The Four P’s to Problem Solving

Prep, Plan, Perform & Perfect

Being a great designer means you’re able to solve great problems. In more cases than one a client will present you with a problem and your job is to solve that problem using your tools. If you’re a digital designer the tools might be the elements and principles of art and design as well as a graphics application.

All problems need their own specific solutions. We can’t use a generic solution for everything. However we can use the same process, we can approach every project with the same step by step process.

Before we take a look at the process let’s first understand why we think the way we think.


Cognitive Thinking

What I’m about to go over has a lot to do with Psychology however it plays a very valid role in visual communication and the design process. When I say the word Psychology I’m simply referring to an explanation of why we do what we do.

In Psychology we have a term called Cognition or more specifically Cognitive Thinking. Which basically means our mental process or the order in which we think. Cognition is always active, it never stops, even in our subconscious. Problem solving is a form of cognition. Please take note that there are many different ways to solve problems using different techniques and principles.

The process I’m going to share with you is one I have put together over the years of designing and creating. I have broken the process down into the four “P’s” of problem solving.


The Problem Solving Process

  1. The first step is prep, this is where we understand and diagnose the problem.
  2. Then our next step is plan. This is where we organize everything before acting.
  3. The third step is perform. We simply put the plan into action.
  4. Then our final step is perfect. This is when we check to see if our end goal has fulfilled the problem. If not we can go back, review and rework the solution.

Prep

Every Solution derives from a problem. How one gets to that solution is a process. Lets take a look at a typical problem a designer might face and how it might be solved. We simply want to understand how a designer would go about solving a design problem.

We will walk through the process with the story of Marty the designer and his work for Lou’s Cafe.

Prep, is short for preparation. In the preparation phase we simply want to do two things. First understand, and second Diagnose the project.

A well defined problem is understanding the nature of the problem and what information is needed to solve it.

The exact opposite of a well defined problem is an ill defined problem. This is when you know there is a problem but you just don’t understand it.

This is why it’s so crucial for us to clearly understand the problem before moving forward. If you’re not prepared how can you get the right solution?

In this particular project the problem appears to be predefined. The client in this case Lou has asked Marty for a website. Now just because Lou asked for this doesn’t mean that’s the problem. Lou simply assumed this because his sales were down and everyone else on the block has a website.

For Marty to understand the root of the problem he had to contact Lou and ask him a couple questions before moving forward.

Marty called Lou and set up an appointment to meet with him. They planned to meet the very next day at the cafe. Marty has had meetings with clients many times before as he has been doing this for over ten years.

On the phone Marty always keeps his conversations light and asks key questions without directly asking factual questions, like: “Who are your regular customers?” instead of “What’s your target market?”. Marty really tries to get inside clients mind and thought process with his business to fully understand what the problem might be.

When Marty read that Lou wanted a website he was curious what made him come to this conclusion?

The next day Marty had trouble finding the cafe so he showed up a little later than expected. When Marty opened the door his nostrils filled with the most amazing desert aroma. He was greeted by Lou who had an iconic mustache, slicked hair and spoke as if he known him forever. Lou made Marty feel at home as he offered him a slice of his signature peanut butter pie.

Marty and Lou sat at a table as Marty drove the conversation. Lou explained that his regular customers were gone as most of them have passed or moved. Also the neighborhood isn’t what it used to be. Lou said he feels disconnected from his community now and he really needs help as the business is failing. Marty assured Lou that he would do everything he could and would help out. He said he needed some time to construct a plan and he will get back to him within a weeks time.

After that meeting Marty had a clear understanding of what the problems were. He also understood what he needed to do. Marty then wrote down the problems he identified.

Identifiable problems

  1. The Cafe is hard to find
  2. There is absolutely no brand identity
  3. Need to bring the experience to the people

Initial diagnosis for the problems

  1. Make the Cafe more visible
  2. Develop a brand identity for the Cafe
  3. Convey the Cafe’s personality to the community through print and digital mediums

Marty was now ready to move onto his next step, the planning stage.


Plan

The second step of the problem solving process for a designer is planning. We know what the problem is and what the diagnoses is, we now just need to plan for a solution.

In the planning phase you simply want to list what you think you need to do to carry out a great solution to the problem or in this case problems.

The planning process is nothing more than an educated guess or if you want to get all scientific; the hypothesis. Lets take a look at how this pans out in our story

Marty knows what the problems are and he’s diagnosed them. He needs to put together an educated guess on how to solve the problems. In the design world this documenting of the educated guess might be know as a proposal.

A proposal is what, in our case Marty is to present to the Lou the Client, on how he plans to fix the problems. The proposal basically lists the diagnosed problems and a list of solutions Marty feels will solve these problems. These are the proposed solutions Marty listed for Lou:

  • Make the Cafe more visible using signage signage and listing the cafe on Google Maps.
  • Develop a brand identity for the Cafe
  • Convey the experience of the cafe through print and digital mediums

Marty then presents the proposal to Lou. Lou is a little hesitant at first but feels confident with Marty and trusts his expertise.

Now the planning stage is read for action we’re ready to move onto the next step, Performing.


Perform

We are onto our third step in the problem solving process, Performing. This is where we put our design skills to the test. We use the design elements and principles of design to perform solutions for our problems at hand.

In this particular case Marty will start the design process and start to form his solution for Lou’s Cafe. Lets take a look at his steps to success.

Marty’s process varies from project to project. However he seems to have the same approach when he’s in the performance stage. Marty works quick and focused, with all of his attention dialed in on solving the problem.

Carrying out this step didn’t always come easy to Marty, or any designer for that matter. There are always things that hold us back especially in this step. The perform step is the most difficult and stressful. At the same time it’s the most rewarding when completed.

Here are a couple of tips when performing:

  • You must be passionate and talk yourself through the problems
  • It’s always a good idea to break project down into steps or sprints for quick wins
  • Positivity is key, always be positive
  • Avoid all distractions, turn the phone off, avoid social media and email
  • Keep it simple and clear, always remind yourself the problem you’re solving
  • Always go with your gut feeling
  • Be confident about your work, own it.

Let’s get back to the story. This is how Marty executed his performance.

  • He did some research and gathered inspiration
  • He took a look at Lou’s competitors to see how he could make Lou’s stand out from the rest
  • He designed a style guide for Lou’s Cafe
  • Then designed he designed all the mediums for the Cafe, from signage to a website to packaging, etc…
  • Next got quotes on everything and then organized it for Lou to look over.

Marty then went to show Lou all that he had done. Lou was estatic but surprised at the cost. Marty emphasized the importance of design and how it will speak quality to his business. Lou agreed.

Marty then went back to his studio and finished up all his design work for Lou. He then sent everything to print and finished building everything out for the site. He also listed Lou’s Cafe on a few online applications to help the community find and rate the Cafe.

When he was finished Marty felt great, he felt rewarded. He knew this was going to be a huge impact for Lou and his business.

As you can see the performance part of the problem solving process can be quite stressful and tedious. However it’s the most rewarding of them all.

Now that we understand the performance stage lets take a look at the final stage in the problem solving process.


Perfect

The last step in the problem solving process is the perfection stage. This is where we reevaluate everything and see if we need to go back and change anything.

I don’t want you to think the third step we just went over is a rough draft of some sort, it’s not at all. You should deliver a finalized product that you feel best solves the problem or problems at hand in that step.

However with that said there is always room for improvement, always. Especially when it comes to dealing with web applications and design.

In the perfection stage the first thing we want to do is define the initial problem and look at it with a fresh set of eyes. Here are the original problems:

  • The Cafe was hard to find
  • No brand identity
  • Need to bring the experience to the people

Now let’s evaluate our approach and solutions to those problems

  • Did we design a solution to make the Cafe more visible? Yes
  • Is the brand consistent? Yes
  • Did we bring the experience to the people? Yes

Everything appeared to have worked out well for Lou’s Cafe, until about a year later. Two things happened:

  1. The local health committee was currently fighting obesity amongst the community and cracked down on Lou’s specialty pies.
  2. Because of the uproar someone had vandalized the signage pointing to the shop.

Lou didn’t know what to do so he called up Marty who had originally solved these problems and asked him for help.

You might be asking yourself why would Lou call Marty about these issues they have nothing to do with design aesthetics or code development. You’re forgetting one thing, Lou doesn’t look at Marty as a designer or a developer he looks at him as a problem solver.

Once Lou told Marty about his problem, Marty assured Lou he would help out and get back to him as soon as possible.

This is what the Perfection stage is all about. You simple reevaluate the problems and cycle through the process over and over until its currently perfected.

Take note though. This process is never really perfected, as there are so many variables to deal with. The only thing we can do is, prep, plan, perform over and over.

This process is the same with any other industry. Take the automotive industry for example. Every year they put out a new car that is better than the last. How much better?… not much. They just solve problems as they come along. Take for example when the following happened…

  1. Cars are reaching high speeds and drivers are being tossed around in collisions — Hence the design for the seat belt came along
  2. Having a hard time seeing when it’s raining? — The birth of windshield wipers
  3. Need more environmentally safe fueling options — The birth of the electric car

In design there is always room for perfection, even more so there is always room for problem solvers like Marty.

In Marty’s case he processed Lou’s problems like any other:

Preparation

Understand and diagnose the problem. In this case the community and city wasn’t happy with the high calorie food Lou was serving.

Marty’s Plan

  1. Call Lou and ensure him everything is going to be fine, he has a solution
  2. Create a recipe for a healthier menu. Also share your recipe with the public to show you care about their health. This will have this published in the paper as well.
  3. Apply a new sign higher so vandals cannot reach it as easily. Also add a tagline to the sign saying “Lou’s Cafe” — A hometown healthy choice. Stop in for our famous recipe. Then have the recipe nicely printed and ready for them at the door when they walk in.

Lou immediately responded with I can’t give away my secret recipe like that, it will ruin my business.

Marty replied “Lou no one can bake like you” Even if they try as hard as they can, they won’t be able to perfect your skill without years of training” They will come buy it from you as your the best at it. Lou smiled and hugged Marty.

Perform

Lou and Marty put the plan into action. Everything went so well Lou was given a key to the city for helping out his community. To this day the signage and tagline hangs high above the street where people are guided into the shop for Lou’s one of a kind healthy recipe.

Until this day the problem has been solved, as its current status is — Perfected. ☺


Follow the Process & Discover the Solution

As you can see the problem solving process is a cycle; prep, plan, perform and perfect. You must use your steps wisely and always focus on clearly fulfilling the problem with a solution.

Being a great problem solver takes time and practice. You must stay humble and positive when crafting a solution. Always be ready for critiques and don’t let your ego get the best of you.

Simply follow these steps and you are well on your way to becoming not only a great designer but a great problem solver.