Design Philosophy: Problem Framing

Following is an excerpt of my final paper for Design Theory class at Indiana University about my personal understanding of Design Problem Framing. I’d love to share it with you and look forward to your feedback.


Donald A.Schön(1993) said “the problem solver is always engaged in searching some problem-space in order to find means well-suited to achievement of some objective function”(p. 143). Design is not a problem-solving process, instead an expandable problematic situation.For a junior designer, problem framing is one of the most difficult phases in a design project and it’s also important to set the direction of a design process. Personally speaking, design is always on the way to reach the core problem. We frame specific problems under different social maps and with intentional mediations. In order to move closer to the core problem, It’s beneficial to actively use design judgment, take minor changes progressively, adopt double-loop method and expand the problem in a broader situation.

1.Designing without a clear problem.

For my past design education and work experience, I truly believed in that design is a problem-solving process.However, when I came to the HCI area, the most frustrating moment I have in a design project is when my teammates and I are faced with lots of insights and problems gained from research, we have no idea which problem area to dig into. I constantly ask myself the question: Is this the right problem to touch upon? Do we provide enough rationale to choose this area instead of others? Is there a deeper problem? As Rittel(1987)said “learning what the problem is IS the problem” (p. 2), I believe there is.

For me, Design is not only designing for solutions but more importantly, designing for problems. Nevertheless, finding the optimal problem to dig into is anything but an easy task, due to the nature of the design. According to Hatchuel’s theory about “Expandable Rationality”, every design problem is expandable and as designers, we have to deal with infinite interpretations of a problem and use our judgment to pick up a valuable and feasible problem to tackle, with time and resource constraints. How scary is it?

2.Design is always on the way to the core problem

2.1 Design as an approaching process

For most of my design projects, we rarely ended up addressing a problem the same with the problem we came up at the beginning, but they do have a connection. It is this connection that leads us to the final design. Just like science is always on the way to the truth but never reach it, for me, the design is always on the way to the real problem (Figure 2.1).

(Figure 2.1: Approaching the core problem)

2.2 Problems with various social relationships

If design is always on the way to the core problem, we deal with the core problem by addressing various related problems present in different phases and situations, which means they have different social relationships (Figure 2.2). We never design for users alone, but also for and with stakeholders, managers, producers, clients and so on. Problem framing will differentiate according to the social relationship designers prioritize. Therefore, it’s important to approach a problem from different aspects in order to have a more holistic understanding. These various social relationships give designers a new dimension to understand design problems in a social context in order to aim at the core problem dynamically.

(Figure 2.2: Design Relationship Map)

2.3 Problem framing as a mediated process

Schön(1993)used the “paintbrush-as-pump” example to illustrate how metaphor provides a new viewpoint for designers to approach the problem by transforming their perception. This opportunity-first-and-problem-later experience is not unusual in my own design life. For example, in an Audible project, my team deducted an opportunity (Listening to an audiobook is like communicating with a person) back into a design problem (current navigation by time slots does not align with how we talk and understand language verbally).

This process also seems like how tacit knowledge works: We comprehend a proximal term by attending to a peripheral term, as Polanyi(2009) mentioned. When we are painting, we are not aware of our unconscious muscular actions or the painting skill itself until we pay attention to the shape of our brush stroke. Similarly, sometimes we find the obscure problem by generating the opportunity first and reflecting on the solution and its outcome. And then accordingly, we adjust our design path in order to move closer to the core problem (Figure 2.3).

(Figure 2.3: the backward pass to frame a problem)

3.Problem framing as a design on its own right

Taking all the factors I mentioned above into consideration, I think the problem framing process itself is an endless design (Figure 3.1): It’s always ongoing to approach the deep-seated problem. We apply various approaches and focus on various values at different phases. We move on by intentional trial and error — designing, prototyping, testing, and reflecting on the outcomes in order to adjust our goal of the next step, aiming at the real problem so that we can bring real impact.

(Figure 3.1: the problem framing process)

Additionally, from my perspective, instead of being a part of a design process, problem framing can be a bigger picture including various design Agile/Scrums. This view focuses on the progressive character of a design and provides another guide to every design change we make: by asking does this help to understand the deeper problem?

(Figure 3.2: a design agile circle within the problem framing process)

4.Methods to intentionally frame problem

4.1 Using design judgement

According to Nelson and Stolterman (2003), design judgment is “the ability to gain subconscious insight that has been abstracted from experiences and reflections”(p.145). Design as an expandable activity brings overwhelming complexity to designers and design judgment allow designers to make decisions quickly when faced with the messy design problem. Donald Schön (1986) also compared designers’ brain to a collider where their repertoire (design experience) collide into creative ideas. Following these metaphors, as inexperience designers, actively practicing design judgment and building repertoire is one of the most important means to sharpen our design skills. At the same time, always putting ourselves and our design into a social composition is also crucial to frame a valuable problem.

4.2 Taking minor changes

Since design and problem framing is a progressive process which requires time to manifest the outcome and need intentional adjustment accordingly. Designers need focus on design depth where singularities have the chance to stand up and be made the best use of. By thinking deeply and thoroughly, we can avoid the time wasted by just hit and miss, and aim at the core problem quicker. In the meantime, small changes which could bring big potentials make the design implementation and testing process shorter in order to save the business cost.

4.3 Adapting double-loop learning methods

The double-loop learning methods brought up by Donald Schön (1986) mainly talks about reinventing time to reflect on “action strategy and governing variable”(p. 30). Compared with single-loop learning that only reflects on action strategy (solutions in a design process), double-loop learning allows designers to ponder over deeper motivations — the why aspects of design. It is by asking why in the problem framing process that we are able to refocus and approach the core problem. Although continuous design iterations are beneficial in a fast-paced design environment nowadays, It’s also imperative to take a step back occasionally and listen to the design speaking back to us.

4.4 Exploring in the broader situation.

In the real design world, we often started a design project from a prompt given by stakeholders with a vague design statement which needs to be framed specifically. There are mainly two categories of prompt: general problem provided or the value provided.

For the first category where a general problem is offered, the framing process could be decomposing the given problem and using judgment to pick up one narrowed problem, iterating on it and relocating the problem to achieve the optimal goal within the given time (Figure 4.4.1). This is a breaking-down method to frame a problem.

(Figure 4.4.1: breaking-down method for problem framing)

For the second category, sometimes only a design value is expressed without problems, for example, CHI competition 2017 project — build an engaging community for single mothers. Dorst (2011) wrote in his book that “the best expert designers do not address the core problem head-on, but tend to focus on issues around it. They search the broader problem context for clues”(P. 525). Inspired by this idea, we expanded the single mother concept and listed different related themes and interaction opportunities, such as food, commuting time, child care, grocery, etc. By examining possible themes and conducting contextual interviews, we found that single mothers interact with food bank and grocery shop a lot and they might experience food insecurity. Therefore, we choose to focus on promoting the food bank to the public in grocery shops, which could help single mothers as well as other people who experience food insecurity. This example illustrates how to frame a problem by expanding the situation and creating new themes (Figure 4.4.2).

(Figure 4.4.2: expanding themes to frame a problem)


[1] Schön, D. A. (1993). Generative metaphor: A perspective on problem-setting in social policy.

[2] Simon, H. A. (1982). Models of bounded rationality: Empirically grounded economic reason (Vol. 3). MIT press.

[3] Hatchuel, A. (2001). Towards Design Theory and expandable rationality: The unfinished program of Herbert Simon. Journal of management and governance, 5(3), 260–273.[2] Ruth Levitas. 2013. Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. Palgrave Macmillan.

[4] Rittel, H. W. (1987). The reasoning of designers. Montreal: IGP.

[5] Nelson, H. G., & Stolterman, E. (2003). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world: Foundations and fundamentals of design competence. Educational Technology.

[6] Polanyi, M. (2009). The tacit dimension. University of Chicago press.

[7] Schon, D. A., & DeSanctis, V. (1986). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action.

[8] Schön, D. A. (1992). Designing as reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation. Knowledge-based systems, 5(1), 3–14.

[9] Dorst, K. (2011). The core of ‘design thinking’ and its application. Design studies, 32(6), 521–532.

[10] Cross, N. (2001). Designerly ways of knowing: Design discipline versus design science. Design issues, 17(3), 49–55.

[11] Stolterman, E. (2008). The nature of design practice and implications for interaction design research.

Special thanks to professor Erik Stolterman.

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