The Art of the Question

Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem.” —John Maeda, 2009

Maeda’s insight remains a profound reduction of the divergent mindsets between designers and artists. When I first heard it I was in complete agreement, but nearly a decade later I think it’s worth a closer look.

I now believe that it’s more important than ever for designers to be asking deeper questions at every stage of our process. It’s not enough to focus on solutions. I don’t think John would disagree.

The importance of strategy in design, the ROI of design, and the wider adoption of design thinking have all contributed to an expansion of the designer’s role and importance in business. I plan to cover this historic shift in future posts. But to understand why my perspective has changed, I’d ask these three questions:

One. Why are questions so important to the design process?
Two. How do I ask more meaningful questions?
Three. Is there an art to asking questions?

I was trained in creative problem solving. Making films, launching brands, running agencies… I’ve spent countless hours designing solutions. But I was never properly trained in asking questions. That changed in 2015 when I joined VICE, where I was suddenly immersed in a very different culture.

The VICE approach to journalism and documentary filmmaking is rooted in asking audacious questions. But what I didn’t expect was a work environment that questioned everything. It was challenging, confronting, even exasperating, but I pushed myself to learn. Now, re-immersed in the world of design, I am convinced that asking questions is fundamentally important to building better client relationships and more sustainable brands, and it’s too often overlooked within the traditional design process.


Why are questions so important to the design process?

+ We gain empathy and understanding
+ We avoid reactionary thinking and conclusions
+ We create a shared language to reference later
+ We access deeper challenges and perspectives

Among many other TED Talks on asking questions, Mike Vaughan’s TEDx presentation is an inspiring primer on asking the most important questions. It’s also a potent reminder to continually shift how we think.

Asking questions allows us to reframe a challenge, get outside of it, or perhaps uncover even deeper challenges. It opens an increasing array of potential design solutions.


How do I ask more meaningful questions?

+ Ask why, listening for opportunities to expand the conversation
+ Ask how, listening for new contexts to reframe the challenge
+ Ask questions that dive deeper into your colleague’s/client’s process
+ Ask questions that help zoom out to address broader impact

Harvard Business Review shares a useful matrix to formulating better questions. It’s an analytical approach, but useful if you can put it in practice.

At a recent business lunch, I told an industry colleague about my goal to ask more meaningful questions. The insight he shared was to always ask clients, “How did you arrive at this point?” to better understand their process and the challenges they’ve already tackled. It’s a wonderful opener, and one that I’ve been using consistently since.


Is there an art to asking questions?

Clearly there’s no simple answer to this, but I think there are two key aspects of the artist’s mindset that apply.

First: the endless drive to challenge the status quo. Question everything.

Second: having conviction in the process, not simply the outcome.

When applied to design, the artist’s mindset allows us to engage in more meaningful inquiry and be better observers. When I’m able to dig deeper into challenges by asking powerful questions, I find that the insights are more nuanced, the possibilities are more expansive, and ultimately, the solution is more successful.


In response to John Maeda’s insight, I would add my own perspective:

“Meaningful design demands artful questions.”

After leaving VICE, I decided to change my goals. If I’d spent the last 20 years solving problems, I was going to spend the next 20 years asking questions. I want to learn more. I want to discover what I don’t know.

I am curious.