Hugh Dubberly’s Approach to Understanding Problems

I’m a fan of Hugh Dubberly and the work of Dubberly Design Office. Not only have I learned much from Mr. Dubberly throughout my career, I’ve also had the honor of having him write the foreword for Living in Information and the privilege of teaching alongside him at CCA. A post on the Design Practices & Paradigm’s blog summarizes his career and approach to design, and includes this amazing list:

Dubberly’s approach to understanding problems is heavily influenced by Horst Rittel’s definition of simple and wicked problems. They key traits are listen here:

  • Simple problems (problems which are already defined) are easy to solve, because defining a problem inherently defines a solution.
  • The definition of a problem is subjective; it comes from a point of view. Thus, when defining problems, all stake-holders, experts, and designers are equally knowledgeable (or unknowledgeable).
  • Some problems cannot be solved, because stake-holders cannot agree on the definition. These problems are called wicked, but sometimes they can be tamed.
  • Solving simple problems may lead to improvement—but not innovation. For innovation, we need to re-frame wicked problems.
  • Because one person cannot possibly remember or keep track of all the variables (of both existing and desired states) in a wicked problem, taming wicked problems requires many people.
  • These people have to talk to each other; they have to deliberate; they have to argue.
  • To tame a wicked problem, they have to agree on goals and actions for reaching them. This requires knowledge about actions, not just facts.
  • Science is concerned with factual knowledge (what-is); design is concerned with instrumental knowledge (how what-is relates to what-ought-to-be), how actions can meet goals.
  • The process of argumentation is the key and perhaps the only method of taming wicked problems.
  • This process is political.
  • Design is political.

The whole post is worth your attention.

The “Magic” Behind the Curtain: Understanding the Design Process of Hugh Dubberly