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Design can be so much more than “problem-solving”

I’m writing a book on building effective in-house design teams. I occasionally share passages from the book that stand on their own. What follows is something I’m have a beast of a time articulating. Feedback is welcome!

Design can be so much more than “problem-solving”

Business in the industrial and information ages of the 19th and 20th centuries was dominated by the analytical approaches typical in scientific management and engineering. These approaches are insufficient for tackling the complex challenges companies face now. This has lead to greater investment in design for the following reasons:

  • Squeezing greater efficiency has run its course, and design’s generative qualities are seen as means to realize new business value
  • By its very nature, software breeds complications that require design to rein in; with networked software, this complexity is exponentialized
  • The shift from products to services, with umpteen touchpoints by which someone chooses to interact, places greater reliance on design for coordination so as not to overwhelm the customer

While these challenges explain why corporations are willing to spend, focusing only on known problems limits the potential impact that design can have on a company. While design is often associated with “problem-solving,” the irony is that this view represents the same reductionist mindset that created the challenges that design is being brought in to address.

Problem-solving is only the tip of the iceberg for design. Beneath the surface, design is a powerful tool for problem-framing, ensuring that what is being addressed is worth tackling. Deeper still, and discover the core opportunity for design is to inject humanism into work. The best designed products and services don’t simply solve problems, they connect deeply with people. When design is combined with social sciences like anthropology and sociology, and other creative disciplines such as writing, there exists the possibility of creating a powerful expression of the human experience. As Steve Jobs said,

Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.

  1. Thanks: I love this. As someone who teaches workplace writing and multimedia instruction, I appreciate very much the last paragraph here. I like seeing writing included in a list of design disciplines. I teach writing as an art of design, so we come full circle. Design as problem-framing is brilliant. A designer friend used to argue that people view design as interior decorating, when it is really architecture. Design frames the experience. Design understands people and how they experience events, spaces, and texts. Injecting humanism into work is also about context and culture, I would say. Great design is not really great design if you are pouring resources into a pizza-delivery app when there are pressing social issues to solve. Deciding what problems to tackle and how to build experiences that help people achieve useful and necessary things is part of that, I would hope.

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