problem finding, not just problem solving

one of the guests on a recent obsessed with design surfaced a really good question. the guest was stephan ango, co-founder of lumi, and his thought-provoking question went something like this.

design is really good at problem solving. we teach designers to understand a context and constraints, and then they design (create) solutions.

so we (design schools and the design profession) teach students to be designers and to solve problems, but why don’t we teach problem finding? in fact, in many studio/project classes we teach students to redesign chairs and toasters (over and over and over), but that leaves the nagging question… do we really need a better chair?

now, from an episode of on being (which i can’t quite recall), i remember a woman talking about how and why we create. and, like she said, i believe that a fundamental part of human nature is to make things better, more beautiful than necessary, and in increasingly efficient ways.

but that said, design teaches and heralds people who are great problems solvers (think the eames’ and the eames chair)… but the problems those people solve don’t necessarily need solving. ango wonders why we don’t teach people to be better problem finders, and not just problem solvers. it’s easy to remake chairs over and over again. 

why not ask bigger, harder questions, and see what design has to offer? sure, it may not “solve” the worlds greatest problems, but it’s sure to net the world more positive than making another goddamn chair.

in a parallel way (i think), academia does the same thing. in the process of writing my thesis, i was forced to narrow my topic so much that the question i ended up researching almost wasn’t even worth answering. this is a common phenomenon (ask anyone who has gone to graduate school where an output was a paper). and, in the scheme of my program, my thesis constraints were very liberal.

the phd process is that same problem narrowing process, but to the nth degree. the process creates people who are experts about a very specific slice of the world. often it’s debatable (as several of my current phd earning friends will attest) if their work and research is or will ever be meaningful.

so how do we train people to be better problem solvers and problem finders?