San Francisco, California

Design is not about solving problems

Well, now there’s a hot take huh. But let me explain. I think one of my shortcomings when it comes to design is this: I always want to fix the problem. I want to have the perfect idea, the perfect design doc, ready to go and implement right this second. But wait...isn’t this what design is supposed to do, solve problems?

mmmmm yes and no.

In the early stages, solving the problem isn’t important. In fact, the first round of design that you show anyone should be focused on setting the stage for a discussion. It’s about gathering all the ideas and giving enough space for weirder, better ideas. Early designs should not try so damn hard to solve the problem, instead they should define and push the scope of the project into a frightening new territory.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve walked into a room and a designer shows a single idea, only for the whole crit session to collapse because not only have they not solved the problem in the best way but, also, since they’ve only shown one idea it makes folks feel antagonistic towards it. A cloud gathers, sparks fly. Suddenly everyone is dunking on the solution to this one problem because the problem itself was so poorly defined. Everyone keeps trying to make space for their ideas, for the scope of the project to change, and this feels like an attack. A designer resists, but all that fighting makes them look rather petty.

That’s the advantage of going hog-wild in the first round of design—you can make all these bonkers designs that help everyone understand the project, even if you’re not really all that much closer to solving the problem that you set out to solve.

I’m not preaching here because I eff this up all the time. I see a tiny design problem and try to crank it out in ten minutes, only to realize I should’ve spent days on it, reimagining everything, so that folks can push and pull me in the right direction.

So now what I’ve started to do is make a bunch of those buck-wild explorations and then show them to people as soon as I can. I don’t care about padding or margins or fonts, and I certainly don’t care about fancy illustrations. All those lovely pixels will have their moment, but in this one they are entirely unimportant.

Sure, a lot of these design ideas are half-mad, they don’t make any sense, they’re impossible to build, and they reveal my lack of knowledge and expertise—revealing my vulnerabilities—but they create this fabulous atmosphere where people are pitching in, letting their minds roll over all the possibilities of what this thing might become. And this lets you eventually, sort of, and not in a mean way, herd everyone (including yourself) towards the right idea. Towards solving the problem.

I know folks in graphic design have practiced this for centuries—showing multiple early concepts for a design—but I think there is enormous hesitation for product designers to do the same. Because they believe that their work is more science than art. Because they see far too much of themselves in the work. Because they aspire for minimalist interfaces and rational decision-making.

And design is that, sure, but it’s also absolutely not. Design is not solving a solution to a problem.

Design is debate, instead.