The role of expertise in information design problem-solving

Dorst's (2004) classification based on Dreyfus's ()

Dorst’s (2004) classification based on Dreyfus’s (2004) skill acquisition process. The level of reflection and critical thinking generates a new classification into two groups: novices (grey icons) and experts (red icons).

In a previous post I provided an overview of 10 key factors involved in the way information designers solve problems, this post gives a more detailed explanation of how some of those factors, particularly experience and expertise, actually work in practice.

According to how information designers make sense of a problem situation, they can fit within one of the following five levels of design expertise (Dorst & Reymen, 2004; Dreyfus, 2004):

  • Novice designer. Considers the objective features of a situation that have been given by more experienced designers, professionals, or teachers. Follows strict ways to address the problem.
  • Advanced begin designer. Gains experience from real situations and learns how to add relevant aspects, being more free-oriented than a novice.
  • Competent designer. Learns that there are different types of situations, identifies the key elements and ignores the irrelevant ones. Defines a plan to achieve the goals and takes responsibility for successful and unsuccessful decisions. There is a need for learning and reflection, which is not present in the previous levels of expertise.
  • Proficient designer. Identifies the type of problem situation at a glance and what to do.  
  • Expert designer. Commits to and reflects on each project. Relies on intuition to solve problems.

However, designers’ level of experience is related to and determined by many factors, which makes extremely difficult (and sometimes unnecessary) to strictly define the line between less and more experienced information designers. Moreover, often designers can be novices and experts on different phases of a same problem situation.

Therefore, the above classification can be quite hard to apply in practice. Instead, what makes a significant distinction in terms of designers’ expertise is the level of involvement and reflection on the problem-solving process (Dorst, 2004). This distinction clusters novices and advanced beginners as novice designers, and competent, proficient and expert designers as experienced designers. To broaden understanding of both groups, let’s have a closer look to how information design students and practitioners solve problems.

Novice information designers
Information design students can be referred to as novice designers. They start the design process seeking and collecting as much information related to the problem situation as possible, but they don’t filter or categorise that information at the same time. First, they need to develop ‘an analytical structure’, which includes the identification of relevant theories and cases, and definition of their own repertoire of problem-related information and sets of technical skills. As an example, information design students tend to spend high amounts of time working on the same problem phase before moving on to the next one. Students often struggle when they have to think in advance about the whole process. This is because they are learning and making sense of the problem situation at the same time, i.e. they gradually gain knowledge, develop relevant skills, and get familiar with the pertinent literature simultaneously (Sternberg, 1994).

Frequently, less experienced information designers find the multidimensionality of complex problems, hard to deal with because they mostly pay attention to the problem’s surface features and approach the problem in a literal way. This makes difficult for them to see the bigger picture or less obvious structures.

More experienced information designers
Information design practitioners (with professional experience) are more experienced problem-solvers. They have dealt with a varied range of situations in the field and worked through the entirely sensemaking process countless times. Consequently, they have already accumulated a rich repertoire of diverse types of experiences (e.g. ill-defined briefs, tight deadlines) and tools (e.g. schemas, theories, models), and thus can rely on that repertoire to tackle any problem situation. Previous experiences provide the basis for explorations and setting boundaries in the problem-solving process, which are used to corroborate or refute initial hypotheses and ideas. This means that more experienced information designers have to internalise and learn less new knowledge than novices, as have already developed the tools to critically evaluate their outcomes and minimise unsatisfactory situations (Kennedy, 1987).

Experienced designers are able to perceive a problem’s underlying structure and link components to other related data. For example, they can map the overall structure of a problem and have a general idea of its complexity as soon as they have one look at the brief, while for simpler problems, they can generate an action plan in a short time, determining a possible solution by inference (forward reasoning) (Sternberg, 1994).

Experience in practice

There is an increasing demand for information designers to be prepared to solve a wide range of problems. An information designer needs a problem-solving repertoire equipped with skills to:

  • Work with disorganised information from multiple sources and formats
  • Apply design thinking
  • Manage information
  • Apply visual thinking (e.g. non-verbal media, drawings and other outputs) as a means of problem-solving
  • Solve ill-defined problems
  • Work with inter and multidisciplinary teams
  • Adopt user-centred strategies
  • Produce user-centred solutions for different media and platforms

Designers go through a skill acquisition process while in education or as part of their practice. At the beginning, when novices, information designers tend to pay more attention to the how or form of problems, than to the what or function. Then, once they have gained experience, they are able to determine the bigger picture of a problem situation effortless.

The definition of a problem’s bigger picture is essential for all information designers to effectively solve a problem, as well as keeping their repertoire of skills updated: even the most experienced designer will be a novice again at some point.


– Dorst, K. (2004) The problem of design problems – problem solving and design expertise. Journal of Design Research, 4(2).
– Dorst, K. & Reymen, I. (2004) Levels of expertise in design education. International Engineering and Product Design Education Conference. Delft, The Netherlands, 2-3 September 2004.
– Dreyfus, H.L., 2004. Can there be a better source of meaning than everyday practices? Unpublished lecture notes of the second 2003 Spinoza Lecture at the University of Amsterdam.
– Kennedy, M.M. (1987) Inexact sciences: professional education and the development of expertise. Review of Research in Education, 14, pp.133-167.
– Sternberg, R.J. (1994) Thinking and problem solving. Academic press.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: The role of expertise in information design problem-solving | fred zimny's serve4impact

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