The Designer’s Dilemma

Oen Michael Hammonds
IBM Design
Published in
5 min readOct 16, 2023

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When we think about design, we often consider the surface: type, color, illustrations, photography, paper, and pixels. However, Paul Rand, a noted American art director and graphic designer, identified an apparent problem that is still around today: “Good layouts are produced merely by making pleasing arrangements…” He goes on to say, “What is implied is that a problem can be solved simply by pushing things around until something happens.

The work “THINK” written in multiple foreign languages with each surrounded in colorful border
A Culture of Think: The THINK motto was ubiquitous within IBM offices and factories throughout the world by the 1930s, and began attracting notice outside the company within the same decade. Learn more on IBM 100: Icons of Progress

The modern designer’s dilemma

Many designers today continue to push these elements around on the page or screen, thinking they are coming up with solutions. Instead, they develop outputs that do not often address the user’s or client’s problems. Many designers fail to realize they are accountable for solving problems for the business and creating meaningful solutions for users.

There are pluses and minuses to the democratization of the design practice. We now have a much more diverse and empowered group of designers contributing to the profession. Once relegated to design studios and in-house departments, technologies are now available to anyone with a tablet or a small start-up company. Consequences of the democratization of design have led to many business and user mistakes. Results include people making without considering inclusivity and accessibility, clients that don’t want to pay designers what they are due, designers lacking clarity about whom they are designing for, and a desire to make for likes on social media versus designing to solve a problem. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines design as “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.” It’s not just about pretty pictures or aesthetic arrangements, but much more.

We are problem solvers

What we need designers to do more today in the profession is think more critically. We need designers to think about who are the people that will use or interact with their product or service. What problem are they trying to solve? What does success look like for the business and the user?

The Enterprise Design Thinking framework helps designers and non-designers answer those questions.

Enterprise Design Thinking is not a process.
It is for more than just designers.
Enterprise Design Thinking is a framework.
A framework helping us get things done.
A framework helping us solve problems.
A framework helping us pursue opportunities.
A framework helping us innovate.
A framework helping us move things forward.
A framework helping us get things done.
A framework helping us get things done that enables speed, constantly delivering new value, and ensures minimal risk.

As an IBM design executive and Enterprise Design Thinking technical leader, my responsibility is to ensure that we deliver meaningful outcomes and develop trusting relationships with people who use our products and services. Delivering meaningful outcomes means restating the problem presented to teams, developing empathy for whom we are designing for, and inviting the people who use our product or service into the work.

Too often, innovation becomes stifled by clients and leaders when they approach designers and teams with predefined solutions. I assume they are expediting the work by telling them what to build. However, these preset outcomes corner them and do not encourage them to ask questions or think outside the box.

For example: “Design a website for our health clinic.”

This request automatically sets the team’s course of action. And depending on the team’s experience, you will get what you ask for.

Now, consider asking this question: “How might we design a better way for the local neighborhood to understand the services available to them at our health clinic?”

This question piques my curiosity. What neighborhood is this for? Who lives in that neighborhood? Are there unique services that the clinic is offering? What makes this clinic different from other nearby clinics, if any? What will success look like for the business and the residents in the neighborhood? All relevant questions to help the team determine what is the right approach to attract the people who live there.

The team would adopt different approaches to the opportunity depending on whether the neighborhood is affluent or low-income. In affluent areas, where people have access to advanced technologies and high-speed internet, the team would approach the problem differently than in low-income areas, where people might have limited access to technology, such as computers and smartphones, and might live in an internet desert. Additionally, having a team with diverse professions, socio-economic backgrounds, and educational backgrounds could generate various ideas for tackling the problem.

This method offers three key lessons:

  1. Putting people first leads to more innovative ideas.
    We just learned that when we put people first and focus on their problems rather than technical solutions, we get a more comprehensive range of ideas and outcomes, and how important that is. A focus on user outcomes
  2. Many perspectives generate multiple possibilities.
    We learned that we have a more comprehensive set of outcomes when we explore options with many different people from different backgrounds and experiences. If we had people in the room who all did the same thing and came from the same place, we probably wouldn’t get various options. So, diversity in teams is essential. Exploring a wide range of options leads to a better set of results. Diverse empowered teams
  3. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to make mistakes.
    And we learned that making mistakes is okay, and doing so early and often saves time and money. We learned pretty early and admitted, “You know what? We’re solving the wrong problem here. Let’s start over and try something else. Let’s admit that we just made a mistake, and let’s do something else.” Restless reinvention

These three lessons are what we at IBM frame as the three principles of Enterprise Design Thinking:

  • A focus on user outcomes
  • Diverse empowered teams
  • Restless reinvention

Change your mind(set)

There are multiple ways to adopt a design thinking mindset. It would help if you thought about how you and your team, designers and non-designers, think about which of these approaches or a combination of them work for you.

Tools + Space + Habits

Tools:
Tools enable collaboration, whether in person or remote.

Spaces:
Spaces shape behavior. Behavior shapes space.

Spaces and behaviors reinforce each other. Adopt a space that you can use as a team collaboration space.

Habits:
Habits are small, repeatable actions that add up to a lot.

Empathy

Ultimately, we must have empathy if we can’t do anything I’ve just mentioned. It’s the first step to thoughtfully designed products and services. We all have varying degrees of empathy. We all can improve our ability to empathize as a soft skill. Everyone on a team will have preconceived ideas about the many situations people face as users. It’s unavoidable — we all bring our life experiences into our work. Therefore, you should always adopt a beginner’s mindset to objectively view and analyze the problems presented to you with people in mind.

This article was originally written and published for the 2021 Paul Rand: The Idealist/Realist Conference in Cairo, Egypt at the American University in Cairo.

Oen Michael Hammonds is a Distinguished Design Executive at IBM based in Austin, TX. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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