Design is Problem Solving

I spent a few hours at the Museum of Modern Art last weekend, and as it has before, it inspired new ideas and made connections in themes I’ve been thinking about. There was a small exhibit there called Born out of Necessity. The exhibit displayed pieces that have been designed as a response to a desperate need or designed as art to solve a problem imagined and foreseen in the future.

The opening dialog to the exhibit, posted on the wall near its entry was this—words masterfully capturing the essence of design:

Among the most common and enduring definitions of design is “problem solving.” A problem arrives, the designer analyzes it and distill it into goals, and these create a roadmap to a solution, working with the means at her disposal. These include the budget, the materials and techniques she can afford and master (for an object like a chair, a lamp, or a bicycle, for instance), or the code and software she favors (for a digital product, such as an interface or interactive map). She must also consider the requirements of distribution and marketing, if the product is meant for wide dissemination. If she is good, the process, simple and linear, will result in an elegant, functional economical and meaningful solution, the splendid outcome of an insipid syllogism. […]

Goals and means come together in design process, a remarkable synthesis, whose ambition is to distill an object that is much more—in significance, functionality, innovation, and elegance—than the sum of its parts.

Many of the points, design being problem solving, it being about constraints and requirements, and the process of creating something elegant and meaningful, are all great ideas on their own but connected in that way created a beautiful picture of what design is.

The elements of the exhibit fortified the elements of design. In most cases, they were real-world products solving real first and third-world problems. This wasn’t some design being shown off on dribbble—something that will never ship—but functional things and elegant things that help people survive. Simple products like the Leatherman Wave multi-tool, something I carry with me in my bag, earplugs, and some more advanced technology like the One Laptop Per Child device and architecture designs that save structures from collapsing in earthquakes.

All of these things served a purpose. There was intention in their creation to improve people’s lives. Some were simple by design and some were simple by constraints of manufacturing, technology, or materials, but they all managed to mold what they had into something great. The true definition of make. I left MoMA that day with a lingering thought I haven’t been able to put into words until writing drew it out of me.

Design, in the meaning so aptly put above, isn’t about creating, it’s about understanding. The process can be simple and linear but more often, the process of design is rough and becomes more so when the problems are more personal or greater in nature. But here’s the important part of what I learned: you have what it takes to start designing now. Design is discovery, exploration, and distillation. It begins with analysis and you’re in as good a place as ever to begin exploring and learning more about problems.

Start. Then try to understand. Don’t worry about where you are now because nothing can ever be fully understood—so there is no destination for you to arrive at. With understanding will come a clearer picture of what a functional, elegant, simple, and meaning full solution is. That’s when design is problem solving: not only because of the product you created as a solution, but your process of overcoming and solving your way through making it happen.