Graphic Design Portfolio

Are Designers Merely “Professional Problem Solvers”?

As designers we are always the problem-solver/ therapist to our clients.

This is an interesting quote that brings up the idea of designers as problem-solvers and therapists to their clients. I personally have always loved describing myself as a “professional problem solver” and I love the satisfaction of being given a very difficult task, breaking it up into smaller pieces, and successfully “solving” my problem. It feels like the satisfaction of scaling a tall mountain to stand at the peak and breathe in the fresh mountain air. But is that really all we are as designers?

Not all things are problems to be solved

My wife particularly isn’t so enthusiastic about my keen problem-solving mind. I always put on my “Fix-It Hat” when she starts talking, but most of the time, she just needs me to listen. As it’s been said many times before, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Rather than immediately trying to solve perceived problems when my wife talks, I ought to do more of my time just letting her express herself. The same thing can be said about design. Adrian Shaughnessy writes:

what if seeing every task as a problem limited our potential for creative thinking?…If we see all design as problem solving we run the risk of eliminating one of the most important aspects of creative thinking: the rebel yell of irrational intuition. (Shaughnessy, 2009, p 254).

I think some of my best work has come not out of problem-solving, but out of inspiration. When I see something creative, I want to try it myself, or better it. I constantly seek to “bend the rules” of design, code, and the limitations of various mediums (Internet, print, and so on). Sometimes, by simply walking down the street and not focusing on a problem to solve, I am struck with such a profound vision of inspiration for a task that I have to stop and write it down immediately. This isn’t me problem-solving, this is me observing and creating with intuition. Shaughnessy goes on:

Sometimes we need to think the unthinkable – or at least have ideas that are frankly a bit loopy. Yet out of loopiness,…out of thinking “what if” rather than “how come” – we are more likely to arrive at ideas that are fresh, radical and unobtainable through step-by-step rational thought. (Shaughnessy, 2009, p 255).

Take the iPod – it wasn’t a response to a problem, it was a response to an opportunity. (p 254).

How Apple got it right

Ah ha! Now, I can understand how Steve Jobs can be so enthusiastic about his presentations. Apple isn’t in the business of solving problems, but creating opportunities. Mr. Jobs does such an excellent job of presenting because he’s not showing people how to solve their problems, but rather opening them up to a world of possibilities. When presenting, Jobs “takes everyone with [him] on a short and rewarding journey” and he “creates the warm buzz of mutual discovery.” (Shaughnessy, 2009, p 253). But Jobs wouldn’t be so convincing if he wasn’t convinced himself.

What about You?

Do you find yourself sinking into “problem-solving mode” regularly, or do you look for opportunities to release inspiration – even if it’s crazy inspiration? What do you think about Apple’s designs and Jobs presentations? He’s made quite a name for himself as a first-rate presenter. What can we learn from him?


Shaughnessy, Adrian. (2009). Graphic Design: A User’s Manual. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

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