Her colleagues often repeated that ‘there is no perfect solution to a design problem‘. Rebecca was pretty sure she had read it somewhere within the context of computer science or learning technology but after looking all over, she still had not found a solid source for the idea. After posting her question to the mailinglist, Luke e-mailed almost instantaneously:
It sounds like you are looking for Rittel and Webber’s third of ten characteristics of wicked problems:
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad1
The ‘third characteristic’ Luke was referring to, came from a book on the theory of planning:
For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness.
Jude thought that it was something Herbert Simon might have said:
Evidently, organisms adapt well enough to ‘satisfice’; they do not, in general, ‘optimize’.
A ‘satisficing’ path, a path that will permit satisfaction at some specified level of all its needs.2
In her e-mail Jude explained what she thought Simon meant by that:
What is good enough is certainly better than what is not good enough.
The bar for what satisfices can be raised over time, this achieving the even better, but not necessary the best.
Neil agreed with Jude and added a reference to Henry Petroski’s Small Things Considered where the same concept of ‘satisficing’ accounts for the role of decision making in design. Rebecca was not sure which of these two quotes would be more useful for her research.
Design must always conform to constraint, must always require choice, and thus must always involve compromise.
We live in a world of imperfect things, just as we do in a world of imperfect fellow human beings.3
Prue suggested the gnomic but brilliant remark made by Ray or Charles Eames:
The best you can do between now and Tuesday is a kind of best you can do.4
Terence was not being very helpful. He felt she might first need to ask herself what it meant for something to be a ‘perfect’ design solution.
Derek suggested that all of this was spinning around good oldfashioned pragmatism. Therefore the relevant source would not be a designer, but psychologist and philosopher William James:
We say this theory solves it on the whole more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasize their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.5
Ranolph liked to apply Samuel Beckett’s famous quote from Worstward Ho as a definition of design:
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.6
and pointed her to the reworked Rittel and Webber statement by Jeff Conklin:
Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.7
She closed her laptop, smiled to herself and thought:
Perfect is the enemy of good.8
- Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.
- Simon, H. A. (1956). “Rational choice and the structure of the environment”. Psychological Review, Vol. 63 No. 2, 129-138.
- Small things considered: Why there is no perfect design. New York: Vintage Books, 2004
- Quoted in Eames Demetrios, 2001, An Eames Primer, New York Universe Publishing p 173. Prue Bramwell-Davis.
- Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. William James, 1907
- Samuel Becket: Worstward Ho, 1983
- Conklin, Jeff; “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,” Wiley; 1st edition, 18 November 2005
- Voltaire in La Bégueule, Contes, 1772