Design Is Problem Solving

“Good design” is a descriptive phrase that appears throughout design history. But how should “good design” be defined? I prefer the Dieter Rams definition: “Good design is as little design as possible.”

In a time when content and marketing appear side-by-side on screen, and animated banner ads vie for clicks, the premise of using less, not more, to create effective design can be difficult to identify. Good design can be described both by what it isn’t and what it is. Setting a few base principles may help.

Design isn’t making things pretty.

While aesthetics are important, every design choice must be backed by a rational thought process. Adding decoration isn’t effective communication design, and being able to justify an element is a minimum requirement.

Design isn’t copying trends.

To a certain extent, we can’t escape the constraints of our time: the technology available, the colors in vogue, the rendering limitations of browsers. But good design requires an understanding of design elements.

Good design isn’t creating a website styled with flat interface elements simply because everyone else is doing it. A historical view of design indicates that products crafted with a careful thought process create the best experience for their users.

Consider the application of web typography. While fashionable to break the “Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif” mindset, many free web typefaces do not have a complete character set or multiple weights. Likewise, legibility across browsers and operating systems is also an important consideration.

Typefaces such as Verdana and Georgia were commissioned specifically for screen use, and as such, will always be tried-and-true typography classics.

Design isn’t the first idea.

Executing before thinking leads to undercooked results. Great ideas are ultimately the result of a lot of ideas — good, bad and otherwise. The research process, the practice of sketching ideas on paper and experimenting with rough prototypes before employing a computer provides an excellent opportunity to experiment, learn and iterate on a less critical level.

Design is editing.

Being able to apply a critical eye to existing work and remove any elements that are dear, but do not support the main idea, is imperative. Separating the process from the product and incorporating alternate perspectives into the revised product is part of the experience.

Design is problem solving.

The problems that designers address are varied and vast, but the process is always the same. It begins with an idea and is followed by research. Possible solutions are explored, and iterations are born.

An incubation phase allows for separation. The subconscious mind can process problems while other pieces are in progress. Then comes the review period. Does it meet the success criteria? What works? What should be changed? The process is then repeated.

An informed design process that employs both the right and left sides of the brain will produce optimal results. The goal of good design is not to create visual artifacts, but rather to craft thoughtful answers to real problems.