Problem framing

Seeing problems in new ways — how (re-) framing contributes to tackling societal challenges

There is a scene, described by anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972), in which he is observing two young monkeys playing at the zoo. The monkeys are playfully biting each other and Bateson wonders how these animals know that the bites mean ‘play’, not ‘combat’, and that their corresponding behaviour should reflect play too, not combat. Bateson described this phenomenon as ‘framing’. Based on some kind of ‘meta-communication’, the monkeys know how to interpret or frame the behaviour of the other monkey and how to respond.

The concept of framing was developed in sociology to explain human behaviour in interaction with other human beings. How we behave in social situations is determined by how we see or ‘frame’ that situation. Some frames are more conducive to positive outcomes than others. For example, seeing yourself as a victim is commonly known to be a frame that prevents people from taking action. When we are experiencing a difficult situation, we can often find ways forward by changing the way we see the problem. When you see yourself as a victim, a coach or psychotherapist can help you to ‘reframe’ the situation to a more productive one. In this way, seeing the problem differently can open up new pathways for solutions.

Deliberate framing and reframing is not only useful in dealing with personal challenges, it is increasingly used by professionals who are looking for ways to address complex societal challenges. These people work in the public sector, government or social sector and are tackling problems such as disadvantaged youth, crime, and chronic illnesses in a process that we call public and social innovation. See for example this video of UTS Designing Out Crime in which they explain how reframing is key to tackling safety issues.

In a recent study, I investigated how social innovation practitioners generate frames that help them find productive ways to address complex challenges. The results of the study are published in this (open access) article in She Ji — the Journal of Design, Economics and Innovation. In this blog post I summarise the results. What I found was that:

  • Problem frames and corresponding solutions ‘co-evolve’, meaning that solutions are not always generated after the problem has been framed, but that they can also inform the way a problem is framed.
  • Social innovation practitioners use various sophisticated principles and practices to generate problem frames, including qualitative and explorative research, solution generation and prototyping, systemic design principles, and thinking and reflection tools
  • As a result, problem framing is not a step-by-step process, but rather an organic process that requires specific and high-level expertise to navigate

Fruitful frames

Psychotherapists and social innovation practitioners are not the only professionals who use frames. Framing manifests itself in multiple professional disciplines. Politicians, activists and journalists often skilfully play with frames when trying to influence how the public thinks about certain societal problems and how they should be addressed. For example, framing anti-abortion as being about ‘pro-life’ might change the way we think about abortion and as a consequence about the required policy and legislation.

Framing is also considered an important skill of designers — such as product and fashion designers and architects -, as the way they frame a certain design brief or problem impacts the resulting design. This idea was first introduced by scholar Donald Schön (1983) in his book the ‘Reflective Practitioner’ and found following in the design research field. For example, Nigel Cross (2007) stated “It is often not at all clear what ‘the problem’ is, it may have been only loosely defined by the client, many constraints and criteria may be un-defined, and everyone involved in the project may know that goals may be re-defined during the project. […] Designers then “find and formulate problems within the broad context of the design brief.”

Some frames are more conducive to leading to solutions than others. My colleague Kees Dorst, who is an expert in the role that framing plays in design processes, often talks about ‘fruitful’ frames: frames that open up the ‘space’ of available solutions. I became very interested in how we can generate such fruitful frames when we are addressing complex societal problems.

What do we know about creating frames?

Literature provides some preliminary answers to the question of how we create fruitful frames. The focus in sociology and policy has predominantly been on the way that frames are used, not so much on how these frames are generated. The design research field provides some more insight into how frames are generated. Most influential is a study by Dorst and Cross (2001) presented in this often-cited article, in which they show that design is a process of co-evolution of problem and solution. They write: “It seems that creative design is not a matter of first fixing the problem, and then searching for a satisfactory solution concept. Creative design seems more to be a matter of developing and refining together both the formulation of a problem and ideas for a solution”.

Over the past decade, design has made its way into business and public and social sector through the ‘design-thinking’ movement, as a way to become more innovative. A plethora of methods and tools is available for people who want to learn more about designing. When it comes to framing there is little support available. A well-known and often used model is the ‘double-diamond’ model developed by the UK Design Council, which shows that framing is an explicit part of the design process, and that it requires diverging and converging: multiple frames need to be developed before converging to a selected problem frame, generating multiple solutions for the selected frame, and eventually converging to a selected solution.

the Double Diamond model (adapted from suggests that designing is a process of diverging and converging to a problem frame, before diverging and converging to a solution

How social innovation practitioners go about framing — beyond the double diamond

To further explore the question of how we can generate frames to address complex societal challenges, I started looking at people who are doing very interesting work in this space, namely people working in so-called public and social innovation agencies. These agencies work within or alongside public and social sector organisations, and are addressing complex societal challenges.

In collaboration with my colleague Bridget Malcolm I investigated how public and social innovation practitioners go about problem framing through a case-study approach. In conversations with five international innovation agencies we selected one case-study per agency, and analysed their practices by interviewing multiple team members and stakeholders and analysing documentation that was generated in the respective project. The agencies were Kennisland(Netherlands), MindLab (Denmark), InWithForward (Canada), The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI, Australia), and the Alberta CoLab (Canada). More information about the case studies can be found in the paper. The example that I will use in this blog post is from TACSI who were working with Family and Community Services, the Australian Centre for Child Protection and the Sidney Myer fund, on a project called ‘Rethinking Restoration’ aimed at improving the foster care system.

The framing patterns

The first thing we analysed in the case studies were the ‘patterns’ of the way that problem frames and solutions were developed (please note that in the article I adopt the term ‘problem solving’ as used in design research literature, which does not translate well to complex societal challenges, see footnote). In all case-studies we found that the problem frames evolved over time. For example, in the case of TACSI the initial framing of the problem was: “how do we enable more children to safely return home to their families, stay home and thrive?”. This then evolved to “how might we better enable children and families engaging with the child protection system to live safely and thrive?”, accepting that returning home might not always be the preferred option for children and their families. Finally, one fruitful frame that resulted from the process was: “how might foster care build and maintain parental capability and keep families together?”. This frame was connected to a co-parenting model that promotes healthy ongoing engagement with both families in the best interest of children (see also Rethinking Restoration).

We also found that frames and solutions diverged, but this pattern was different than the double diamond suggests. Firstly, four of the five cases did not converge to one frame or solution, but they used multiple frames and solutions to tackle the issue. This makes sense, because we know from complexity theory that complex problems cannot be ‘solved’ as such. Instead we need what can be called a ‘portfolio’ of multiple initiatives to move a complex system into a desired direction. See also this blog post I wrote with Claire Buré about how we work together in such complex contexts.

Secondly, the solutions were not generated after the generation and selection of the frame, as suggested in the double diamond. Instead, the framing processes showed a pattern of co-evolution of problem and solution similar to those described by Dorst and Cross (2001). Generating and testing possible solutions in prototypes, often changed the way the problem was framed.

Four of the five case studies showed a pattern of evolution of the problem frame that included divergence and convergence in framing, co-evolution of problem frame with the proposed solution, and selecting and developing multiple problem frames and associated solutions

Drivers of the framing process

The second thing we analysed were the ‘drivers’ of the framing process: the practices and principles that the innovation agencies used to inform the generation of frames. These drivers included:

  • Qualitative and explorative research methods, investigating the problem from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives. Methods included deep and rapid ethnography, collecting “stories,” consulting experts and literature reviews, in-depth interviews, card sorting and journey mapping etc.
  • Evaluating and reflecting on potential solutions, to build a better understanding of the problem. These iterations ranged from testing low-fidelity prototypes in co-design sessions early on in the process, to more developed prototypes that they then tested in real-world contexts
  • Thinking and reflection tools (that do not require stakeholder involvement), such as the use of metaphors and systems thinking tools such as concept maps, rich picture maps and iceberg models.
  • Guiding principles such as opening up the initial brief and systemic thinking principles. An example of the latter is ‘two-track thinking’ where the problem was framed both on a general, systemic level, and a service level to address specific problems for the target group.

In addition to the framing drivers that we found in the cases, there are various methods available that integrate one or more of these drivers in the framing process such as Kees Dorst’s Frame Innovation method, and the Social Implication Design method developed by my colleagues Nynke Tromp & Paul Hekkert.

Framing requires expertise

Combining problem framing evolution patterns (divergence/convergence, evolution and co-evolution of problem and solution) with the different drivers for that framing (research, solution testing, thinking tools, and principles) reveals innovation practices that are distinct and non-linear. The practitioners did not follow a step-by-step process, but instead one that was explorative and emergent. In the article I argue that to navigate such organic processes requires high-level expertise.

To learn such an expert practice requires time and — well — practice. But at the start of the learning process we need something to hold on to, a step-by-step process that we can follow. Compare it to learning how to dance, where we initially have to consciously follow and take steps (1,2,3,1,2,3..) but after lots of practice we do it intuitively. Or to learning how to cook, where we initially need strict recipes, but after lots of practice we can cook more intuitively and improvise.

This is exactly why a model such as the double diamond is so useful for people who are new to design and to social innovation. To provide people with enough expertise to tackle these complex societal challenges, more practice is required. This does not just count for expertise in problem framing, but for all practices that are required to tackle complex societal challenges. I would therefore like to recommend that public and social organisations who are looking for new ways of working do not only invest in training existing staff who are novices, but also hire or engage with experts. A successful way to do this seems to be the approach of some of the participating innovation agencies, who combine working on real-world projects with training staff in ‘problem-based capability building’, where existing novice staff and experts collaborate.

Do you want to know more? In the paper I further discuss these capability building programs and more details about the case studies and the results: van der Bijl — Brouwer, Mieke. 2019. “Problem framing expertise in public and social innovation.” She ji: The Journal of Design, Economics and Innovation 5 (1):29–43.


I would like to thank all the participants in this study for their time and input to the research. I am particularly grateful for the support and openness of the five participating innovation agencies. I would furthermore like to thank Bridget Malcolm for her assistance in conducting this study; Lindsay Asquith, Kees Dorst, Ahmee Kim, and Rebecca Price for their feedback on an earlier version of this paper; and Ken Friedman, Jin Ma, Jianne Whelton and the reviewers of She Ji for their help in getting the paper ready for publication in She Ji.


  • Bateson, Gregory. 1972. “A theory of play and fantasy.” In Steps to an ecology of mind, 177. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Cross, Nigel. 2007. Designerly Ways of Knowing. Basel: Birkhauser.
  • Dorst, Kees, and Nigel Cross. 2001. “Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of problem-solution.” Design Studies 22 (5):425–437.
  • Schön, Donald. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.


Acknowledging that in complex situations problems are interconnected and so cannot be completely resolved, the connotations associated with the term problem solving in traditional design practice seems less appropriate for practice adapted to suit public and social innovation. As Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber argue, “Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved — over and over again.” Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, no. 2 (1973): 160, DOI:

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