How Design Can Boost Human Problem Solving Capacity

Transcript of my talk at the This Is Not A Design Conference in the Cube Design Museum, June 22nd 2019.

Dennis Hambeukers
Jun 22 · 13 min read

Today I would like to talk to you about the impact of design, the role can design can play in the world. I think stating that design will save the world is putting the bar a little too high. But on the other hand stating that design will not save the world but just makes it look good is underselling design. I believe design can contribute but not the way most people think.

My perspective on design comes from the fact that I have worked in design for more than 15 years but that I was originally trained as an engineer. I still see myself as an engineer on a journey through design. That gives me a little bit of an outsider perspective.

When I studied engineering and got my first taste of engineering projects, I got deeply frustrated. I had a bit of an allergic reaction. In the projects I was involved in, I found no room for creativity. The projects were never on time and budget and in the end, despite of all the time, money and energy spent, no value for users was created. In my eyes, everybody seemed to dislike these projects. Nobody was happy, least of all me. There was something wrong with these projects. I did not know exactly what it was or how to solve it. But my frustration drove me into the totally opposite direction: art and design. I decided to art school and ended up working in design for the last 15 years.

2 ways of solving problems

On my journey from engineering to design, I learned that there are basically two ways of solving problems. One is called Scientific Management. And the other is the Way Of The Designer. One of the main differences between the two is that Scientific Management solves problems by cutting the problem into pieces, solving each piece and then sticking them back together again. And the Way Of The Designer tackles problems as a whole. One is the way people work in a factory and the other is more like working in an atelier or studio.

The problem-solving performance of the two ways of problem-solving mapped against complexity

Problem-solving performance pattern

In my career, I found an interesting pattern. I visualized it in this graph. I this graph, I plotted the problem-solving performance of these two approaches against the complexity of problems. The thick line is the Way Of The Designer and the thin line the Scientific Management approach. What I observed is that in simple projects, the approach of tackling the problem as a whole outperformed cutting the problem into pieces and sticking it back together again. For simple problems, this approach is too complicated and has too much overhead. It’s overkill. But the more complicated problems become, the better the performance of the Scientific Management method becomes. Cutting a complicated problem into smaller, simpler problems and then putting the solutions together is a really good strategy to solve complicated problems, much better than the holistic approach of the Way Of The Designer. For the Way Of The Designer, complicated problems are too complicated. When I got into complex problems, I discovered something strange. I found that the Way Of The Designer outperforms the Scientific Management way when it comes to complex problem-solving. Somehow approaching the problem as a whole again works better when the parts of the problem have a lot of connections and there is a lot of uncertainty.

When I used the things I learned from working as a designer, I could improve the performance in complex projects. I managed to create space for creativity, create value for users, make budget owners happy and engage stakeholders in a fun process with desirable results.

That got me thinking.

Why is that?

Why does the way of the designer perform better in complex situations?

And, as we are still finding out how to navigate successfully through complex projects:

What does this tell us about important skills for complex problem-solving?

10 things I learned from design that apparently are important for complex problem-solving

I want to share with you 10 things I learned from design that apparently are important for complex problem-solving.

1. Systems thinking


What I learned is that when a designer designs something like a poster, he is zooming in and out all the time. He looks at the big picture, the composition, then dives into the details of the font, then he steps back to judge the way the colors work together, then dives back into the details of the whitespace, then zooms out to work on the rhythm, and so on and so on. He is constantly solving problems on different levels while trying to get the whole and the parts to work together. Complex problems tend to have a lot of levels and parts and the skill of bringing all the parts together is something designers have naturally developed while designing stuff.

2. Seeing objectively


Another skill that is super useful in complex problem-solving is seeing objectively: really seeing the reality that is in front of us. I found that designers can way see better than other people. The thing is that 95% of what we see, is actually what we think we see. That is how our brains are wired. Our brains use models, images, and assumptions to judge situations at high speed. This is super useful in the savanna when you have to make split-second life or death decisions. But these models also limits our ability to actually see what is really in front of us. With speed, we lose accuracy. Seeing was actually one of the first things I learned in art school. When you are in a still-life drawing class, the teacher constantly pushes students to draw what is actually in front of them instead of drawing what they think they see. I learned that the greatest problem with drawing is actually not the physical drawing but the seeing: seeing how objects really look and how they relate to each other, turning off the assumptions and images in your head.

3. Think outside the box


Designers not only see better, but they also see different. Designers are less afraid of suggesting something crazy, thinking something crazy. Complex problems cannot be solved with known solutions, so thinking outside the box is critical. And designers are really good at that. Seeing in a different way is not without risk. You might get laughed at, people might think you are stupid. Seeing different requires courage, you need to feel safe. But courage is a strange thing. I learned that the label “designer” gives you a license to say and do strange things, to see things differently. Because it fits the idea that people have of designers as creative people, throwing unexpected views onto the table is perfectly acceptable. If you are expected to do crazy stuff, it actually eliminates the need for courage. I found that the amount of courage it takes to do crazy things is determined more by culture than on a personal level.

4. Personal responsibility


Another thing I found that boosts problem-solving capacity in any setting is caring, feeling personal responsibility, ownership. If you care, you are driven to find better solutions. And I found that designers care more about their work than other people. Of course, other people also care about their work but designers have more skin in the game. You can clearly see that when you criticize a design. Designers take this personally. They put so much of themselves in their work, that it hurts when you say something bad about it. Sometimes this can be problematic for designers. But in the end, this caring and ownership actually lead to better solutions. It pushes designers to take an extra step, come up with an even better solution.

Scientific Management is a square peg in the round hole of humanity

5. Align with human nature


I also found that designers work differently than other people. Somehow the way they work seems more attuned to human nature. Of course, working more in line with our natural abilities is a huge booster of problem-solving performance. Through my experience in design, I really saw how misaligned the scientific management way is with how humans are built. It truly is a square peg in a round hole. It’s totally mismatched. It turns people into robots. The linear thinking in boxes and strict processes is much more suited for robots than humans. Designers tend to accept the messiness of creativity. Too strict processes and the limits of prescribed tools can limit creativity. Designers always put human creativity above processes and tools. They are much more conscious of the tools and processes they use. If it doesn’t add to the creativity, they don’t use them. In the scientific management way, this often seems the other way around, that the humans are there to serve the process and the tools.

6. Platform for co-creation


This is a big one. If you can bring people together, problem-solving capacity rises exponentially. If you can tap into the minds of people, if you can create synergy within a group of people where people feed off of each other, you can create magic. For that, you need a way for people to come together, a platform for co-creation. Design can provide that. In complex projects, I learned that design is a common language that can bring people together. This is one of the biggest problems we have today.

The other day I was reading the story of the Tower of Babel to my son as a bedtime story. In it, God punishes humans by letting them all speak different languages. God knew exactly how he could sabotage human problem-solving capacity best: he knew that people needed to speak the same language to be able to complete the superhuman task of building the tower of Babel. Today we are still in this predicament. People from different departments and levels speak totally different languages so they can never accomplish greatness.

Designers can help. I found that designers can bring people together with a common language: visuals. If you make drawings and visual prototypes, all specialists from all departments can relate, see their part and discuss the big picture and details of how to accomplish the common goal. The power of visuals to bring people together is huge.

7. Learning ability


Learning is one of the most important skills you need in order to solve complex problems. Complex problem solving is all about learning: learning from others, learning about the problem, learning about the limitations, about the possibilities and even your own abilities and mindset. Complex problems typically can’t get solved with know solutions, so you need to learn new solutions, new ways of solving problems.

Double-loop learning

Designers are better equipped for learning because they master something called double-loop learning. Single loop learning is the learning that happens when you have a strategy, apply it, see what happens which might lead you to change your strategy. In double-loop learning, you also evaluate your mental model of how you should see this problem, how you should think about this problem. This goes much deeper and requires a much more open mind and willingness to change. Designers are better learners because they allow their minds to be changed. Designers cultivate what the Buddhist call a beginner’s mind. That is an open mind that comes from not thinking you have all the answers. Even though designers are experts, know a lot of things and have lots of experience, they tend to approach each problem with an open mind. I found that most other consultants that work under the mental model of Scientific Management, come into projects pretending to have all the answers, projecting certainty. This might feel safe for clients, but it is extremely limiting to their learning capacity. Designers tend to be much more open minded and don’t pretend to know all the answers. This is a far better starting position for learning.

8. Trust


Another thing about designers is that they are much more comfortable with uncertainty. They trust themselves, their team to come up with a solution. Designers are used to uncertainty and know they can find a way out. This starts already in art school and continues when they go to work as a designer. Most design briefs are totally vague and incoherent, most clients don’t even know what they want or need. But designers figure out ways to work with that. That makes that they are not freaked out by uncertainty. They even learn to like this state of uncertainty in which everything is possible.

9. Dialogue with matter


This is where it gets a little spiritual. One of the most amazing things I learned from art and design is the ability to cocreate not only with other people but with the matter. The matter can help you solve problems because it can speak to you. This might sound a little freaky. But let me try to explain how this works. The best way to understand this is to think of it as the grain of the wood. Some places are tougher than others, the wood bends better in one direction than the other. And a carpenter knows how to read the wood in order to work with the grain rather than against it. Working with the grain will go much easier and will make products better and stronger. If you take this thinking one step further, you arrive at this famous quote by Michelangelo in which he states that the block of marble already wanted to become a statue of David. All he did was listen to the marble.

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

— Michelangelo

I found that this goes for any medium: code, the internet, organizations, youtube, cars. They all have an innate desire to become something. The things around us talk to us. If you listen to it, it can help you greatly. We should be in a dialogue with the things around us as is expressed nicely in this quote from Marshall McLuhan: we shape our tools and our tools shape us. We are in constant interaction with the matter around us.

“We shape our tools and our tools shape us.”

— Marshall McLuhan

10. Question finding


The last element is about question finding and is maybe the most misunderstood thing about design. Most people think complex problem-solving is about finding solutions. Finding the right questions is actually far more important. This is when design is most powerful: when it uses designs as a way to get to the right question, when it’s used as a means and not a goal (to ake pretty stuff).

Using solutions to find better problems

Designers navigate the problem-solution space in which they use solutions to find problems. The best way I could think of to illustrate this is by a pinball machine. In a pinball machine, you get to the top of the playing field by bouncing off the ball on pins. This resembles how designers work to arrive at innovative solutions. They start with a problem that leads to a solution, which uncovers a new, more relevant problem, which leads to a new solution etc. etc. One of the most fundamental principles that will allow the way of the designer to boost human problem-solving capacity in complex problems is about coming up with solutions to find problems, to see the designs not as goals but as means to an end: find the right problem. That is much harder than finding a good solution and will take complex problem solving to the next level. Because once you have found the right question, then the answer is relatively easy.

“Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy.”

— Elon Musk

These are some of the ways design can boost complex problem-solving.

The challenge is the transfer

But the challenge is the transfer. This is a challenge for both designers and non-designers. The million dollar question is how we can transfer the skills, mind-, and toolset of designers into the field of complex problem-solving. Solving complex problems can benefit from design, but it’s not the same as traditional design. This is what design thinking is all about: transferring the skills of designers to complex problem-solving.

How can we transfer the skills of design into complex problem-solving?

So what can you do to tap into the way of the designer and boost your problem-solving capacity?

This afternoon you’ll be attending workshops. That is a great place to start. And there, you could take a stab at this double-loop learning. Do not only pay attention to how well the exercises work but also try to reflect on what that means for your mental model of how you see yourself, how you see the world and what that means for the way you approach problems. Designers operate from a different mental model, a different approach to problem-solving. I would like to challenge you to allow your mind to be changed, explore the space between your ears. In this talk, I wanted to focus on nature inside of us not the one outside us. There is a lot to be explored there as well.

“The greatest unexplored territory in the world is the space between our ears.”

— Bill O’Brein

I believe we have to up our problem-solving game if we want half a chance to solve these wicked problems we are facing. I’m convinced design can help.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or talk to my bot at :)

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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