Problem Solving is Complicated. Design is not the Panacea

Problem Solving is Complicated. Design is not the Panacea

It was Tuesday, December 12, 1799 when a rather famous man rode home on the wings of a snowstorm. Feeling unwell the next day and the one that followed, he continued his work. By Saturday however, he was unwell enough, with a sore throat and difficulty breathing, to summon medical help. Over the course of the next twelve hours or so, attending physicians tried a great many things. The most profound of which was draining nearly five pints (~2.3 litres) of the famed man’s blood. 

The end of the story was, unsurprisingly, the famed man’s eventual death shortly afterwords. The man was George Washington and his death has been a subject of medical controversy ever since, though it seems logical that removing nearly forty percent of the body’s blood as treatment couldn’t have helped matters. 

The choice of bloodletting as the fundamental treatment for George Washington was unsurprising. It was the practice of the time, drawing down on nearly two thousand years of accepted practice, all of the way down from the great Ancient Greek physician Galen. According to Galen, the body was composed of four humours; blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. 

Bloodletting seemed an obvious cure-all to so many things, the great panacea for all that ailed us. It reduced fever, which was perceived to be due to an over-abundance of blood in the system. As an aside, the use of leeches to take blood from those hard-to-reach places is the reason that medical professionals in that Middle Ages were called ‘leeches.’

We have a history of turning a method, practice or idea that may or may not deserve support into an unassailable belief that is useful in all cases; the ultimate panacea. And I think we might be doing it again with the practice of design.

For a long time, our concept of design was tied tightly to the physical presentation of the things we make; the shape, form and appearance. Over the last fifty years or so, from about the time the word ‘ergonomics’ was coined, various forms of design-oriented methodologies have grown to encompass research, creative ideation, testing, prototyping and advocacy for the things we make. We’ve also shifted from focusing on how design can apply beyond physical things, to the design of services, spaces and social / economic structures. 

As design’s perceived impact has grown, so has our mass deification of it. Up to the point that many suggest that design (or more often ’design thinking’) will save the world. To me, as soon as something becomes the catch-all solution, it has shifted from an interesting and useful lens, to a full blown panacea; a belief that something that works in all cases. 

It’s likely out desire to make things into a cure-all links to our economic incentives for doing so. Cure-alls have complete and almost magical power. The owner or purveyor of a panacea has great economic power over those that perceive they need it. Perhaps it also comes from a deeper psychological desire for social power. If something is a cure-all, and we are in charge of it, then we have a lot of power. Like the oracles of long ancient past, whispering their secrets of the future in smoke filled caves, there is power in appearing to give people all the answers. It’s much harder to not have answers. It’s hard to ask questions. It’s easier to feel to provide a direct answer and to be in control of that answer. 

The problem is, in medicine at least, a panacea is not likely possible. There are too many different causes for a disease that a single solution can solve for every cause. So too, in the complex, interconnected and often technologically induced problems of the modern world, no single methodology can tackle them all. 

I also don’t think there is such a thing as a problem solving panacea. Like the biology, chemistry and physics that underpin medicine, the social, political and economic forces that underpin the modern world demand a wide array of strategy, research, design, construction and testing methods. 

Each wicked problem (defined as problems with incomplete, contradictory, changing and interconnected requirements) requires a new blend of problem-solving techniques. Complex problem solving then depends less on packaged methods, but on our ability to adapt to change. It relies on a lot more trial and error than any of us would like to admit. 

These are not easy approaches. Nor are they tidy. They are harder to summarise on a poster, slide or speech. It is easier to rally behind the simpler narrative that design is a panacea for all that ails the world. Consider how long it took for the belief in the panacea of bloodletting to fade away from accepted medical practice. As recently as 1920, Sir William Osler, founder of John Hopkins noted, 

“To bled at the very onset in robust, healthy individuals in whom the disease sets in with great intensity and high fever is good practice.” (From: Take Your Medicine).  

The design-oriented lens is powerful, but it is just one of many lenses. Design doesn’t necessarily focus on how nature works, how people are incentivised, or how ideas spread into culture, or how we can deeply and accurately measure the impacts of our technology. For that I feel I need to turn to science, economics, engineering or many other powerful lenses. 

It’s only when we take such a rich, system-level perspective that we can start to see how many different ways of thinking can fit together to provide useful responsive problem solving frameworks. James Bridle, author of the wonderful work New Dark Age, says it best: 

“True literacy in systems consists of much more than simple understanding, and must be understood and practiced in multiple ways. It goes beyond a system’s functional use to comprehend its contexts and consequences. It refuses to see the application of any one system as a cure-all, insisting upon the interrelationships of systems and the inherent limitations of any single solution...” (From: New Dark Age)  

Design is a powerful system, but it is not and can never be a panacea. To wrestle with the challenges of today we need to draw from everything we’ve learned as a species so far. Science offers a powerful mindset to identify patterns and provide explanations. Engineering provides ways of deploying solutions at scale. Economics lets us see down into the movement of money, markets and deep incentives. They all have a part to play. We need to be comfortable with the ambiguity of mixing and matching many ways of thinking; flexibly and adaptively. Lest we risk metaphorically draining our ‘patients’ of all their lifeblood with our single minded application of what we perceive to be a catch-all way of thinking.


Bridle, James (2018) New Dark Age - Technology and the End of the Future. Verso. United Kingdom. 

Burch, Druin (2009) Taking the Medicine. Vintage: Great Britain. 

Hayes, Bill (2005) Five Quarts - A Personal and Natural History of Blood. Ballantine. New York. 

Rawsthorn, Alice (2014) Hello World: Where Design Meets Life. Harry N. Abrams:  United Kingdom.

Photo Cure-All (c) 2019 by Christopher Roosen

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