The most difficult thing about being a designer seems to be writing the bio of your LinkedIn profile, “about” pages for websites, and cover letters; the process of explaining what you do to anyone is a giant pain in the ass. It’s ironic that the services we tell our client we’re experts in (like branding and clearly communicated messaging) are ones we can’t seem to figure out for ourselves.

I frequently defer to the label of “problem solver;” you probably do it, too. Not a week of my life passes in which I don’t get a brief presented as a problem, or see a case study presenting a solution, or read a newspaper article discussing the virtues of putting designers at the heart of business in order improve… “things.” That makes me feel good. It’s right-on. The world is full of problems, so let’s get solving, right?

But recently, for one reason or another, I’ve become interested in changing the way I go about the act of designing; not the things I design, but the way I design. I’d planned this piece to advocate for a roomier working process, one that allows for experimentation and critique rather than sticking to set briefs. But in exploring how to present that, it became apparent that output (the things) and process (the way) are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they’re inseparably bound by the bow that neatly wraps up the definition of your role. For me this had become “problem solver,” but weary of that catch-all term and wary of lumping myself in with the masses, I wanted to find out what that really, truly meant.

Quick history: in the early 1900s, mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor sought to increase workers’ output by iteratively shaping their tools around their bodies, then measuring the increase in productivity. “Taylorism” is arguably the root of human factors design (a.k.a. ergonomics), and is one of the very first cases of designer as problem solver. In one case, Taylor worked with coal shovelers to improve the dimensions of their shovels. Marginal gains. The discipline is about breaking a task down into small parts, and measuring, then optimizing, each and every one.

You can trace this thread right through to UX design now—the act of placing the user at the heart of the design and optimizing their journey by breaking it down into nice little segments. Taylorism has problems of its own, and has been criticized for its treatment of workers as robotic clones, its methods applied to highly prescriptive tasks. Still, the term “problem solving” is useful, no doubt, and provides a framework to help structure the design process. It helps to direct inquiry: Whose problem is this? What are the contributing factors? What are some possible solutions? And it offers a scale against which you can measure the “ideal” solution. But I’m just one problem solver among many, so I asked Matt Wade, a newly appointed creative director of Google Creative Labs.

“Using problems as a lens for design is convenient because there isn’t a common understanding of what design is,” he says. “We all talk about it in different ways. Sometimes it’s the challenge of creating that perfect radius or one-piece unibody for a new mobile device. Sometimes it’s a new layout for a newspaper. Sometimes it’s a new shoe. Sometimes it’s an old object that entirely describes an old culture. For me it’s just a way of interrogating relationships and acting upon them with an agenda.”

Wade hits on the perennial problem of design: how on earth do you wrangle the discussion of an extremely diverse range of disciplines—from industrial to fashion and everything in between? The crux of the problem appears to be a side effect of using language indiscriminately; we use the word “design” as both a noun and as a verb, describing both the outcome and the process. When it comes to giving a more concrete description of the process itself, for some of us our solution is “problem solving,” which isn’t concrete at all. In any profession there’s some degree of problem solving. It’s arguable as to whether problem solving even forms the largest proportion of what designers do—we’ve all heard the phrase 20% inspiration, 80% perspiration (BLEURGH). Wade agrees:

“It’s certainly not as simple as problem solving. Yes, that’s one thing designers do, but so do butchers and bakers and candlestick makers.”

And when we do actually solve a problem, is it really just us that can lay claim to the glory? Frequently we’re part of an organization that employs financial, legal, HR, and strategy teams. Without them where would we be? The problem itself is situated in a world where rules and regulations, government policy, and economics can all influence the output, and we work with lots of people who help us negotiate these murky areas. We like to think of designers as being invisible, but in reality we’re often the most visible node in a complex network of decision makers working to create an end product. Seems a bit greedy to claim all of that for ourselves.

Calling ourselves problem solvers not only grabs for glory, but even if we acknowledge that others are involved, using that term at all narrows the scope of what we’re capable of achieving. Perhaps as a knock-on effect of creating intellectual problem packages to be solved, we perceive a diminished, or skewed, responsibility for the actions we take in the name of our clients. Scrolling through Twitter, a relevant tweet from designer David Rudnick smacks me between the eyes:

“Hard to love a design industry that monopolizes the privilege of a solution whilst structurally rejecting responsibility for the problem.” 

I followed up with Rudnick to get a clearer idea of his thinking.

“Design has lost sight of the difference between offering solutions to the audience and solutions to the client,” he says. “It would be fair to say that industry dialogue has in fact almost totally reframed the practice of design as the practice of offering solutions to the problems of the client. Often this amounts to nothing more than the need to convince the audience that they embody properties that the audience see as desirable—either through deception or some other kind of visual coercion—that they have no interest in structurally representing.

“Increasingly, the way we use our skills is to compensate for the deficit between the audience’s desire for a sensitive, intelligent product or service, and the product itself. The end result is a total breakdown of trust between the audience and their visual environment. The intelligent observer has almost no choice but to totally disregard aesthetics as a terrain of meaning. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that Trump’s memes beat Pentagram’s progressive ‘H.’”

David Rudnick, Design, An Explained

Rudnick finds the position taken by designers on the issue of problems and solutions insincere. He makes a compelling point; when we’re addressing certain needs of a paying client, how can we be sure that the problems we’re solving are real problems at all? If we’re not, the work that results is filler, papering the fissures between perception and reality with clumsy attempts at meaning.

“Design has too often been deployed at the low-value end of the product spectrum, putting the lipstick on the pig,” writes Dan Hill in Dark Matter & Trojan Horses. Hill is a UK designer and urbanist, and his book outlines some practical strategies that a designer can employ to break away from the problem framework. His methods may go some way to addressing the core issue as designers like Rudnick see it, and illustrate what a designer can do to take on wider responsibility in their work.

Hill appropriates Hitchcock’s concept of the MacGuffin, an inconsequential device used to power a story along. Think of the role of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones. The grail itself is neither here nor there, but it provides a useful motivation for the japes and scrapes that Indy gets into along the way.

Hill’s MacGuffin is a low-carbon building in Finland. The real story is not the building itself, but the numerous sideline breakthroughs that happened in the process of getting it built. In the pursuit of a low-carbon outcome, the choice of wood as a key material in the construction of the project facilitated a revision of fire codes in Helsinki, which in turn allowed other construction projects to also use the material, and resulted in an economic uptick for the Finnish timber industry.

“When viewed in these wider strategic contexts,” Hill says, “the entire building itself is a mere detail, a distraction almost, which simply carries the other projects, gives them reason to exist, lends an excuse to develop them—and the orders of a construction project provide the necessary rigour to develop them well. It feels frivolous to say that a building costing millions of euros is but a mere detail, but in a sense it is.”

Had a designer approached this project on the understanding that their role was that of a problem solver, the building would probably still have been built, but the wider benefits may have been ignored. The fire code restrictions may have become a limiting factor baked into the problem, with the prohibited use of wood being outlined as a key consideration to be met. Hill calls his approach “design stewardship,” and outlines the tricky act of balancing focus between the MacGuffin and its strategic benefit so that neither are left behind.

“Lose track of a building project by focusing on the strategic layer too much, and nothing gets realized. Focus pull on the building layer and all you have is that: a building, with no strategic impact.”

The idea of having a MacGuffin motivating a wider remit doesn’t just have to apply to a single project, but can also apply to a body of work. Graffiti Research Lab was a group of artists, designers, and technologists “dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists with open-source technologies for urban communication.” As a statement of intent it’s wonderfully irreverent, and that spirit follows through in the bulk of the group’s output. But as a MacGuffin it’s been very powerful, leading them to help develop an unexpectedly complex tool.

Eyewriter is assistive technology that enables sufferers of ALS to continue drawing through the movement of their eyes, powered by the open-source OpenFrameworks platform and low-cost hardware. The project even went on to develop integration for a robotic arm, and in 2010 won an Interaction Design of the Year award from London’s Design Museum. The motivator, open-source graffiti tools, plays second fiddle to an invention that allows anyone to use their eye movements as an input for a variety of tools.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are proponents of critical and speculative design. Their book Speculative Everything outlines a framework that’s allowed them and their students to probe avenues outside problem solving, to create work that initiates conversations around possible futures, and whether or not they’re desirable.

Problems by their nature are born out of existing systems, so by layering a bespoke solution onto problems we may inadvertently reinforce those systems, whether we believe in their effectiveness or not.

Dunne and Raby’s approach gives us a clue on how to sidestep that conundrum.

Stuart Candy, Possible, Probable, Preferable

The framework they use to organize enquiries can be drawn as a diagram, the origins of which lie in a talk given by futurist Stuart Candy at the RCA in 2009. “It consisted of a number of cones fanning out from the present into the future. Each cone represented different levels of likelihood. The first cone was the probable. This is where most designers operate. It describes what is likely to happen unless there’s some extreme upheaval such as a financial crash, eco disaster, or war… How designs are evaluated is also closely linked to a thorough understanding of probable futures, although it’s rarely expressed in those terms.”

You’ll notice how the probable cone has a narrow width, and is only a subsection of what’s within the possible cone. The idea of the preferable cone, on the other hand, “is not so straightforward; what does preferable mean, for whom, and who decides? This is the bit we’re interested in. Not in trying to predict the future, but in using design to open up all sorts of possibilities that can be discussed, debated, and used to collectively define a preferable future for a given group of people: from companies, to cities, to societies.”

This is far from problem solving. This framework forces the designer to turn their attention away from a tight problem and retrain it upon the systems that may have created it.

The shift pushes the designer into a position of accountability for the work they’re undertaking, as the nature of it demands interaction, feedback, and collaboration with the viewer. And before this starts to sound too conceptual, this kind of work isn’t beyond the technical capabilities of anyone. Still, when thinking about the banal, day-to-day details of actually practicing design, it’s easy to shrug off these ideas as unworkable, wishful thinking. In between battling your inbox, attending extended staff workshops in which no actual work gets done, and eating lunch, not much time is left over for the doing of design as it is, let alone the inward pondering of this kind of strategic inquiry. Nothing short of a total overhaul of how we think about, communicate, and structure what we do each day will enable us to make room for this kind of work.

Before Google, Matt Wade used to run design studio Kin with his business partner, Kevin Palmer, and managed to successfully weave exploratory work into commercial practice. “The largest challenge was commercializing the process instead of the things,” he says. “Most design companies use delivered work (things) and results as attractors for potential clients, not process.”

Achieving that kind of practice starts with how we communicate what we do. By talking about process rather than outcome, we give ourselves the freedom to think beyond the nail-shaped problems we’ll figure out how to bang with our particular hammer; we stop looking at the world as one big design problem to be solved, and instead see it as a bunch of avenues waiting to be explored and challenged.

Illustration by Leon Sadler