Designers Don’t Solve Problems (Yet)

As designers, we spend time solving business problems and helping companies optimise and achieve their business goals. Therefore we claim to be problem solvers, but the truth is, most of us are not.

That hurts, but let’s be honest with ourselves: When was the last time you solved a real problem?

Who solves real problems?

Here are a few examples of people who actually solve problems:

  • Doctors solve the problem of illness
  • Farmers solve the problem of hunger
  • Plumbers solve the problem of not having access to fresh water.

What is a real problem?

Taking these types of problems as a reference, a problem becomes real if it fulfils 3 criteria:

  • affects many people
  • compromises on people’s basic needs and rights
  • has devastating effects if not solved

Realness goes hand in hand with complexity

There are so many problems that would urgently need a solution but nobody is solving them.

From problems we get exposed to through media, like rainforest destruction, global warming and the gap between poor and rich, to problems we directly experience among friends, family and ourselves, like availability of health care, lack of housing and an increased stress level.

Real problems tend to be very complex, thus hard to solve. Or the other way around: Because they were not solved when still small, they got complex and overwhelming.

Complexity usually increases with the number of people being involved. You might have noticed that all the problems mentioned above can’t be solved by a few people. You need to change whole systems (e.g. health, city development, economy), thus you need politics, thousands of employees and powerful decision-makers involved.

We can conclude that the more people are involved, the more complex problems get and the harder it gets to solve them (which is probably why nobody has solved them yet).

Why designers don’t solve real problems

Design teaches us methods to solve people’s problems and make the world a more human place. Yet we have failed to bring these methods into industries and organisations where we can solve real problems.

Why has design only become a serious job with the rise of digitisation when there are so many analog problems that need to be solved?

Why do we only work for banks, automotive manufacturers and first-world consumer product companies?

At first glance, the whole Health UX wave seems to change that. Indeed health became the first social system that invests in design and digitisation.

But if we look deeper, we realise that the health system doesn’t try to solve their real problems, but to make profit. As the health system gets more and more privatised, it acts like a business rather than a non-profit organisation. As a result, the motivation for design in health care is to reduce costs and increase profit, not so much to improve health care for people (even if we designers keep saying this to ourselves).

Companies claim to be human-centred, but only as long as human-centricity brings profit.

We design for money, not for humanity

The problem, as always, lies in ourselves and the system. The system needs us to make money and we need the system to give us money. We keep ourselves alive by supporting the profit-driven system we live in.

The human-centred approach we bring in will never unleash its full potential unless we work for systems that put human needs over profit.

How to get out of this dilemma?

We can’t change the system (I believe politics can though), but we can seek for jobs that pay us less, but give us the power to solve real problems.

There are 2 ways:

Outside-In: Coaching

One is to let the humanity-driven organisations know that we’re here. We can offer them our help and let them experience the power of design. We bring design methodologies into social systems by teaching people to apply them themselves.

Inside-Out: Values

Another is to drive social change within a profit-driven company. To be successful, you need a clear set of values that guide your and your team’s decisions. In turn, values will help derive guidelines such as „I don’t work for companies/products that support addictive behaviour” or “I don’t start working on a solution until the benefit for the user is clear to me”. In short, values empower you to say ‘No’ to things you think are wrong.

I myself compromised on my own values in the past. They made me realise why my work is not fulfilling me.

It’s on us to bring design to the next level. For me this is to make design a key player in social change. Why? I barely know a discipline that is more capable to do it.