Why design is about solutions, not visuals

"Design" is often confused with "decoration", but it’s actually about responding to problems, argues Steve Fisher of Yellow Pencil.

When I was a kid, I built a set of stairs that helped my friends and I get up a hill to our treehouse. That was the first time I can remember solving a problem. It wasn't that the hill was wrong. I have nothing against hills. I just thought there had to be a better solution. My obsession with improving upon the design of things continues to this day.

We often hear the phrase 'design is problem solving'. I think that's close, but really I believe that design responds to problems. They don't need to be (and shouldn't try to be) the 'perfect' answer. This isn't maths and the answer we're looking for isn't 42.

Constantly improving

Let's say you've been walking all day and now you want to sit down. What are your options? A bench, a chair, a stool... there are more options than you can take advantage of in one sitting. And within those options are even more options: an Ikea stool, a park bench, a Herman Miller chair.

They are all responses to the problem of sitting in comfort. All of them will work, and it would be hard to say that any were wrong. But as design becomes more refined and thoughtful, the responses become better. We're not looking for the answer, we're looking for a better response. There will always be room for improvement (but I do love my Herman Miller chair).

Think about Facebook. Would you say that Facebook was perfect the day it was launched? Was it perfect the day you signed up? Is it perfect today? Do you expect it to be perfect in the future? No. Does that mean it was a poorly designed response to an obvious desire? No. Each iteration of Facebook has been a good response, but none have been perfect. Even though I'm not a huge fan (pun intended) of Facebook I have to admit that it seems to have worked out fairly well. Their business is thriving, and owes much of its success to design. To connecting the 'why' with the 'what' and the 'how'.

Design is not art

Design: A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of an object before it is built or made

Businesses exist to provide solutions. But how? Here's the secret: the solution is designed. Or better yet, the solution is design.

Design is not art. Design looks a problem in the face and asks 'why?' Good design concerns itself with the 'what' and 'how', but great design asks 'why' first. Brilliant solutions can only come from 'why'. Facebook, Apple, and other great companies have demonstrated this time and time again, but it is always design thinking that makes the difference.

Design's true value

Why is design so often treated like decoration? I think it is our fault as an industry. We haven't taken enough time to really write or speak about the true value of design, even though on some level everything is designed.

London is a great example. I just spent the last week there and as usual found it very easy to travel the city. Why? The Tube. More specifically, the Tube map and signage. Without it I would have been lost. Without well designed interactions focusing on the (social) why, Facebook would be lost. Without understanding the why and designing a response that matters, business would be lost.

Design is not art. It is about crafting solutions to real issues. I love how Mark Boulton describes it in The Manual:

"We work our way through, initially understanding the problem, whatever that may be, thoughtfully considering the client, the business, the market, the goals, the audience and users, and then find ways of telling the right story."

It is design - finding the ways to tell the right story - that will guide you to success. Design is the answer business is looking for.

Words: Steve Fisher

  • Steve Fisher co-ordinates research, analysis, design and strategy at Yellow Pencil in Canada, and speaks on topics such as RWD, UX and open source. This article was originally published in net magazine.