Frame Innovation

“Organizations from the public and private sector alike are realizing that the open, complex, dynamic, and networked problem situations that characterize our modern world require framing to make them amenable to solution.” Kees Dorst


A discovery of storytelling and innovation would not be complete without the work of Kees Dorst.

Dorst is a Professor of Transdisciplinary Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney’s TD School. Dorst stands out from other design-thinkers due to his conception of design problems and his problem-framing method. As Scott Weeden explains in his article, The Core of Kees Dorst’s Design Thinking; A Literature Review, Dorst’s approach and process move design-thinking from a way of inventing solutions to a way of thinking differently about wicked problems. The book, Frame Innovation, lays out a 9-step process supported by, principles, and case studies illustrating the application of the practice named Frame Creation.

Dorst defines the central challenge of design as “design abduction.”

Design Abduction: how to think from consequences (e.g., a need to be addressed, or a value to be attained) back to causes (the designed objects, systems, services) and working principles (the way things work, as well as the way they need to be used/enacted to achieve functionality).

Dorst sees framing as is the key to design abduction, “this is because the most logical way to approach a design problem is to work backward, as it were: starting from the only “known” in the equation, the desired value, and then adopting or developing a frame that is new to the problem situation.”


How does this connect to storytelling? The first four steps of the Frame Creation process get to the root of a problem by identifying the history, the players, the context, and the broader field within which the problem is, and investigating the themes that emerge through this process. We read this as a process of capturing the story of the problem. By investigating how the problem came to be, how it is that the problem continues, the impact of the problem is bad, and the thoughts and beliefs of the actors within the problem, Dorst’s process pulls out the complete story. We suggest that familiarity with narrative story arcs would assist designers in their analysis.

Core to this investigation of storytelling is Dorst’s use of abductive reasoning and framing. Dorst recognizes that we are always within a frame and consequently, the design team must investigate their own frames and be wary of the stories that they tell themselves about the problem, the context, and the actors. In Frame Creation principle #2 Durst emphasizes the importance of not judging or criticizing the problem owner and stakeholders. “The deferral of judgment and preservation of ambiguity are precious qualities of the frame creation process (and they are surprisingly hard to hold off—we are so used to criticizing).”


Details of the Frame Creation Process and Principles:

The first 5 steps focus on the problem, steering away from making any assumptions about the nature or type of solution. The type of solution begins to surface in step 6 when frames are proposed and followed by the critical investigation of possible solution directions in steps 7, and 8. The 10 supporting principles of Frame Creation detailed in Frame Innovation provide a deeper understanding of the process. (see below for a summary of the principles)

The following is an abridged summary of the 10 principles of Frame Creation

1. Attack the Context: The problem and its formulation have their roots in a specific context that needs to be critically appraised and altered before the problem itself can be attacked. This first principle asks the team to move beyond symptoms to root causes.

2. Suspend Judgement: Within a frame creation process, the practices of the problem owner and the other stakeholders should just be taken as givens, which must be either worked with or worked around. To quote Aristotle: “thinking can start only once judgment is suspended.” The deferral of judgment and preservation of ambiguity are precious qualities of the frame creation process (and they are surprisingly hard to hold off—we are so used to criticizing). Only in the last phases of the frame creation process is judgment necessary again, but then it is aimed at the newly created frames, solution directions, and value propositions.

3. Embrace Complexity: This is a principle of problem expansion. Taking on this increased complexity is a crucial step toward creating new frames and solutions. If the scope of attention cannot be widened to a rich and complex field, no new frames can be created. Within frame creation, assumptions that normally make life easy are questioned, and the problem solver is invited to embrace the complexity of the situation. A major misunderstanding about the frame creation approach is that it contains some magic formula that makes problems easier to solve. On the contrary: one of its major features is that it avoids simplification. It only helps the proponent to deal with complexity by providing a distinction between diverse layers of context, which limits the number of elements and relationships that need to be kept in mind at any one time. The frame creation approach initially makes problem situations much more complex, before we can allow ourselves to converge on a solution.

4. Zoom out, Expand, and Concentrate: At the core of the frame creation process is a complex movement of zooming out and zooming in: first, widening the scope from a consideration of the problem itself and setting it in its immediate context, the problem owner. And then proceeding to the wider context, considering the other players that have been involved in the problem situation before.

5. Search for Patterns: To ground the frame creation process, we can restrict the scope of inquiry to understanding the pattern of actions that people have performed, and the direct occasion that sparked their actions. Frame creation is a practice that is based on pattern recognition, and we need to pragmatically steer away from opinions or theories that people might hold about the world and about themselves. In the analysis and the creative steps of frame creation, it is the patterns of behaviour that are key. It is the deeds that count, not the words.

6. Deepen Themes: The creation of themes is the most abstract activity in the frame creation approach and the activity that is hardest to grasp by people new to this approach. Yet it is also the step that more than any other defines the depth and quality of the end result. Having a profound understanding of the themes will not only help keep the next steps of the frame creation process on track, it is also a key benefit of the process in itself. Themes can emerge from combining the riches gleaned from the expanded problem situation, even in a brief workshop session. But those particular themes should be viewed as nothing more than labels to indicate an area of interest that needs to be explored in earnest and at length after the session. Such a systematic examination can be supported by the extensive methodology that can be found in hermeneutic phenomenology, by design-based practices, and by the analysis of the “history of ideas” around a theme.

7. Sharpen the Frames: It is important to make the frames as sharp and precise as possible. A frame is only effective when it evokes a very clear picture in the mind, and when it does so for all the major stakeholders. Often, honing a frame to convey such a sharp picture can be achieved by combining themes or by combining several frame ideas. Concrete and limited frames will more easily suggest what particular actions to take. The ideas that flow from such a focused frame can invariably be applied much more generally later on in the project.

8. Be Prepared: What actually makes a “good” problem situation that would benefit from utilizing frame creation rather than using other problem-solving approaches? From the case studies, we can glean some general patterns: (1) there are opposing views or conflicting aims, (2) no obvious solution is apparent, (3) the problem can be placed in an expanded context, (4) there is an open-minded champion within the “problem owner” organization that is seeking a solution, and (5) earlier solution attempts have not resulted in a satisfactory resolution, to the point where there is a willingness to take a different approach. When most or all of these conditions have been fulfilled, the frame creation approach still requires a lengthy process of getting to know the problem, approaching actual and possible stakeholders, motivating them to participate, making contact with external expertise that may be useful, etc. Initial discussions with the problem owner usually involve “widening” the brief, often by involving not only the key decision makers but also the people “on the ground” in the organization who actually have a more direct and complete overview of the complex problem situation.

This process cannot be rushed: together with the historic research that is an essential part of the archaeology of the problem situation, this preworkshop phase takes on average two to three months from first contact. These activities can be seen as a “map-making” of the problem situation, in its current and in its expanded form. Experience has shown that these maps (see figure 5.3) are often a key deliverable of the frame creation approach, as they can act as mirrors helping organizations to understand why and how they are stuck in their problem-solving processes.

Figure 5.3 Example of a problem situation map for a project on “loitering” teens. (made by S. Duisters, student of the
TU Eindhoven).

9. Create the Moment: The frame creation workshop normally lasts two to four hours. In this workshop, all the information is brought together, and the team is taken through the frame creation steps by a facilitator. The team members of these frame creation sessions tend to be very diverse. To achieve breadth and depth in the frame creation process, participants are strategically chosen for the different skills, experiences, and approaches they can bring to the table. This is important because the frame creation process is a “creative analysis”: while the process is thorough and always based on facts, the directions chosen are contingent upon the experience of the participants—different groups will take a different line of action. Included in such a team are content specialists who have a deep and broad knowledge of the problem arena and are able to feed fresh information into all the stages of the frame creation process as new questions come up. As in other design activities, the environment in which frame creation processes take place needs to be rich in inspiration and conducive to reflection.

10. Follow Through Frame creation doesn’t end with the workshop. Experience has shown that it takes a couple of months to rework the session more thoroughly. One should check any assumptions that may have entered the discussion, dig into literature to achieve depth and thoughtfulness in the themes, sharpen the frames, make a much more exhaustive exploration of possible solutions and map these against the original problem, etc. The result of this follow-through is a report for the problem owner and key stakeholders, which is much more extensive and penetrating than the knowledge, insights, and ideas that are generated at the frame creation workshop session. After this report has been handed over, a lengthy phase of consultation often follows. After the adoption of one or more frames, the path to action can still be hard and long. New frames invariably disturb organizational cultures, processes, and structures that have been set up to support the conventional problem-solving approach of an organization. Moreover, in a networked world, these frames invariably cut through organizational boundaries in unexpected ways. It is crucial to support the problem owner in the hard task of following through on the path to action toward real-world, on-the-ground results.


Notes for Designers:

The process of Frame Creation recognizes that we are always in a frame of our own.

Donald Schön details his concept of reflection in action (thinking about the work you do while you are doing it) and reflection on action (thinking about the path of your work) in his book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action.


In episode 1 of the podcast, Design Theory and Methodology, Kees Dorst discusses framing, the gaps in Schön’s Reflective Practice, and Frame Creation. Podcast hosts, Peter Lloyd and Mieke van der Bijl follow the interview with a discussion of frames and their own experience using Dorst’s Frame Creation process.


Dorst, K. (2011). The core of ‘design thinking’ and its application. Design Studies, 32(6), 521–532. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.destud.2011.07.006

Dorst, K. (2015). Frame innovation: Create new thinking by design. The MIT Press.

Dorst, K. (2015). Frame Creation and Design in the Expanded Field. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 22–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2015.07.003

Weedon, S. (2019). The Core of Kees Dorst’s Design Thinking: A Literature Review. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 33(4), 425–430. https://doi.org/10.1177/1050651919854077

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