Can Frame Innovation Save the World?

A Non-Designer’s Review of Kees Dorst, Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design

If there was ever a worn out genre, surely it’s books on creativity. But Frame Innovation by Kees Dorst, a professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, delightfully breaks the mold.

Dorst outlines a problem-solving approach called Frame Innovation, which he believes is a novel way for organizations to create consistently new ideas.

First, Dorst establishes the fundamental challenge of the modern world: problems have become complex, networked, and open-ended. They’re what you might call wicked problems or, perhaps, ‘ill-specified problems’.

Dorst makes the case, quite convincingly, that neither traditional deductive nor inductive thinking can solve these problems. You can’t sit in the armchair and reason through the complexity to a perfect solution, as a philosopher might (deduction). Nor can you simply observe the outcome and — Eureka! — discover the ‘how’ of the process, as a natural scientist might (induction).

Dorst helps us visualize these ways of thinking using the frame:

What + How = Outcome

Here’s our traditional ways of thinking.

Deduction: What + How = ?
Induction: What + ? = Outcome

So far, so good: only one variable to solve. Things get more complicated as we move into complex, problem-solving territory. Here’s how a traditional problem-solver works.

Traditional Problem Solving:
? + How = Outcome

In other words, we have a process and know the outcome we want but not what to put into the process. For example, a traffic planner knows the roads he can construct, but isn’t sure which ones to change.

Unfortunately for us, things aren’t so simple anymore.

Modern problems:
? + ? = Outcome

In other words, we know nothing. In a wicked, open problem both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are unspecified. We know where we need to go (or not go!) but we have no idea how to get there or even what the relevant variables are that we’ll need to use or that stand in our way.

These are today’s design problems.

So we’re left with a process that Dorst terms ‘design abduction’. It’s a fancy way of saying that you must be doubly creative and “devise proposals for both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’” while you “test them in conjunction” (49).

Framing is the core of design abduction. To generate the content of the ‘what’ and ‘how’, a designer needs a frame. The trouble is, the problem exists precisely because our usual frame is incapable of resolving it!

This is where traditional problem-solving fails, because we can’t take our frame — our process — as given. We have question marks in our equation.

This is where the designer as frame creator appears.

How does Frame Innovation work?

Frame Innovation is fundamentally about discovering new ways to view problems. These new viewpoints — called frames, obviously — allow designers to access a richer context, to mine that context for solutions, and to overcome the paradox of a wicked problem that appears unsolvable from within the frame that created it.

After some throat-clearing, Dorst outlines a clean approach:

  1. Archaeology — Deeply investigate the problem and earlier attempts to solve it
  2. Paradox — Why is this problem hard to solve? The paradox will likely signal the limits of the existing frame. Write the paradox down. For example:
The Sydney Opera house is a wonderful place because people can get so close to the building. But because they get so close to the building, people keep putting graffiti on it. If we build walls or fences to protect it, we destroy the view of the building. Yet if we don’t, the building gets destroyed by graffiti.”
  1. Context — Put the paradox away and look at how the participants involved in the problem behave. You’ll start to see their process.
  2. Field — Map the intellectual, cultural, and social ‘space’ that surrounds the problem.
  3. Themes — Look for the universal elements in the problem field that arise from your archaeology and field-finding.
  4. Frames — Common themes emerge that are different from those that create the problem’s paradox. Start to try on these themes by reframing problems. For example, “What if graffiti isn’t a problem of law-enforcement, but a problem of street layout?” “What if kids that don’t pay attention in school isn’t a problem of discipline, but a problem of nutrition?”
  5. Futures — Think ahead within a frame to see if it can lead to realistic and viable solutions. Don’t get attached. It requires some intuition to sense a fertile frame.
  6. Transformation — Weed out the bad frames and begin to commit to short term changes and long term changes that would occur within the frame.
  7. Integration — Bring the new frames into the existing practices and context of the organization. Specifically, the frame must enter the discourse of the organization — it becomes part of their future toolbox for understanding and solving wicked problems.

Ultimately, the goal of the Frame Innovation process is to embed re-framing into the DNA of an organization. A business or government office then becomes truly capable of facing open, complex problems because they can fluidly monitor the themes of their field (or market, or neighborhood, etc.), explore the themes that emerge, and create frames when they need to.

Steady creation of new frames helps firms avoid becoming stagnant. Plus, it snaps people out of the temptation to become a one-trick pony of conventional practices.

Dorst argues that Frame Innovation is an alternative to typical corporate innovation processes like Skunk Works or disorganized calls for staffers to “open their mind” to innovation. While I doubt Dorst’s claim that his method “eliminates risk” (148), it does appear that Frame Innovation keeps novelty within reasonable levels while stretching a firm’s discourse to new lengths.

“Frame innovation is a key entrepreneurial activity” Dorst asserts (149). Great entrepreneurs, it seems, share a designer’s penchant for reframing problems and using the frame as a metaphor to understand their market. Dorst takes a swipe at scholars that study entrepreneurs, suggesting that they’ve almost entirely overlooked framing in entrepreneurship.

Dorst is onto something here — you can see the seemingly magic intuitions of great entrepreneurs as an ability to quickly reframe problems and ‘make them solvable’. This would also explain why we see many successful entrepreneurs that read widely or that have had broad, liberal educations.

Overall, Frame Innovation is far too long for what it is. By half-way you can sense Dorst repeating himself. The book ends at the seemingly publisher-mandated 204 pages — one suspects Dorst was asked to write more words than the subject required. And while Dorst’s approach is practical (a wonderful shift from the usual abstractness of design writing) some of his nine steps seem redundant and beg for greater simplicity.

But Dorst is a lucid and intelligent writer. A highlight of Frame Innovation is a tiny essay in the appendix called “Is Design Searching or Learning?” (183). In it, Dorst compares the work of artificial intelligence theorist Herbert Simon and Donald Schön as it applies to design.

Simon saw even wicked problems as decomposable and solvable by a rational process of searching the ‘problem space’: the web of possible solutions around the problem. Schön sees design, rather, as ‘reflection-in-action’ — a fancy way of saying that the designer defines the situation, frames the problem, makes moves towards the solution, then evaluates those moves. The designer is in something resembling a dialogue with the problem, a state of “reflective” learning. Schön’s approach rings alongside the ideas of David Böhm, Michael Polanyi, an even Eric Ries’ Lean Startup, while Simon channels a more scientific spirit of evolution as a search algorithm. On this topic alone, I wish Dorst had written more.

Frame Innovation also struggles with a problem faced by the majority of design books, firms, initiatives, and events that I’ve seen: they’re all about ideas. Dorst can’t really be blamed for this — his is a book about generating ideas. He’s done that admirably.

Dorst relies on a series of case studies to substantiate his claims. These tales of successful design occasionally ring a little hollow. How many of these schemes were executed in the end? Were they made into real experiments? Was the graffiti problem of the Sydney Opera house or the drunken disorder downtown actually solved? Ideas without execution are worth little.

The reader of Frame Innovation wants to know what happened after the brilliant reframing — and Dorst’s new frames are, indeed, quite brilliant. But perhaps that’s the job of the entrepreneurs.