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“On Design ‘Problematization’…” by Steve Harfield

Steve Harfield a Faculty member at the University of Technology in Sydney authored this article. The article explores design-related problems in architecture. As a Design teacher and scholar, Harfield has witnessed and overseen the commissioning and realization of various architectural designs. This is why the author decided to explore the subject of design-related problems in detail. The Journal of Design Studies first published this paper in 2006. The paper dwells on the argument that problems in a designing process are a ‘design goal’ as opposed to them being ‘a a given’.

The article focuses on the aspects of the designing process in architecture. According to the author, if designers are presented with a design challenge, all the competing designers will be essentially “working from the same brief” (Harfield 2006). The inherent differences in the submitted results are because of different levels of imagination, experience, skills, and professionalism. The author attributes his assertions to the fact that all designers receive similar training in designing and they have to adhere to some common practices.

Even though the author accepts the concept of ‘working from the same brief’, he disputes the concept that designers working on the same project are providing “different solutions to the same problem” (Harfield 2006). The author is of the view that these designers are providing various solutions to various problems. The article then addresses this premise by explaining the nature of architectural design problems. According to the article, a designer receives a set of guidelines when tackling a design problem. Therefore, any designing problem has a set of guidelines that act as ‘givens’. The author then addresses the principle of multiple solutions to a design problem.

The article argues that this principle is shaped by the fact that the solution to a design problem is not known in advance and it is derived from a close examination of the project’s requirements. In addition, the author is of the view that each designer focuses on some unique problems from the list of the project’s guidelines. This means that even when working on the same project, designers are not necessarily solving the same problems. The article concludes by stating that each design challenge presents several problems that the designers interpret differently.

This article addresses one of the basic concepts of architecture and that is the designing process. Architects interpret designing processes differently depending on their nature. The issue of architectural design problems is akin to several theories and approaches. After reading the introduction part of this article, it is easy to doubt the validity of the concept that the design process provides multiple solutions to multiple problems. To most architecture scholars and practitioners, the norm is that designing challenges and competitions serve to provide multiple solutions to a single problem. However, this article disputes this premise on various levels.

First, the article introduces a new description of ‘designing problems’. According to this article, designing problems are in form of “givens” when they are presented to designers (Harfield 2006). The concept of problems being “givens” is relatively new to many architecture scholars and practitioners but the author tackles it convincingly. Architectures approach a design problem to present their ‘version’ of the solution to the commissioners.

This article consists of various unfamiliar and interesting arguments. One of the most interesting arguments in this article concerns the ‘myth of the same problem’ (Harfield 2006). According to Harfield, before any problem is solved, it has to have a proto-solution. The nature of architectural designing problems conflicts with this proposition because a problem’s assessment cannot be conducted after a proto-solution has already been found.

In addition, proto-solutions are essentially part of the architectural designing problems. When summing up the invalidity of the problem-as-a-given concept, it is important to understand that this concept makes it necessary to have a proto-solution that “in turn becomes the design problem” (Harfield 2006). Architects cannot solve a problem whose solution they already have. Therefore, designing brief acts as both a solution and a problem for architects.

This means that the architects will approach the same design problem differently. Even if designing work is shaped by the nature of the problem at hand, each work represents a designer’s unique interpretation of a certain problem. This means that the accuracy of the proposition that designers provide different solutions to the same problem cannot be guaranteed.

The article also highlights an issue that is very relevant to architecture scholars and practitioners. This issue concerns the role of a brief in the designing process. Most architects consider the brief to be the ‘problem’ in the designing process (Jonas 2003). This means that designers will be seeking to ‘solve’ the issues that are detailed in a design brief. Briefs also give rise to the belief that designing challenges seek different solutions to the same problem. This article contradicts this concept. However, the article agrees with most designers that a brief acts as a professional guideline. In addition, the article concurs that a brief could also be termed as the design’s problem.

The main discrepancy between the popular description of a brief and the article’s description is the article’s reference to “designer’s overlay” (Harfield 2006). Most architecture scholars and practitioners rarely consider this aspect. The truth is that each designer makes individualistic interpretations of any brief. These interpretations do not necessarily relate to professional issues. However, the interpretations prompt the designers to choose a certain path when solving the problems defined by the brief. Not many designers have ever considered the individualistic interpretation of a brief until it is addressed in this paper.

There are a few validity issues concerning this article. The claims made by the author in this article represent relatively new views when it comes to design-related problems. In addition, the author’s claims seem more philosophical than architectural. The theory suggested in this article relies on minute details like the proposition of a design problem being a ‘given’. Architects have always approached designing problems with the view of providing different solutions to the same problem.

Therefore, the concept of the problem-as-a-given is controversial according to many architects. It is also unlikely that architects will start embracing this concept when they are tackling designing projects. Architects are also likely to continue relying on the brief as their guideline for designing projects. The concept of architectural briefs acting as proto-solutions will take time before it is embraced by the architectural community. Nevertheless, if subsequent studies back up the claims made by the author, this trend might change. Harfield’s ‘theory of problematization’ is a new addition to the existing architectural theories and it might take time before it gains prominence.

List of References

Harfield, S 2006, “On design ‘problematization’: Theorising differences in designed outcomes”, Design Studies, vol. 28, pp. 159-173.

Jonas, W 2003, “Design as problem-solving? Or: here is the solution – what was the problem?”, Design Studies, vol. 14 no. 2, pp. 157-170.

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"“On Design ‘Problematization’…” by Steve Harfield." ApeGrade, 10 Apr. 2022, apegrade.com/on-design-problematization-by-steve-harfield/.

1. ApeGrade. "“On Design ‘Problematization’…” by Steve Harfield." April 10, 2022. https://apegrade.com/on-design-problematization-by-steve-harfield/.


ApeGrade. "“On Design ‘Problematization’…” by Steve Harfield." April 10, 2022. https://apegrade.com/on-design-problematization-by-steve-harfield/.


ApeGrade. 2022. "“On Design ‘Problematization’…” by Steve Harfield." April 10, 2022. https://apegrade.com/on-design-problematization-by-steve-harfield/.


ApeGrade. (2022) '“On Design ‘Problematization’…” by Steve Harfield'. 10 April.

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