for a satisfactory solution concept. Creative design seems more to be a matter of developing and refining together both the formulation of a problem and ideas for a solution”.

the Double Diamond model (adapted from suggests that designing is a process of diverging and converging to a problem frame, before diverging and converging to a solution

How social innovation practitioners go about framing — beyond the double diamond

To further explore the question of how we can generate frames to address complex societal challenges, I started looking at people who are doing very interesting work in this space, namely people working in so-called public and social innovation agencies. These agencies work within or alongside public and social sector organisations, and are addressing complex societal challenges.

The framing patterns

The first thing we analysed in the case studies were the ‘patterns’ of the way that problem frames and solutions were developed (please note that in the article I adopt the term ‘problem solving’ as used in design research literature, which does not translate well to complex societal challenges, see footnote). In all case-studies we found that the problem frames evolved over time. For example, in the case of TACSI the initial framing of the problem was: “how do we enable more children to safely return home to their families, stay home and thrive?”. This then evolved to “how might we better enable children and families engaging with the child protection system to live safely and thrive?”, accepting that returning home might not always be the preferred option for children and their families. Finally, one fruitful frame that resulted from the process was: “how might foster care build and maintain parental capability and keep families together?”. This frame was connected to a co-parenting model that promotes healthy ongoing engagement with both families in the best interest of children (see also Rethinking Restoration).

Four of the five case studies showed a pattern of evolution of the problem frame that included divergence and convergence in framing, co-evolution of problem frame with the proposed solution, and selecting and developing multiple problem frames and associated solutions

Drivers of the framing process

The second thing we analysed were the ‘drivers’ of the framing process: the practices and principles that the innovation agencies used to inform the generation of frames. These drivers included:

  • Qualitative and explorative research methods, investigating the problem from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives. Methods included deep and rapid ethnography, collecting “stories,” consulting experts and literature reviews, in-depth interviews, card sorting and journey mapping etc.
  • Evaluating and reflecting on potential solutions, to build a better understanding of the problem. These iterations ranged from testing low-fidelity prototypes in co-design sessions early on in the process, to more developed prototypes that they then tested in real-world contexts
  • Thinking and reflection tools (that do not require stakeholder involvement), such as the use of metaphors and systems thinking tools such as concept maps, rich picture maps and iceberg models.
  • Guiding principles such as opening up the initial brief and systemic thinking principles. An example of the latter is ‘two-track thinking’ where the problem was framed both on a general, systemic level, and a service level to address specific problems for the target group.

Framing requires expertise

Combining problem framing evolution patterns (divergence/convergence, evolution and co-evolution of problem and solution) with the different drivers for that framing (research, solution testing, thinking tools, and principles) reveals innovation practices that are distinct and non-linear. The practitioners did not follow a step-by-step process, but instead one that was explorative and emergent. In the article I argue that to navigate such organic processes requires high-level expertise.


I would like to thank all the participants in this study for their time and input to the research. I am particularly grateful for the support and openness of the five participating innovation agencies. I would furthermore like to thank Bridget Malcolm for her assistance in conducting this study; Lindsay Asquith, Kees Dorst, Ahmee Kim, and Rebecca Price for their feedback on an earlier version of this paper; and Ken Friedman, Jin Ma, Jianne Whelton and the reviewers of She Ji for their help in getting the paper ready for publication in She Ji.


  • Bateson, Gregory. 1972. “A theory of play and fantasy.” In Steps to an ecology of mind, 177. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Cross, Nigel. 2007. Designerly Ways of Knowing. Basel: Birkhauser.
  • Dorst, Kees, and Nigel Cross. 2001. “Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of problem-solution.” Design Studies 22 (5):425–437.
  • Schön, Donald. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.


Acknowledging that in complex situations problems are interconnected and so cannot be completely resolved, the connotations associated with the term problem solving in traditional design practice seems less appropriate for practice adapted to suit public and social innovation. As Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber argue, “Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved — over and over again.” Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, no. 2 (1973): 160, DOI:

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash



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Mieke van der Bijl

Mieke van der Bijl

I'm a researcher, educator, and designer with an interest in systemic design, complexity, transdisciplinarity and public & social innovation - views are my own.