This series has been an introduction to Takram as a design innovation studio, and Pendulum Thinking, the mental framework within which we leverage the creative methodologies of Prototyping, Storyweaving, and Problem-Reframing to iterate concepts, ideas, and future visions by continually oscillating between the reference points of context, user and product.
We have reached our final installment in our series, an introduction to the methodology of Problem Reframing and how we approach the 'problem-solution' dynamic. Where the nature of a problem is not fully crystalized but an iterative investigation into a situation or context; where, as is the nature of discovery, the process reveals new information that impacts upon the focus, direction and ambitions of the project.
Problem-reframing means getting to the root of why designers ask questions
"During the project's progress, one should always be mindful of the 'problem's resolution' and check whether the problem appears to be clear and precise, or vague and uncertain. In the case of the latter, one should first work on shifting the emphasis from the solution back to the problem."
—Kinya, Founder of Takram
While many problems can be solved by a trial and error process if KGIs and KPIs for the project can be benchmarked within & without the organization, some problems cannot be treated as absolute and definitive. Encountering these scenarios in the course of our work resulted in a specific methodology to advance problems that cannot be solved by simply answering the question at hand.
We initially approached this project from a design perspective, investigating new and potential new technologies, and designing to this future scenario and context. The resulting concepts were either reasonable and functional, if not particularly exciting, or outlandish and improbable, but lacking in spirit and uniqueness necessary to broach the gap between reality and imagination that such a premise demanded.
"Needless to say, the approach of tackling an engineering problem from a design perspective is difficult to fulfill if one insists on working inside one discipline."
- Kinya, Founder of Takram
In trying, but ultimately failing, to reconcile an advanced water bottle with a compelling future vision that included 100 years of technological progress, we had hit an impasse. While the methodologies of Prototyping and Storyweaving – the acts of thinking and making, and the oscillation between concrete and abstract – had allowed us to construct a relevant future context and design 'advanced water bottles', they were the resulting answers to the question posed in the brief. This realization saw us begin to question the nature of the 'problem' as presented; is the 'problem' itself limiting our own creative endeavor?
By reframing the problem to approach it from a more abstract position, we were able to pose questions for which the answers had been taken for granted at the outset of the project; why does a human need a water bottle in the first place?
The Shenu Hydrolemic, demonstrated on body
The Shenu Hydrolemic System, product close up
The resulting Shenu Hydrolemic System not only fulfilled the brief, but also gave us two important discoveries that have benefitted subsequent projects; the quality of a solution depends upon the quality of the problem, and problems as presented can themselves silently block the mind or cloud judgement. Being unaware of this limitation can stall the entire process, and being cognizant that the information presented will be limited, it is therefore worth spending the time and energy necessary to examine its precision; is the brief addressing the underlying challenge that the business and/or project seeks to overcome?
Problem-Reframing can only be strengthened by insights
As is the nature of our oscillating methodologies, Problem-Reframing, much like Prototyping and Storyweaving, is an ongoing process that is implemented continuously and repetitively to drive a project forward. However, while 'story' and 'prototype' are the resulting elements of a project, the 'problem' will always be the starting point for these iterative elements, and thus has the power to determine the directionality, and ultimately success, of a project.
Problem & solution are the polarities of Problem Reframing's oscillating pendulum whereby we're continually questioning the brief and the potential for contextual solutions to ensure the problem is precise, accurate, and well defined. Even if the problem has been decided upon, it never becomes absolute, but continues to be refined and adjusted as it remains in perpetual comparison to the quality of its solution.
When subsequently confronted with projects that are atypical or hard to base on previous experience, we have found value in Problem Reframing to ensure we explore the most relevant perspectives. Alongside our own exposure to the problem and its potential solutions, our conjectures are supplemented by further anecdotal information resulting from the interviews we conduct as part of our Storyweaving process. Performing interviews like these can generate large amounts of contextual information, which enables us to examine the consistencies and contradictions, while also uncovering constituent elements of the problem that can influence both the nature of the underlying challenge and the potential for robust problem solving.
By continuing to modify the problem, we modify the solution, and by considering the parameters of thought as flexible and limitless instead of established, as is typically the case when progressing on a linear problem to solution journey, we are able to think freely, which allows greater room for the breakthroughs necessary to deliver transformative innovations where there is no established benchmark for functionality or experience.
Heavy Load, a project commissioned by the Dirty Furniture magazine, explores a fictional scenario depicting a factory in which workers wear automatic toileting devices in order to increase their efficiency and compete with automation, but also to liberate them from one of our most limiting human needs – having to go to the toilet.
Problem-Reframing requires looking through multiple lenses
As touched upon in our introduction to Pendulum Thinking, the ability to confidently traverse different disciplines is an empathetic mindset of Takram members and the foundation upon which we approach problem-solving.
We term this ability "Trans-Shift", which is achieved when a person is well-versed in numerous different fields and can perceive a challenge from a variety of different angles to generate a 3-dimensional or compound understanding of the problem. In essence, an answer or solution cannot be precise, comprehensive or robust if the problem is approached from a single perspective. When employing this technique however, one must be aware of the transcendental viewpoint versus the day-to-day reality of operational management. We address this with the term "Meta-Shift", which is the ability to see the problem in its entirety (bottom up and top down).
Trans-Shift is the act of crossing different specialties. Meta-Shift is the metacognition necessary to effectively navigate organizational structures
Meta-Shift is the metacognition necessary to navigate internal politics, hierarchies, timelines, and responsibilities of an organization to question the underlying thinking of a project brief, which ensures the project is asking (and answering) the RIGHT questions necessary to deliver the overarching ambitions of the business as opposed to any fragmented or incremental value.
Such compound problems & scenarios require compound individuals to manage the different pressures and considerations that naturally arise. Otherwise known as Design Engineers, Takram is built upon this behavior.
Our Design Engineers are hybrid talents with the ability to view a problem from a design, engineering, business and user perspective, rapidly deconstruct a problem, achieve clarity in where potential solutions or directions might lie, and advance, pivot or entirely reframe the problem to the benefit of the overall project. This form of compound vision is achieved over the course of many years of project experience, and the exposure to conflicting situations where design ambitions and technological capabilities are often at odds. Many companies build teams to deliver such compound perspectives, whereas Takram strives to achieve this level of stereopsis within individual members.
Over the last 14 years, we have often encountered situations requiring us to engage neighboring experts for their opinion, advice, and perspectives to effectively deconstruct and frame a problem, and project members benefit immensely from this input, particularly if their hypothesis is firmly grounded within their own specialism.
Of course, different experts will have a tendency to rely upon their own specialism to discuss a problem, typically including language and terminology specific to their field, thus Prototyping and Storyweaving facilitate the multi-faceted conversations around hypothesis or concept, and it is during this discourse that the moment of Problem-Reframing arrives. When one is able to establish the problem in a way that transcends different domains, responsibilities, and considerations involved in the project, it is in these instances that our methodologies come together to deliver creative problem solving unattainable in more cascading processes where potential frictions are not addressed effectively and in real time.
"The significance of Problem Reframing lies in finding a new problem by repeatedly shifting between problem and solution. In other words, it is the act of finding a new problem by layering the repetition of Trans-Shift over the repetition of Meta-Shift, and when they overlap, we bring in Prototype and Story to further augment the power of Problem-Reframing."
- Kinya, Founder of Takram
All three methodologies grounded in Pendulum Thinking were developed in search for values that are yet discovered. Oftentimes, when one is unsure of what to create, how to create it, or what the solution might look like, there can be a tendency to avoid the underlying question entirely, but by reframing the question from a point of learned experience, any challenges or barriers can be confidently circumvented without losing sight of the overall ambitions of the project.
"Though a mountain may be conquered from different paths, it is the goal of Takram to demonstrate our own unique direction, subsumed in the idea that Takram's existence is itself a hypothesis and a prototype towards discovering and deploying new values."
- Kinya, Founder of Takram
By confronting these types of projects and breaking new ground with new thinking, we contribute not only to our own growth as individuals and as an agency, but to the growth of society as a whole.
Yosuke is a creative technologist based in London and Director at Takram, a design innovation firm based in Tokyo and London. His primary interests are centred around emerging technologies. He probes future visions that they promise, reveals the cultural and political mechanisms behind them, and illustrates insights through making various prototypes. By doing so, he aims to facilitate in-depth understanding of the implication of emerging technologies, and encourage better-informed decision-making on our future.