Graphic Design Portfolio

Look! It’s a bird, It’s a plane! No, it’s a problem solver! Really? Is that all?

These two comments I received in regard to my objection with designers being labeled as “problem-solvers” led to the following post:

Aaron, I didn’t mean that everything a client gives to me is a “problem” but it’s up to the designer to form a visual solution for them since a lot of time the client is not able to illustrate what they want.

Like the first commenter, I view the role of a designer as a problem-solver.

While I didn’t mean to say that as designers, we’re not problem-solvers, I do think that designers are more than problem-solvers – and therefore should be classified as such. “Problem-solver” is truly a large portion of our job description, and as I mentioned in my previous post, I also enjoy referring to myself as a “professional problem-solver.” But I do particularly like the different twist that Adrian Shaughnessy puts on “Problem Solving” in his book Graphic Design: A User’s Manual.

He writes:

Most graphic designers are happy with the term “problem solver”. It confers intellectual status, and for many it’s the most useful term to describe the process of translating a knotty brief into a visual equation.

He also addresses the four common steps for solving a problem (suggested by George Polya in 1945): 1) First, understand the problem 2) Make a plan 3) Carry out the plan 4) Reflect on your work – how could it be better? Then he writes, “For many designers, this is an accurate description of the correct procedure for most graphic design tasks.” Additionally:

Pragmatists and business people are suspicious of words like intuition and inspiration. But intuition, inspiration and creative leaps don’t come out of nowhere; they come from deep pools of knowledge, experience and observation. (Shaughnessy, 2009, p 255).

These deep pools of knowledge, experience and observation Shaughnessy mentions come primarily from being problem-solvers, from taking a task, making a plan, and solving it. So, you are definitely right in asserting that designers are problem-solvers. But, like Shaughnessy, I think there is more to it than just that.

The average-Joe freelancer: Problem-solver?

The first commenter also wrote, “We as designers just have a lot of different hats to wear…” This is absolutely true. Take your average-Joe freelancer – meeting clients, making pitches, winning work, and trying to stay ahead of the design game to beat out his competition. He’s definitely a problem-solver; simply arranging his schedule can be a problem that needs solving. But if he’s a one-man operation, he also has to be secretary, business man, CEO, public speaker, accountant, and scholar (it’s been said that computer software is updated every 18 months – so you must be a scholar in your field to keep up with the rapid changes).

Personally, as a teacher, I almost prefer the word “scholar” to describe my designing, rather than “problem-solver.” I enjoy the rapid pace of this field, the competitiveness, and the fact that I must constantly be learning something in order to bring my “A game” to the table for clients. For me, I like to take every design task not as a problem to be solved, but as something new to learn. I feel that I never have a rich enough understanding of typography, or color theory, or other design principles when I take on a new task. So, I always try to deepen my knowledge of such things as well as improve my speed and understanding of the powerful programs we have at our disposal as designers. My mind has a continual hunger for learning, and as I learn more, it increases my creativity and my capability for problem-solving. Here is the creation of one of those “deep pools of knowledge, experience, and observation” that Shaughnessy refers to.

…or Jack-of-all-Trades?

So, truly, designers are problem-solvers, but I feel that in order to become truly great designers, we need to push beyond our initial label as “problem-solvers for client briefs” and into the realm of (dare I say it?) “Jack-of-all-trades.” This may convey some negative connotations at first, but as the old saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none. But oft-times better than master of one.” As designers, we should continually strive to learn more and push our own boundaries. As Shaughnessy writes, “If we only turn the creative overdrive on when we have a problem to solve we will become dull designers. It should always be on.” (Shaughnessy, 2009, p 255).

What about you?

Where do you stand on the issue of designers as “problem-solvers”? Do you like that label? But how can we as designers move past labels and into shining examples of the power of truly great design?


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

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