What’s My Problem?

Posted on December 23, 2011


I read an article recently called “The Best Piece of Advice I’ve Been Given About Graphic Design”. I would highly suggest reading it here. There are a lot of parallels between graphic design and architecture, the main one being that we are given a problem and we get paid to solve it in a creative way that matches all the client’s criteria. The article quotes Bob Gill, a well known graphic designer:

“Unless you can begin with an interesting problem, it is unlikely you will end up with an interesting solution.”

I don’t know what everyone else’s design education was like, but I had one professor that made this statement (worded differently) his mantra. Every project in his class began with a problem statement and if it wasn’t “interesting enough”, we rewrote it.  Our job is not always glamorous and this does not work for every project, but there are many instances where we have a program or client that is simply unimaginative and it’s difficult for us to find a creative solution. Our best work usually comes from having something strong to react against. 

So I challenge everyone to think about this in your work. Is there a way you can redefine the problem and create a problem statement that gives you something to react against? It can simply be a one or two sentence statement that clearly and succinctly defines the problem. When doing this, your statement shouldn’t be a solution, but a framework for one.

It’s important to really think about what the most important aspect of a project should be. This could be it’s ability to serve the community, features to make it long lasting and cost effective, to make a specific statement, etc. Here’s one that I could have should have used for a recent project I worked on:

Create a building that teaches sustainable design simply by experiencing the spaces without costing more than typical construction.

This statement gave me the problem and a path to the solution. Any time you get lost, you can look back on your statement to make sure you are still on the right track. It’s funny that approaching problems this way is one of the first things you learn as a designer and one of the first things you forget to do when it comes to actual projects.


So what’s the real world application for non-designers? Design thinking can be applied to all sorts of everyday situations. Trying to figure out what to get someone for Christmas? Make a problem statement that defines what type of person they are and how you would like the gift to make them feel.

Carl is a very practical person that loves grilling and working outside. The gift should make him laugh, but be useful enough that he’ll want to keep and use it.

Boom. Grilling apron with a [censored] bar over the front and a built in drink holder. Funny and practical. You probably do this sort of thinking all the time and don’t even realize it. If you get stuck on a problem, try coming up with a problem statement and writing it down. You might be surprised at the outcome.

So now you know how to create a solution based on an interesting problem, but how do you know if solution the right one? I’ll leave you with the another thing the same professor was notorious for saying. When looking at our work he would sometimes say, “That’s pretty interesting, then again, so is cancer.” Just because something is cool or interesting, doesn’t mean it’s good. What makes it good? It just so happens, my last post tackled such a subject.

Posted in: Architecture