I was recently asked to debate the following statement:

Design is a problem solving activity that requires a precise definition of the problem at the start.

While I know most will agree wholeheartedly with the above, and think it doesn’t need debating, I thought it was worth sharing. Partly because I think a lot of people struggle to define design, and partly because I had fun thinking about it! I’ve recorded the debate here so you can choose to listen or to read – up to you. Mostly it comes down to the question – what is design? as you’ll read (or hear) below.

There’s two assumptions here that I’ll explore in this article, and the first is the idea that Design is a problem solving activity. I think that it is, and I’ll talk a little about why I feel that way.

The next assumption’s that design needs a precise definition of the problem at the start of the process. This is another statement I really agree with, and again, I’m going to explain exactly why, and go into my answer to ‘What is design?’

My design background is digital – I’ve designed websites since the late 90s, getting in there when patterned backgrounds and flashing logos were still considered pretty. So, some of my talk will be a wee bit biased towards digital and the web. But I know that design’s a hugely wide reaching concept. It touches pretty much everything we use in the world around us, so I’ll make sure to put it in context as we go.

Ok, so lets look at the two parts in turn.

The first part of the statement makes the assumption that Design is a problem solving activity, so it’s worth talking a bit about how true that is.

And I suppose we can’t really tell without figuring out first, what design actually is. It can take a whole range of forms – from print design, to product design, to building design to digital design, but in whatever form you find it, it’s always created to fit certain requirements. In print design, the requirements might be to persuade a person to buy a product, or to convince someone to read an article. In product design the main requirements might be to make something easy to use, or, more commonly, to make it look cool, to make it attractive. In digital design – a website, say – you might required to sell, to be easy to use and to be attractive, all in one. Whatever the requirements, you create a design that aims to fit those requirements.

So, this is where the problem solving comes in. A client gives you a set of requirements, and it’s your job to figure out how to achieve them. How do you create a design that ticks all of the boxes, and hits the targets that the client has set for you? You need to solve the problem of creating the ideal design to achieve their aims.

So, the second part of the question should follow naturally. If we take it as read – that I’ve convinced you that design is a problem solving activity – then we need to figure out the real details of that problem so that we can start to solve it. After all, It’s pretty hard to solve a problem that we haven’t fully worked out yet.

So, here’s where it gets a little complicated, because it’s all about the people involved. And people are always complicated. You’ve got two groups here. The clients, that we’ve already mentioned. They’re the sponsors of the design. And we’ve got the users. They’re the people that’ll eventually consume the design, however it’s presented.

The clients are the first problem to define. We need to understand their aims, first and foremost. These are defined partly by the requirements that they’ve drawn up, but requirements are often very high level, and a little vague – sell a product, increase ease-of-use, whatever. What we really need to know is the exact problem that the client wants to solve, and that becomes the start of our problem solving process. The definition we need is around the problems the client is having – what’s stopping them archiving their aim. The design needs to help them achive that aim, and it has to be designed specifically to overcome the problems in the way. Only once we know the tiny details of those aims, and of the current barriers can we really start on the design. Then we can make sure every element of the design is targetted at achieving that aim and overcoming those problems – there’s no wasted space, no missed chances.

Ok, so the second set of people involved are the users. They’re the ones whose actions will help to achieve the clients aims. This could be to buy something, to go somewhere, to take an action, or simply to enjoy, to share, to engage with the design. But, to get a user to take an action, we need to offer something that fits, again, a problem they have, something that they currently want or need, or a barrier they have in front of them.  We need to define these needs, these wants, these barriers by meeting them, understanding them and figuring out how they see the world.

So this all sounds familiar , same as the client – problems, barriers, aims,needs

So, we now have 2 sets of well defined problems and aims, the next problem for us is  aligning these findings – how do you cater to the user’s needs, so that they are convinced and able to take the action the client is looking for. Only with a really clear definition of both user group’s problems and aims can you create a design that aligns both, and only by aligning them can you create a really successful design.

And talking of success, to finish off, it’s another great reason for a clear definition at the start. Evaluation of success is a really key part of the whole design process. But, unless you define your problem, and the aims you have in solving it, it’s pretty hard to do any kind of evaluation of success at the end. And without evaluating how successful we were, we’re never going to improve our skills, approaches and results. We’ll keep on designing average products, buildings, websites and adverts, always failing to be really great or to make a difference.

Thanks for reading – I’d love to hear what you think. What is design to you? Drop me a comment below, and let me know!


Colin Gray is a web designer, internet marketer, small business development advisor, elearning lecturer and current PhD student. Find out more about Colin Gray, or contact him on Google+