Seven Ways to Start Solving a Design Problem

You have a specification or a brief for a design problem. You have done research, interviewed people, watched how they behave, and so on. The next question is how to actually start solving the design problem based on what you’ve learned. I’ve devised a list of seven possible ways to do it. The list is far from complete; it reflects my own experiences in tackling design and business problems.

1. Use past experience

The difference between a pro and an amateur is that a pro has done something over and over again. If you have already solved a similar problem dozens or hundreds of times previously you can quickly come up with a solution. Designer Paul Rand –paraphrasing architect Ludvig Mies van der Rohe– once said, “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.” Even if the problem is customary, and the solution is not original, I think that a good designer is willing to learn and improve his/her performance every time.

2. Start from the top

Identify one to three of the most important, defining choices that you’ll have to make at first, before moving on. If you are designing a house, for example, the orientation, site layout and overall form of the building could be your first choices. After you’ve decided on those you can move to a more detailed level. In practice you’ll always have to come back to the first choices since problem solving is an iterative process.

3. Break things down into a hierarchy of requirements

I’ve read some studies from the 1960s that outlined a rational principle of design. The idea was that every requirement in the design specification has a high-level solution. Each solution has certain requirements that act as a specification for next level solution. Going down this requirement-solution path as far as necessary finally defines the solution. This method is especially suitable for software or process design, but attempts to use it in building design have not been promising.

4. Use a system or framework

Having too many choices can be inefficient. Many architects, engineers, artists and musicians have been able to rationalize their work by creating a system or framework that helps in devising solutions. A clever system allows enough variation while securing compatibility of its elements.

In the late 1980s I was involved in designing villages that were to be erected quickly for a large number of immigrants. We came up with a housing system that consisted of pre-designed apartments. The computerized system allowed us to design a small city in a matter of days. I think we ended up making 17 of them in a few months.

5. Use an analog

Sometimes looking outside your own industry helps. One of my consulting clients wanted to improve the customer experience and efficiency of their engineering services. In a workshop I gave them a task: “What would your business look like if you were like a fast food company or a car dealership?” Moving away from the traditional way of thinking about their business they actually generated some interesting and realizable ideas.

6. Come up with a big idea

Many great design solutions have one overarching idea. An awesome idea can rightfully challenge traditional expectations and requirement definitions. In a design process a masterly idea can render exceptional value.

The challenge with starting with one prevailing idea is that you tend to fall in love with it and struggle to see beyond it. Furthermore, if it is not realized properly it can lead to poor results. The Finnish capital Helsinki planned a new office district in the 1970s. The idea was to create a pedestrian friendly city where cars would drive under elevated pedestrian platforms. However, when the area was built all builders did not follow suit. It led to an environment where pedestrians have to descend to the street level, among car traffic, to get from one point to another.

7. Use serendipity

Finally, there is always the way to just start doing something until it clicks. Try unexpected approaches, test quirky solutions quickly, start from the “wrong” end of the solution, and so on. This can sometimes work, but it can also lead to a deadlock; not getting anything done.

These are methods that I’ve used or encountered. I’d very much like to hear your experiences.