Design is more than problem solving

Dennis Hambeukers
Dec 20, 2020 · 7 min read

Under the banner of the term design thinking, design has been going through a transformation this past decade. More and more people are discovering the power of design to solve problems. The way that designers think, turns out to be a good addition to the traditional thinking in businesses when it comes to solving (business) problems. Especially when it comes to problems that require navigating uncertainty in complex situations.

Google Trend report for the query “design thinking” in the past years

So design has moved more into the problem solving space. It’s not like designers weren’t solving problems before, but this was limited to “design problems”. Design problems are problems one would traditionally call a designer to solve: graphic design, interface design, interaction design, industrial design, architectural design. I don’t want to over-generalize, but the focus had been on solving problems around form, esthetics, interaction, space. Design thinking created an opening for designers to move from the more esthetically focused space to the problem solving space. Designer solve problems in a certain way and that way could now be transported to other fields of problem solving. In a previous essay, I visualized it like this:

Design as problem solving

By focussing on the thinking part of design, design could move into a broader problem solving space. Hence the statement that design is problem solving. It is. Design solves design problems. And since the popularity of design thinking has created new opportunities, design also solves other problems. Especially creating and visualizing things boosts the problem solving ability of a group of people. The creativity and outside-the-box thinking of designers also helps.

But design is more than problem solving.

Design is making the world more beautiful

If we just focus on the problem solving ability of design, we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Design is also still about making beautiful things, solving design problems. This is still a super valuable service. And it is actually the foundation of the design-as-problem-solving proposition. Lots of people that enter into the design thinking space lack these foundational design skills and that makes a difference. Thinking like a designer without the foundational design skills is something different than thinking like a designer when you are a designer. Herbert Simon is famous for stating that everyone is a designer that devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. That definition of design is way too broad for me. For design as problem solving to work, it needs design skills.


Design is question finding

But design is even more than problem solving and making the world more beautiful. If you know about design, you have probably seen somebody explain design using Design Council’s famous Double Diamond at one point. To refresh you memory, it looks something like this:

Double Diamond of design (based on: Design Council)

Most people see design as just the second diamond: problem solving. Most clients approach a designer with a problem definition a.k.a. a design brief. They already know what the problem is and want a (team of) designer(s) to solve it for them. If that is actually the right problem, great. Experience tells us that that is not always the case. More often than not, new insights about the problem at hand arise during the solving of the problem. That is why designers often propose to go into the first diamond first to investigate the problem and possibly redefine the problem. This prevents them from designing a brilliant solution for the wrong problem. That can be very expensive. The goal of the first diamond is to make sure we are solving the right problem, find the right question. Most innovations and complex problems benefit hugely from going through the first diamond. In his recent Harvard Business Review article, Art Markman argues that the quality of our problem framing determines the success of your solution.

Why is design so good at finding the right questions?

Finding the right questions might be a bigger problem than you think. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg found that 85% of C-suite executives agreed that their organizations were bad at problem finding. We are all trained in school to solve problems. But finding problems, finding the right questions is not a skill that is taught in schools. Maybe if you studied philosophy, you are good at this but most curricula don’t train people to find questions. And philosophers have a tendency to good too deep for practical business purposes. I have always seen design as a type of practical philosophy. Philosophy is a cerebral activity. It often helps to manifest things into the world to make this clear, to uncover new insights. That is what design does. By making things, prototyping, you uncover new things about your problem, about the questions you should be answering. In my experience, if you ask stakeholders (including users) what the problem is we should be solving, what the question is that we need to answer, with a prototype of sorts in hand, this yields far better results. People’s brains work like this. If you create a solution, people can easily indicate if this solves the problem in the correct way. This way you can dig deeper into the problem, find the problem behind the problem, the questions that need answers.

Solve the right problem

If you use design to find questions, you can add the most value. Because you are solving the right problem.

Solve the problem right

But this is not where it ends. Even if you are solving the right problem, execution is the other key. Rumor has it that lost of people invented Facebook, but only one company succeeded. In today’s market, the company that solves the right problem best (with the best user experience), wins. So “traditional” design skills are needed to solve this right problem once you found it. A bad solution to the right problem is more valuable than a good solution to the wrong problem. But a good solution to the right problem wins.

The connection

One can also see the three things that design is as operational ( beauty), tactical (problem solving) and strategic (question finding). As with any strategy, the crux is the connection between the levels: finding the right question, solving it in a good way and make it look good. All three levels are important and should work in harmony. Making it look good is such an important part. Things that look good work better. But here you run the risk of just polishing the surface of a bad solution. You also have to come up with a solution that solves the problem in the right way. But if you solved the wrong problem, it also doesn’t work. In order to create the right solution, you need to have a deep understanding of the question that needs to be answered. If designers use the question finding mindset, the solutions they design will have far more impact.

So design is all of the above, all three levels working in unity. The hands (problem/functional/what), the heart (beauty/love/how), and the head (question/direction/why). Stating that design is problem solving is ignoring the other two parts. We need to state that design is problem solving to educate people on what design is but don’t forget the beauty part. And the next level is stating that design is problem finding without forgetting about problem solving and creating beauty. Good design is all of that as one.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button so I know I connected with you. Let me know what you think in the comments. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at :) You can also find me on Instagram.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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