Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter   2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  4

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements  or   text lay-out and pagination.


The Design Process of Problem Solving


Robin Vande Zande,  Kent State University

Vande Zande, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and coordinator of art education



The design process of problem solving, which provides a cognitive framework of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation is used by many professional designers to create solutions to design problems.  Students may be taught this process as an effective life skill, which starts with defining the problem and moving through steps to creating a logical solution. 



Problem solving is central to everyone’s existence.  People survive if they are fed, sheltered, and protected but they construct ways to obtain food, shelter, and protection through problem solving.  Though problems vary in complexity, survival at the one end and the pursuit of contentedness at the other, we are dependent on our ability to solve problems.  The design process is consistent with notions about effective practices for educating K-12 students: using theme-based and interdisciplinary instruction; fostering self-direction and independence; teaching topics relevant to the learner; using group interaction; promoting student discovery; and encouraging critical and creative exploration of ideas (Currier, 1986; Stevenson, 1992). Students discover through testing, revising, and retesting that there may be some solutions that are more effective than others but there are many possibilities for success.


Good design often is an assimilation of elements that involves observation, creative brainstorming, and collaboration. The word design refers to a goal-oriented process that is intended to meet needs to improve situations or to create something new and/or useful (Freidman, 2003). At the heart of designing is the design process, which follows a planned sequence of analytical, synthetic, and evaluative steps until the optimum solution is finalized. It may involve contemplating, speaking, writing, drawing, modeling, and constructing. The process follows stages that may be used sequentially or that may require the student to loop back and modify an earlier stage.  Prototypical models are often constructed, evaluated, and modified for solution development.


The Design Process

Stage One:  Define the Problem


Part One:  The teacher gives an assignment, which is presented as a problem to solve.  The students answer the questions of what, who, where, when, and how to gain clarity in defining the problem.  This could be done as a group or individually.  At the elementary level, it may be easiest for the teacher to guide the questions and complete stage one as a group.  At the middle or high school levels, it is up to the discretion of the teacher whether each team or individual is capable of completing this stage with little teacher guidance.


Example lesson: The teacher asks students to research different Native American tribes in order to gain an understanding of each group, such as their customs, celebrations, locations, indigenous foods, gender roles, history, and beliefs.  The teacher provides the problem that many people do not know the backgrounds of these tribes and as a result have some misconceptions about them, which could simply lead to questions or create prejudices.  The students are given the task of educating the public about Native American people.

An effective teaching strategy is created if the problem has relevance to the students’ lives.  Students may not be familiar with different Native American groups but they are familiar with books and book covers. A book cover is a form of advertising used to persuade someone to buy the book, or in this case, learn from the cover.  The teacher decides that by having the students create a book cover, which visually highlights the important aspects of a book, the students will need to know the content of the book.  In this example, the content is the background information about a Native American tribe. Once the research is completed, applying the information incorporates a higher level thinking skill. The student, as designer, needs to know the content of the book and reduce the content to its various essential elements in order to apply the information in a new form.

 This problem has two features: 1) getting the students to learn about Native Americans and 2) designing book covers to advertise the most essential information about the Native American tribe they are studying

Example of how to apply the questions for defining this design problem: 

What is needed?  A way to get people to better understand the different Native American tribes and their backgrounds

Who will benefit by it?  People of all ages may benefit from this.  Younger and older people may have established prejudices because they do not understand differences and how those affect the way individuals view the world and behave.

Why is it needed? To reduce misconceptions that may exist about Native American people.

Where will this be used?  This will be used by individuals who would normally see the book in a bookstore, library, or catalogue.  The book covers need to grab people’s attention.

When will this be used?  Anytime.


Part two:  Once the questions are answered, the students clearly state the problem.

Example:  Create a way to educate people about Native American tribes and some of their customs, celebrations, locations, indigenous foods, gender roles, history, and beliefs through the design of a book cover.  The focus group is the school community, people of all ages within the school community.  The purpose is to build understanding and reduce misconceptions about Native Americans.


Stage Two: Investigate and Research to Gather Data


Through interviews, articles, books, the Internet, observations, role-playing, and/or discussions, students research information that deals with the problem. 

Example: Divide students into 3-4 member groups and assign a different tribe to each group.  The students will research background information about one tribe and about book covers as advertising. Students then collect book covers to study how concepts are visually communicated, followed by a discussion on aesthetics and style.  During this discussion, the following topics would be covered:  the use of color and imagery to convey meaning and attract attention, the use of words and font styles to enhance meaning and influence the reader, and other devices used to make the message enticing. Students should record their observations.


The research stage may be something the students would like to circumvent so motivational strategies such as the following are important: 1) Divide the students into groups of  3 or 4,  which allows each person to concentrate on one part to research and not be overloaded with work plus gives each some responsibility; 2) Explain the importance of research with an example, illustrating the usefulness of obtaining and applying the information; 3) provide the instructional resources in easy access; 4) engage the students by asking questions to get them to be more interested in finding pertinent background information to answer the questions that may lead to a solution.


Stage three: Generate Ideas

Once the research is completed, the students allow their ideas to flow freely before attempting to move to the final solution.  Free association of ideas opens the possibilities for innovative and creative solutions to surface.  Creative thinking should be used to get beyond the first ideas that come to mind.


To develop creative thinking, avoid the following practices: 1) Do not seek the right answer- in brainstorming there is a danger in looking for THE right answer. There are many possible satisfactory solutions.  2) Do not apply logical thinking too early in the process- this closes off the chance of break-through ideas that may be pursued. 3) Do not try to be practical- this causes judgments of what works and what would not.  Some of the least practical ideas may be the seed of thought for the final solution.  4) Do not worry about making a mistake- this prevents positive risk-taking.  Creativity requires a leap into the unknown. 5) Do not think you are not creative- this makes it challenging to  become an inventive thinker.   Using these strategies and additional encouragement, the likelihood for student success will increase (Wycoff, 1991).


There are different ways to approach creative thinking. Three of these techniques are brainstorming, mindmapping, and rough sketching. Brainstorming is a procedure for generating solution possibilities through openly listing anything that comes to mind as it relates to the topic.  When done in a group, the facilitator clearly states the topic and the participants give suggestions.  The facilitator includes any idea WITHOUT editing. Once a comprehensive list is completed and the participants think they have used all ideas, the facilitator asks for 3-5 more ideas to stretch their thinking.


Mindmapping is a form of visual outlining.  The facilitator draws a rectangle or oval in the center of a paper.  Inside this shape, write one or two words, which define the focus of the problem.  The facilitator notes ideas as they are given, drawing lines out from the center focus and recording the idea. This is done quickly and everything that comes to mind gets recorded.  If it is easier, draw pictures, symbols, or use color to represent ideas (Wycoff, 1991).


Rough Sketching is done with a sketchbook/journal to record ideas.  For this form of creative thinking, multiple sketches are quickly made for possible solutions.  Once many ideas are generated, the best 2 or 3 solutions for development are recorded.  Rapid prototyping is a 3-dimensional version of this done by quickly constructing simple dimensional ideas with paper and tape. 


Example:  Having collected the information about Native Americans and book covers, students brainstorm ways to organize this information in order to educate the public.  They are reminded that this will be a book cover that influences people’s perceptions in a positive manner.  Through a careful selection of words, fonts, color, and a judicious choice of images, the book cover should be appealing and enlightening. The Internet is very useful for finding technical information and to better understand social issues (Pavlova, 2005).

Group A was assigned to research the Cherokee Indians.  This group did a mindmap then individually sketched ideas in their journals.  They compiled ideas for 2 designs and then compared the two.  The first design used the illustrated what contributions and similarities the Cherokee customs have on current mainstream American life.  The students collaged pictures and drawings of women carrying babies in cradleboards juxtaposed to babies in backpack carriers today.  Mohawk haircuts and tattoos on Cherokee men were placed adjacent to pictures of people displaying these current trends.  Foods eaten historically by the Cherokees are shown in the background, such as strawberries, cornbread, squash, and stews.  The second design used visual stories to illustrate various artwork as shown through their arts: totem poles, rugs, quillwork, kachina dolls, carvings, and jewelry.  The students found images from the Internet that they downloaded into a paint program and arranged with a computer program. 

Stage four: Select the Criteria for Success

This stage reflects the objectives of the lesson and defines the components of the design problem. The student or team selects the best solution to develop based on these criteria: creativity, aesthetics, community values, safety, location, or cost.

Example: Group A decided on the first design.  They gathered images from magazines, the Internet, photocopies from books, and literature from the National Native American Museum in Washington, D.C.  The students had to determine the best color, words, and font style that provided context and meaning.  Turquoise blue paper was chosen to represent turquoise jewelry.  A basketweave font representing Native American basketry was selected for the title.


Stage five: Determine the Work Plan

The students describe how the model prototype­­ will be made, what materials are needed, and approximately how long it will take to complete.


Stage six: Make the Model Prototype or Drawing

A carefully crafted model or drawing is made.


Stage seven: Test the Solution

In the final stage, the students may present the design solutions to other students, parents, faculty, administrators, or a group connected to the topic.  The audience is the “focus group” who will give feedback on the effectiveness of the solution. The various approaches for presentations may involve a planned lecture, a digital program (such as PowerPoint), graphics, presentation boards, video and audio documents, among others.


In developing a presentation, here are some points to follow:

1) Clearly state the design problem, give a brief background of the research, quickly explain the considered solutions, and show the final model stating why it was the best solution.

2) Keep the presentation short and simple.

3) Be accurate and relevant to your audience.


In planning the verbal portion of the presentation, think of it as theater in three acts with an introduction, the body, and conclusion (Gottesman & Mauro (2001).  The three acts include:

Act 1: The presenter starts the presentation with the introduction during which he/she clearly states the specific issue to be addressed, explains the points to be covered, and convinces the audience that they should care. 

Act 2: The body of the speech incorporates what the audience needs to hear, in a way they understand. 

Act 3:  The conclusion should be persuasively stated, noting what the audience is supposed to understand and remember.


In preparing a presentation board, the students should include drawings, sample swatches of textures and colors, photographs, graphs, diagrams, pictograms, and any other pertinent visual materials.  The textual information would include the most essential words and not any more.  The text should be easily visible by the audience and organized in a logical fashion.

Example: The students show the book cover to the focus group and ask what they understand by looking at it, without giving an explanation.  The students note the feedback.  If the feedback is on target with what they had hoped to convey, they have completed their assignment.  If it is not, they ask for further ideas to improve the message.  They then show a presentation board that includes the different possibilities they considered in deciding color, fonts, images, etc when they were creating the prototype.


Stage eight:  Evaluation

The students need to answer whether the focus group understood the prototype.  If the answer is no, then they determine what changes are needed and what is required to make those changes.




By using the design process for problem solving, a conceptual framework is presented that impels students to become self-directed learners who use inquiry, think at high levels, and solve problems. McTighe, Seif, and Wiggins (2004) explain that teachers should regularly use engaging, stimulating, and interactive instructional approaches.  Weiss and Pasley (2004) expand on this premise by emphasizing that high quality instruction occurs when students are challenged to engage deeply with the content, in part, through contributing their ideas and questions. The design process promotes a flexible, creative, integrated approach to establish a foundation of understanding through research in various areas and an integration of knowledge from many disciplines. The introduction of the design process is a step toward meaningful learning that engages the students interactively in a purposeful pursuit of knowledge.








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