The Hammer vs. The Architect

More Than A Hammer

“If all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails”

A friend, and fellow architect, recently emailed this quote to me. This particular friend is constantly looking for big hairy audacious goals to further his quest of saving the planet (through architecture). People like this inspire me, so we talk often. We collect ideas, trade inspiration, and challenge each other to be more realistic and grandiose all at the same time. This quote was the latest addition to our collection.

Thinking myself clever, I emailed back, “What if all you have is an architect?”

His response: “That guy would be way more versatile than a hammer… which I think is exactly the point”

And as an architect, I’m inclined to agree. But why is that the point? It’s not because architects have more tools for solving problems. A carpenter’s toolbox would also be more versatile than a hammer. But there’s a fundamental difference between an architect and a hammer, or a toolbox. That difference becomes preciously relevant when you’re dealing with a particular kind of challenge.

Wicked Problems

During the 1960s and 70s German design theorist Horst Rittel, along with colleague Melvin Weber, developed the concept of wicked problems. He deemed this class of problems wicked because of their inherent characteristics that defiantly resist resolution. In 1968 C. West Churchman described wicked problems as “a class of social system problems which are ill formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.” (“Wicked Problems,” Management Science, vol.14, no. 4, December 1967). A brief look at political, environmental, economic, and technological news-makers of the day will readily disclose an abundance of wicked problems. It turns out that such problems are also common in the practice of architecture.

How we define such problems is critical, because the problem definition frames how we attempt to solve it. The diversity of stakeholders often leads to conflicting definitions of the problem which undermines any attempt at creating a meaningful solution. And this is where the toolbox gets into trouble. The hammer, the screwdriver, and the crescent wrench, each with their unspoken biases begin working toward a solution. None of them recognizes that although they’re presumably working in concert, they’re actually attempting to solve different problems based on their unreconciled perspectives.


Architects approach problems differently. We’ve had another method drilled into our mindsets. Design problems are often ambiguously defined and involve stakeholders with conflicting values. It can be difficult to understand and anticipate how our decisions will affect seemingly unrelated aspects of the design. And best (or worst) of all, there is no such thing as a “correct” answer. Wicked problems are the reason architecture students are notorious for spending the night in their studios and working right up until the deadline. It’s common knowledge that you never actually finish a project. You just stop working on it because time runs out.

One of the most important lessons we learn in architecture school is that design is a process. Having a solid process does not guarantee a successful solution, but it significantly increases your odds. At the beginning of our process we do something called problem-seeking. The goal of problem seeking is threefold:

  • Understand the problem
  • Clarify the problem
  • Communicate the problem

The reward of problem-seeking done well is a broadened perspective, a sophisticated understanding of the challenge, and a mutual respect for the values that each stakeholder brings to the situation. This lays a strong foundation for your problem solving effort. And maybe, just maybe, your hammer won’t be so important this time.