Another Way To Look At Design Problems with Derek Elliot
This article was created by guest-writer and industrial designer Derek Elliot.
You can view the original here: STUDIOHEX
We often overlook stages in the problem solving process by not quite identifying the problem correctly. Any time you’re tackling a problem with design it’s important to examine the core of the situation. What needs to be the end result once the process is complete? Many times this answer should not be a physical object but something more conceptual.
This thought process was one I learned in product design but I’ll try to tie in other fields as the idea is still very relevant. Though it’s something I was practicing already, I didn't really have any good way to define it or a grounds on which to think about it. It was a little over a year ago when Don Corey (theotheredge) , my professor at the time, put the process into a dazzling array of words.
“Don’t design a salt shaker, design a way to dispense salt.”
Did you see that? It was your mind exploding with ideas, a knowledge bomb as Don might say. If someone tells you they've designed a new salt shaker what do you envision? Probably a mostly cylindrical vessel for holding salt that has holes on the top. The reason for that is because that’s what a salt shaker is. How about what a salt shaker does? Why did they design the salt shaker in the first place? What were they trying to solve? Exactly that, a way to dispense salt.
So what’s the point? The point is that most of the times when you approach a problem that you want to design a solution for, someone probably already has. You’ll discover existing solutions through your research.
Once you’ve found those existing solutions you need to closely examine how or if they are solving the problem and what opportunities there are for you to design something better. It can be hard to be creative when good solutions already exist but sometimes looking deeper at the core issues that a product addresses can be a nice place to start. The existing product may seem perfect at first but when you pick apart each element and what it solves you can start to see where the imperfection lives.
So now that you’ve realized the existing solution isn’t perfect you can begin to develop your own. The most important thing is to keep your knowledge of the problem in the back of your head at all times. If you drift in to your preconceived notions of what the solution is (existing solutions) then you’ll leave less room for innovation.
The salt shaker example applies most directly to product design but if you’re having trouble making correlations let me describe another application of this way of thinking.
Say you’re designing a menu for a restaurant… wait, wait, wait! You did it again! Are you designing a menu for a restaurant? No, you’re designing a way to communicate what the restaurant sells to the people who come inside. While it’s important to stay innovative it’s also important to understand that whoever designed the previous solution likely went through a lot of the same thoughts you’ll be going through. That being said, you’ll probably be designing some sort of handheld multi-page pamphlet with a listing of items for sale. This isn’t always the case as you know. What about those restaurants that have the menu on a big board above the register? Why did they do that? Was it because they wanted to speed up the ordering process? Did they want to save money on printing? Consider these things and use those core problems (order time, printing cost, etc.) to drive your own solutions.
It’s important to find a balance between taking what you already know and finding out new things. For example you shouldn't limit your menu design to the handheld multi-page pamphlet or overhead board, but you probably don’t need to look in to whether or not it would be viable to put the menu underneath the toilet seats in only the men’s bathroom. You don’t want to waste your time on solutions that you’re pretty sure aren't the best. Imagine your entire list of innovative solutions and do some “crossing off” in your head of the less-viable. Toilet seat menu is innovative, but is clearly not viable. (This thought is now running through my head and by the time I’m done writing this article I’ll probably be working on a thesis of why restaurant menus should be on the bottom of toilet seats.) The point is to know your options but use some forethought to eliminate the [probably] unlikely solutions.
So you’ve exhausted your innovative solutions and decided your menu is going to be the regular ‘ol handheld multi-page pamphlet. That’s okay, you can still be creative. Though you’ve sort of given in to a run-of-the-mill solution, don’t give in all the way. There are more problems that this individual solution tackles. How should the menu be laid out? Most menus have the title on its own page, is this necessary? What problem does this solve? Most menus also have the drinks listed towards the back but it’s the first thing the waiter or waitress asks you. Why is that? Maybe the menu is more targeted at adults who already know what they want to drink. I know when I was a kid I always had to fumble around the back pages to find out whether the root beer was Barq’s or Mug brand (Barq’s all the way.) Now that I’m older I can drink real beer that sometimes even gets its own menu. Someone noticed this problem and solved it with the innovative solution of offering a second menu. It may not seem innovative to you now but that’s because you’re used to it.
I hope that by reading this article I've opened your thoughts a little more to how we arrive at innovation. The goal of design is to solve problems, as abstract as they might be. Remember that when you’re designing and you’ll be much more likely to come up with something fresh. Though this thought process can be applied to many situations don’t over think it. Give time where time is due and remember to always have fun because having fun is essential to staying alive.
Thanks for reading.