Brendon Bussy

The Problem of Stating Problems

Posted in Invention, New Old Old New by Brendon Bussy on January 14, 2011

At the end of last year I popped in to see Johan van Niekerk at CPUT’s* Industrial Design Department to discuss the problem of stating problems.

Earlier in the year I’d spoken to students at his department about the possibilities for musical instrument design (see my New Old Old New Project).  After that presentation I was approached by a few students who were keen to find music related design problems to develop as projects.  After some discussion a few project ideas emerged.  However a little later on I got to thinking – what if it were possible to anticipate these questions by creating an ongoing data base of ‘problems’ in serious need of a solution.  A resource not only for students but also designers and engineers looking for a challenge or even product idea.

It seemed like a good idea, but what would it consist of?  What essentials would it contain to describe the problems posed? And what language would it use? Would it be from the perspective of the user/musician “I want a faster fret board for my guitar for playing faster riffs”, or from the perspective of the designer/engineer “a guitar fretting system which allows for more efficient fretting hand maneuverability”.  How detailed would it be and would the problem statement also include a suggested solution?

In short, how or what would it need to state for it to be a useful resource?

During our discussion, Johan very helpfully sketched out an approach to formulating a design problem by viewing it from different objective perspectives.
Viewed objectively, what need does a stated problem reveal?  Or put another way, what need prompted the formulation of this problem?

In the example here – was it a need to play faster on all guitars or just a specific guitar i.e. is it a universal (unsolved) problem or a problem with a particular guitar?  Was the need prompted by a limitation of the fretboard or another aspect of the guitar?  Or is the need prompted by a need to play faster? In which case the problem to be solved might be more to do with the player’s technique, or even more broadly, the need for a new kind of instrument?  Or even an analysis of the role of speedy playing and the enjoyment or success of the player?

Each of these objectifying perspectives gives more or less focus to the needs that prompted the problem.  Is the problem a problem at all?  Or can it be wholly or partially solved by taking a fresh approach?

* CPUT is the Cape Peninsula University of Technology

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