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The Importance of Framing for Multidisciplinary Design Teams

character creativity innovation Apr 17, 2024

Framing a need or problem is one of the most critical steps in a design project. That certainly applies when the design project is going to be executed by a multidisciplinary team. One of the reasons why this is so, we can distract from the thinking hats of Edward de Bono.

These thinking hats help us look at a problem from various angles. The thinking hats let us look at a problem from an emotional or analytical angle, with a positive (aspirational) or negative (anxious) mindset or a creative or managerial attitude.

These thinking hats help us look at a problem from various perspectives but also remind us that we always look at problems from various perspectives, certainly when we are different people with different histories, experiences and competencies that shape our outlook.

When a multidisciplinary design team starts inquiring about a problem or need, it has the advantage of looking from different perspectives and coming to a holistic view of the need. However, at the beginning of the desk research or the framing phase, this often leads to a different understanding of the problem and a different conceptualisation of how the problem needs to be approached rather than a different perspective on the same approach.

When the perspective becomes the solution

From our perspective, we consider the need as an emotional need, a technological need, a lack of understanding, a problem of insufficient explanation, or a problem of inefficiently managed resources. As a result, we tend to end up with four or five or more issues detected, competing within the team for priority and attention. Unfortunately, solving a multitude of problems at the same time seldom works well.

It is almost obvious that the strength of working within a disciplinary design team lies in looking at the same problem, each with our own experience and perspective. But that requires an iterative growth of mutual understanding. And within that mutual understanding of the different perspectives with which we look at the same problem, we find the framing a multidisciplinary design team has to define. Even though it is still a not validated framed assumption of the need, we think we will handle it.

Thanks to Edward

When we then go back to the thinking hats of Edward de Bono and look at them as represented by colours, we have the perfect metaphor for what we try to do. By shining our different coloured lights on the problem, we end up with an enlighted frame of the need at stake. When we, as a design team, shine our lights on the same problem, we can build a more effective and sustainable solution that works for everyone. Other than when we all define a different root cause of a problem based upon our perspective.

The importance of framing

As Jonathan Hey describes in his inspirational book 'Effective Framing in Design' a shared frame is for multidisciplinary design teams, together with a ruthless focus on user needs, the most important aspect to successfully design solutions or new products.

As earlier stated, that initial framing is based primarily on desk research and thus on the design team's assumptions, which need to be validated as soon as the field research starts. Field research focuses on understanding the beneficiaries, their context, their suffering, and how they expect to be helped.

Initial framing and defining user needs are iterative activities that intermingle during messy design.

Where the first considers the perspective of the design team and their business objectives, the technological and economic environment they operate in, the second should solely focus on the beneficiary's context, need and perspective.

The interplay of both makes you end up at the upper right corner of the quadrant of framing and defining user needs. There, the gold is to be found.

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