Shift Your Lens: The Power of Re-Framing Problems

Tina Seelig, Stanford University January 14, 2013

What is the sum of 5 plus 5?

What two numbers add up to 10?

The first question has only one right answer, while the second has an infinite number of solutions, including negative numbers and fractions. These two problems, which rely on simple addition, differ only in the way they are framed. In fact, all questions are the frame into which the answers fall. And as you can see, by changing the frame, you dramatically change the range of possible solutions.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Taking photos is a great way to practice this skill. When Forrest Glick, an avid photographer, ran a photography workshop near Fallen Leaf Lake in California, he showed the participants how to see the scene from many different points of view, framing and reframing their shots each time. He asked them to take a wide-angle picture to capture the entire scene, then to take a photo of the trees close to shore. He then asked them to bring the focus closer and closer, taking pictures of a single wildflower, or a ladybug on that flower. He pointed out that you can change your perspective without even moving your feet. By just shifting your field of view up or down, or panning left or right, you can completely change the image. Of course, if you walk to the other side of the lake, climb up to the top of one of the peaks, or take a boat onto the water, you shift the frame even more.

A classic example of this type of reframing comes from the stunning 1968 documentary film Powers of Ten, written and directed by Ray and Charles Eames. The film, which can be viewed online, depicts the known universe in factors of ten. Starting at a picnic by the lakeside in Chicago, the film transports us to the outer edges of the universe. Every ten seconds we view the starting point from ten times farther out, until our own galaxy is visible only as a speck of light among many others. Returning to earth with breathtaking speed, we move inward — into the hand of the sleeping picnicker — with ten times more magnification every ten seconds. Our journey ends inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell.

This magnificent example reinforces the fact that you can look at every situation in the world from different angles, from close up, from far away, from upside down, and from behind. All day long, we are creating frames for what we see, hear, and experience, and those frames both inform and limit the way we think. In most cases, we don’t even consider the frames — we just assume we are looking at the world with the proper set of lenses.

Being able to question and shift your frame of reference is an important key to enhancing your imagination, because it reveals completely different insights. This can also be accomplished by looking at each situation from different individuals’ points of view. For example, how would a child or a senior see the situation? What about an expert or a novice, or a local inhabitant versus a visitor? A wealthy person or a poor one? A tall person or a short one? Each angle provides a different perspective and unleashes new insights and ideas.

At Stanford’s Hasso Plattner School of Design, or ‘’, students are taught how to empathize with very different types of people, so that they can design products and experiences that match their specific needs. When you empathize, you are, essentially, changing your frame of reference by shifting your perspective to that of the other person. Instead of looking at a problem from your own point of view, you look at it from the point of view of your user.

Another valuable way to open the frame when you are solving a problem is to ask questions that start with, Why?

For example, if you are designing anything — from a lunch box to a lunar landing module — you soon discover that different people have very diverse desires and requirements. Students are taught how to uncover these needs by observing, listening, and interviewing and then pulling their insights together to paint a detailed picture from each user’s point of view.

Another valuable way to open the frame when you are solving a problem is to ask questions that start with, Why? In his need-finding class, Stanford Professor Michael Barry uses the following example:

If I asked you to build a bridge for me, you could go off and build a bridge. Or you could come back to me with another question: “Why do you need a bridge?” I would likely tell you that I need a bridge to get to the other side of a river. Aha! This response opens up the frame of possible solutions. There are clearly many ways to get across a river besides using a bridge. You could dig a tunnel, take a ferry, paddle a canoe, use a zip line, or fly a hot-air balloon, to name a few.

You can open the frame even farther by asking why I want to get to the other side of the river. Imagine I told you that I work on the other side. This, again, provides valuable infor- mation and broadens the range of possible solutions even more. There are probably viable ways for me to earn a living without ever going across the river.

The simple process of asking ‘why’ questions provides an incredibly useful tool for expanding the landscape of solutions for a problem.

This type of thinking can be applied to any industry. For example, the directors of the Tesco food-marketing business in South Korea set a goal to increase market share substantially and needed to find a creative way to do so. They looked at their customers and realized that their lives are so busy that it is actually quite stressful to find time to go to the store. So they decided to bring their store to the shoppers.

They completely reframed the shopping experience by taking photos of the food aisles and putting up full-sized images in the subway stations. People can literally shop while they wait for the train, using their smartphones to buy items via photos of the QR codes and paying by credit card. The items are then delivered to them when they get home. This new approach to shopping has boosted Tesco’s sales significantly.

Companies need to continually reframe their businesses in order to survive as markets and technology change.

Reframing problems is not a luxury. On the contrary, all companies need to continually reframe their businesses in order to survive as markets and technology change. For example, Kodak defined its business as ‘making cameras and film.’ When digital cameras made film photography obsolete, the company lost out badly, because it wasn’t able to open its frame early enough to see its business as including this new technology. On the other hand, Netflix began delivering DVDs of movies by mail. It framed its goals much more broadly, however, seeing itself as being in the movie-delivery business, not just the DVD-delivery business.

Framing and reframing of problems also opens up the door to innovative new ventures. Scott Summit, the founder of Bespoke, created a brand-new way to envision prosthetics for people who have lost a limb. The word ‘bespoke’ comes from Old English and means “custom-tailored” — and that is exactly what his company does: it makes custom-tailored limbs for those who have lost them.

Scott’s biggest insight was that some people with artificial limbs are embarrassed by their disability and want to hide their unsightly artificial limbs as much as possible. He reframed the problem by looking at an artificial limb not just as a functional medical device, but as a fashion accessory. Essentially, he decided to make prosthetics that are cooler than normal limbs.

Bespoke makes its customized limbs using a brand-new technique for 3D printing. Its designers first do a 3D scan of the surviving limb to make sure that the new limb is completely symmetrical with the surviving one. After they print the new limb, they cover it with materials that match the user’s lifestyle. For example, a new leg can be designed to look like a leather cowboy boot, or it can be covered in brushed chrome to match the user’s motorcycle, or it can be cut out to look like lace to match a fashionable dress. Not only is the leg functional, but the wearer is actually proud to display it publicly. Essentially, the prosthetic was transformed from a medical device into a fashion statement.

Reframing problems takes effort, attention and practice, but it enables you to see the world around you in a brand-new light. As indicated, you can practice reframing by physically or mentally changing your point of view, by seeing the world from others’ perspectives, and by asking questions that begin with Why? Together, these approaches will enhance your ability to generate imaginative responses to the problems that come your way.