January 7, 2016

What is your problem?

Whoa. Don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not trying to cop an attitude. It’s the question that’s been rolling around in my head for a bit, that when I talk about design, should I frame the conversation primarily around problem-solving?

Ok, breaking it down a bit further, when using design in the physical activity of creating packaging, signage, print, screens, actual ’stuff’, as opposed to ‘consulting / thinking’ side of things (for the purposes of this discussion, given the distinctions we can all draw), should I be setting it as a predominately ‘problem-solving’ endeavour?

Especially when a. that’s the flag of convenience that’s hoisted to confer an air of business-consultancy effectiveness and b. a useful bridge between agency and client cultures, where client’s are more likely steeped in sciences-based educational backgrounds – and ‘designers’ and ‘scientists’ (and engineers, who I work with) both understand ‘problem solving’ activities (even though our approaches to a problem are often diametrically opposed!).

Unfortunately it’s not helped by the fact that many authors and educators use the terms ‘problem solving’ and ‘design’ interchangeably. I find it’s proving to be far too limiting. Indeed, just “technological problem solving can be divided into three categories: design, troubleshooting, and technology assessment” alone (says Joseph McCade).

When I read about design helping solve ‘wicked problems’ I can’t help but read it as a rather unpleasant battle.

Back in 2009, Jack Schulze co-founder of Berg, among other things) said “Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.”

While I’m not sure about that – only because I’ve never really been involved in creating a culture. Leaders of large organisations certainly are but I’m not one of those – the appeal of Schulze’s coinage is that they are instantly more inspiring than problem solving.

In fact, the problem I have with the word ‘Problem’ is right away we’re off on the negative foot. Surely it would be better to talk about design as an ‘opportunity-making’ activity?

Design’s essential element is (or should be) creativity, even in the driest of industry arts. That thrives best in a positive environment.

So, for now at least, my problem’s going to be making design ‘opportunity-shaped’.

BTW, the featured image is the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dash Button (get one here). I’m not judging, but sometimes something that looks like an opportunity may not be for the best. Full marks for creativity, mind.



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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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Architecture, Current, Design, Experiences, Ideas for business, Re-thinking, strategy


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