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Design Defined

Everyone seems to have their own idea of what the word “design” means (the worst being found in the dictionary). Some say it’s ‘to communicate’, or ‘to make pretty’. My definition, and the one we follow here, has served us well over the years:

Design [dih-zahyn]: v. To solve a problem and add purpose.

It’s not complicated, nor does it need to be. In order to create truly good work, you have to approach each step of a project like you are solving a problem. That goes for whether you are an interior designer, a fashion designer, and yes, a graphic or web designer. There are a number of reasons that we look at it this way, and follow this as a philosophy.

1. You don’t end up creating more problems. Your job isn’t done until all the problems are solved. I can’t tell you how many websites or source artwork we’ve inherited from other designers that have left us cleaning up their mess in order to do our own work. Really, we’re working on one of them right now.

2. Your design has more purpose. By adding this logic to each project, our designers are able to explain their steps through the design process. When there’s a solid benefit to each thing that’s done to a project, you’re never stumped with “why did you do that?” and the client can understand our way of thinking because it is just that – thinking. The next time you’re in the market for a cell phone, you’ll notice that you evaluate the options based on the problems that it would solve, and the usefulness it provides.

3. Taste is subjective. Probably one of the most hellish business scenarios I could see for myself is to begin each project with guesswork about what the new client may like. Most of the time, the client doesn’t know (which is why they hire us). Our design portfolio is shown to give clients an idea of our style, but that’s only a small part of the actual project. Each one has a story, and the problems that each project solved is usually the part we get the most excited about.

4. Trends die. Creativity based on superficial trends is crap, and does not move our industry forward. However, by working with a mindset of eliminating problems and creating purpose through resourcefulness, innovation and – dare I say, creativity – each project makes the designer better at each future project.

5. You uncover new functionality and new possibilities. When building a website (and the same can go for building a computer or an office building), a problem-solving approach opens your mind to figuring out how you can make the site better – easier to navigate, easier for the client to manage, faster to load, more reliable, quicker to read, or creating a better user experience. That’s where design pushes products forward; the rest is superficial and practically worthless.

6. Offering purpose in our work indirectly gives purpose to our lives. Imagine how bad it must suck to work in a factory where you make back seats for Dodge Caravans forty hours a week. Designers have the opportunity to make products better, and those that aren’t are taking up space that a problem solver could thrive. Starting each day by asking “what problems will I solve today?” is far more energizing than “when can I go home?”.

So with this in mind, ask yourself:

Designers: Is what I’m doing just trying to get the client to think it’s pretty? Is the success of my project simply based on whether or not the client approves it? Or does it solve a problem, and make me a more valuable designer for it? Does your work transcend fads and stand a chance of existing when tastes change?

Non-designers: Is the design of a well-built website, car, building, oven mitt, athletic supporter or spaceship judged principally on how it looks? Or should it be based on the problem that it solves?

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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