Design is About Solving Problems

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Web design is, and always will be, about problem-solving1, and galleries generally can’t teach you how to be good at that.

You won’t find inspiration in design galleries: just a solution to someone else’s problem.

I’m keen to reiterate this, especially to young designers in the industry who look at the huge number of inspirational galleries and treat them as definitive answers on how to create user interfaces and experiences, rather than just as examples of good visual flourishes in other people’s products.

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Other Designs Can’t Solve Your Problems

When a project brief is submitted, there’s an inherent danger in the designer asking the client what other websites they like. Getting an idea of the sort of thing the client likes and would want to see in their own project is usually considered harmless.

But I’ve stopped asking this, simply because it plants a seed in their mind of the sort of visual features they like on someone else’s website. And once you start down that path, you’re in trouble. Clients often focus on what their competitors are doing, without considering the possibility that the features they see might not even be effective. They’re not considering their own users or the strengths of their own product. Rather, they’re chasing their competitors2. It’s amazing how many times you’ll see this happen in our industry. Not making the same mistake in your work is vital.

When you look at an inspiring gallery or attractive website, remember that what you’re seeing is merely the result,
not the process.

You usually have not been party to the process that got to that result, which could include a range of things such as user testing, multiple iterations and prototypes, A/B testing, various stages of client input and so on.

Often, even the simple things you see on a website or in a design gallery are the result not only of a process but also of the experience of the designer behind the result.

So, Where Else Can You Look To For Inspiration?

Whenever anyone asks how to get inspired, I always point to people themselves. Watch people as they interact with the things around them and solve problems. You’ll learn an immense amount.

National Geographic Magazine

If you can, study people, and look at their stories3. One source of real inspiration for me is National Geographic. I’ve had a subscription for years, and seeing how people all around the world solve problems in their lives, on both big and small levels, never fails to inspire me.

The next time you face a design problem and you’re wondering how to do solve it, resist the urge to consult a gallery for examples of similar products, because the similarities will mostly be superficial. Learning to look beyond galleries takes a while, but don’t forget that you are ultimately designing for people, so drawing your inspiration from them by observing and engaging with them only makes sense.

Once you start thinking more generally about how to solve a problem or fix a process through good planning and lateral thinking, then the design layer usually comes quite naturally.

Simple Steps to Problem-Solving

By studying people and how they approach and solve problems, you’ll see a distinct pattern emerge and some common steps. If you don’t already roughly follow these steps in your work, then review your process when you have a chance.

These steps aren’t even specific to design. They’re almost universal—because they’re efficient.

  1. Identify or understand your problem.
  2. Devise a plan to rectify it.
  3. Implement your solution.
  4. Review whether it was successful. (If it wasn’t, then you missed something in the previous steps!)

Once you’re able to break something down into simpler steps, you’ll see that people (and even animals) generally approach problem-solving in the same way, using these or an expanded variation of these steps.

Examples of Inspirational Problem-Solving

Floating Garden

  • Adapting to Rising Sea Levels
    in Bangladesh
    4
    The people featured in this great article deal with their extreme environment in many innovative ways. Using hyacinth plants to create floating gardens is one of the best and most innovative solutions to a problem I’ve seen in a long time, because it turns what many would consider a huge roadblock into a benefit.

  • The Classic “This Truck is Too Tall for This Tunnel” Problem5
    I’ve seen countless variations of this over the years, but avoiding a costly and potentially damaging process by stepping back and thinking laterally is a lesson that should never be forgotten.

  • What a Chef Can Teach You About Web Design6
    World-class chef Heston Blumenthal took one of the toughest project briefs I’ve ever seen and, through clever thinking and innovative processes, delivered something truly astonishing.

Galleries Aren’t Evil

I realize that many people browse galleries a lot. And as I said at the start, I still use them a lot myself, but more for finding new designers to follow and talk to, rather than as a reference point for solutions. So, you needn’t stop consulting them; just be wary of viewing something in them as a solution to your own problem when working on your next design.

Where You Do Draw Your Inspiration From?

I’d love to hear where you draw your inspiration from beyond the Web and what sort of approaches you take to identifying and solving problems. Feel free to share your thoughts, experiences and examples in the comments below!

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://weblog.muledesign.com/2011/05/mike_monteiro.php
  2. 2 http://uxmag.com/strategy/five-popular-web-strategies-that-dont-work
  3. 3 http://www.welcomebrand.co.uk/blog/2011/05/20/note-to-self-an-inspirational-evening-in-huddersfield/
  4. 4 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/05/bangladesh/bendiksen-photography
  5. 5 http://www.internetwk.com/columns/rob092799.htm
  6. 6 http://www.offroadcode.com/blog/2011/3/17/what-heston-blumenthal-can-teach-you-about-web-design.aspx

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James Young is a Creative Director at Offroadcode and a freelance designer and front-end developer based in Huddersfield, Yorkshire who works with a wide range of clients around the world. You can follow him on Twitter.

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  1. 1

    Good post James. So would you suggest for people starting out that they should just experiment on their own and see what happens rather than using galleries? I find drawing everything out in pencil (even if very rough) helps before doing anything digital.

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    • 2

      Thanks Mike,

      If you’re starting out in the industry I’d say be doubly careful about seeing and following visual trends and look more towards being analytical and identifying then solving problems. It’s a skill that is infinitely more valuable than being able to add whatever popular visual treatment is doing the rounds.

      That said of course, the visual side of the job also needs to be learnt but as I mentioned in the article, just be aware of the fact you’re seeing a finished result on a gallery not a process :)

      James.

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  2. 3

    That was a fantastic article and I agree with your point that design is more than just the visual. I love galleries and I love clicking through each site and seeing how they put it all together, but each project is unique and has its own unique set of challenges. That’s why I also love to read case studies because you get to know what goals needed to be accomplished with a design and how it was accomplished.

    And yeah, I’ve also got a National Geographic subscription.

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  3. 5

    It’s a really interesting change you’ve described. As a more mature designer, you’re less inspired looking through picture galleries and more inspired reading about how problems are solved — I’m betting this is a really common theme for designers.

    Thanks for the article! Lots of good links; I really enjoyed the one about the submarine food challenge.

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  4. 6

    If I have no clue where to start with a design I’ll look at the competition and see what they do, get some inspiration, a starting point or anything else. It’s usually all been before anyway :-)

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  5. 7

    Wow, this is one of the greatest articles i’ve read in a long time. Mainly, because I can find myself so much in this article :-) Learning design trends is so much easier to learn than solving problems through design. Thank you for the article!

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  6. 8

    Great issue to highlight, James. You’re totally right in that designers do tend to focus on specific results rather than how it was arrived at. That may sound like a sweeping generalisation but certainly I’m often guilty of judging a site purely based on aesthetics rather than underlying design strategy. It’s a hard habit to break.

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  7. 9

    great article, love it…. good point

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  8. 10

    When I first read this, I completely agreed with you. There are too many “design inspiration” galleries out there. You can bogged down with too many ideas and water down the solution to the problem. It can be so simple, but sometimes we over-complicate it (far too often, probably).

    However, I think it is worth noting that you can definitely take inspiration and ideas from sites that are trying to solve the same problem as yours. For example, if you are to design a new social media interface, you may want to look to see what is currently being done, what is good about their designs, and what you could do to improve the designs in your UI. Start with the UX that is already out there and then begin developing your own scenarios to dive into the problem better. I read this quote recently that said something like: using one source is stealing, but using a thousand is inspiration.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing. Love the article and am on board with you. More great articles and less meaningless design inspiration!

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    • 11

      I think that’s what’s exactly wrong with looking at galleries for inspiration. Problem with getting inspiration from other source is that you tend to fixate on what you liked. It’s like hammering a square peg into a round hole. Instead of applying the “idea” of what worked, you force it to work.

      sometimes, it’s a lot more satisfying to figure out the problem then to look for a problem based on the answers.

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    • 12

      It’s true that you cannot simply point to a website and say “I want that!” and you should definitely avoid asking for examples from clients, because they will want it to look like what they have seen. What they do not realize is that the visuals are simply a shell around the strategy. If the strategy is different, the same design features must be different.

      However,I agree with you Timothy, designing in a vacuum can be equally harmful. I know artists in various fields who never grow because they don’t want to draw inspiration from the outside world. Web design is the same. Picasso said it best: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

      When I go to a gallery for inspiration, I go to get a feel and hope that the feel leads to something great. Most clients want to leapfrog their competition. It’s hard to leapfrog them if they are a mystery because the designer didn’t find use in considering other designs.

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  9. 13

    Great Article! I feel that is truly relevant beyond web. Looking at galleries is great for visual inspiration and design trends only. Look deeper into them to see the case study. What are the successes of the design impacting user engagement? How has it positively impacted the brand?

    Apply a strong foundation, then add the polish from the visual stimuli you may have seen in the galleries.

    Again, great post.

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  10. 14

    This post covers what has been a pressing issue on my mind lately. I’ve noticed that of late designers are more about collecting a quick buck instead of solving problems and providing solutions to clients.

    Galleries seem to create a look at how many techniques I’ve used, instead of look at the goal I accomplished with this design.

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  11. 15

    This is a great article and it helps me to solve design problems with my clients.

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  12. 16

    Really great article. I agree, galleries are great but some kind of restrictive too. Your article really made me smile when I read the passage about National Geographic. For me, National Geographic is a great source of inspiration, like you said, it’s amazing to read how people solve problems! GEO is also a great source of inspiration to me. I also draw a lot of inspiration from non-design-affected activities, like reading, running, city-trips, outdoor activities, even shopping :)

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  13. 17

    Great article, So many people think design is about making things look nice.

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  14. 18

    Nice article. I’m in the learning stages and I already avoid copying other people’s styles. I take inspiration from the environment and stereotypes of people, which can be dangerous if done insensitively. That statement “great artists steal” seems to have been made just to be quoted. Of course everything is an influence whether we realize it or not and when we see other peoples work we actually absorb bits of their style into our own, without realizing.

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  15. 19

    I think the difficult part is in managing client expectations.

    However, if one sets out by being clear that in order to solve the various problems (dynamic content, responsive layout, performance, semantics) the website they imagine and the one they are getting may not look entirely alike, it is easier.

    When I discuss ‘design’ (look and feel) with clients I tend to address colours, typefaces and abstract nouns (retro, minimal, friendly, authoritative…) – anything that won’t prescribe a layout.

    Inspiring post !

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  16. 20

    A very informative and an inspirational post. I can relate so much to your paragraph about the design brief.

    Early on my freelancing career, too often I fell on the trap of asking the clients to show me an example of how they want their websites to look. It took me ages to finalize and map all the dots re: “This is not like we have in xyz site.I’d like that to be the same”

    After a year or so, I realized that this was devaluing my creativity for new prospects, so I had changed course and never asked that question again. And I am glad to have done that, because I have never looked back since. Now I spend a considerable amount of time talking to my clients and wireframing the design concepts.

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  17. 21

    Each design project is unique, yet there are oftentimes elements that are the same from project to project. I like to stay abreast of new website design methods and techniques, so I do browse every new “gallery” that comes up on the internet. It’s always fun to see what my fellow web designers are doing these days.

    But there are also practical considerations to designs that need to be accounted for. You can have a website look as good as you want but if it doesn’t do the required job well then it’s a bad website. For me the initial client meeting is the most important. Figure out what the website needs to do, then figure out how to do that well, AND THEN cover it with a good looking design.

    Make the website solve the problem first, then make it look pretty.

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  18. 22

    Some design thinkers would say that designers are not problem solvers, but problem finders.
    If you want to solve a problem, you first need to define it. If you want to define it, you must ask the good questions, go back to the root of the problem… If you don’t, your answer may be just a patch over a bigger issue.
    Sorry for the very theoretical post :p

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  19. 23

    A lot of web sites are just brochure sites (blogs, this is who we are/what we do sites) and don’t need a lot of visual/UI problem solving (and therefore have a lower budget….). If you are building something people interact with regularly–something that helps people do a task, you probably need to solve problems that don’t exist [verbatim] somewhere else on the web. I find that actually using other sites regularly and being inspired (or knowing how NOT to do it) by their interface are the best route to problem solving, since you are the actual user–not the designer. Then, you don’t have to pretend to care about getting the task done!

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  20. 24

    Design is a process of assimilation and innovation. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. While I certainly don’t look at galleries such as Dribble for solutions to specific design problems, I definitely look to it for inspiration. In such galleries, I find inspiration in the form of a personal challenge. I perceive a beautiful design as a gauntlet thrown down by the other designers of the world, daring me to make something as beautiful and enticing as they have. That inspires me to be the best I can, in the solutions that I am making.

    In the end, of course, we designers are making solutions to problems – which means we are often forced to create new solutions and break new ground. In this arena, nearly every great idea I’ve had was built upon observations of people trying to make use of my shitty ideas. In this sense, my inspiration comes from people. Learning about my target audience, having conversations with users, discussing that information with my team…all these things are invaluable. It’s a foundation upon which all things should grow.

    But deriving inspiration from the work of other designers in the world – that’s every bit as valuable if you are trying to push to get the best possible work out of every project you work on.

    I know this isn’t your point – you say you still use design galleries. But I don’t like diminishing areas of great value, simply because another area is more valuable. You say “You won’t find inspiration in design galleries: just a solution to someone else’s problem.” Well, I don’t know about you, but when I see an elegant solution to a real problem, I feel incredibly inspired to bring forth as much elegance in my own work. I just would hate to downplay how powerful that can be. Instead, I would encourage young designers to absorb as much as they possibly can from galleries, but don’t stop at the pretty pictures. Go to the sites, see how they function, try to understand why they made the decisions they made and whether you think it actually works well. Then tuck those experience away in your subconscious, ready to be pulled out at a later date.

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  21. 25

    Nice..Super..Good..Loveit

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  22. 26

    Hi, great article. I feel the same when viewing other peoples work sometimes. Other than the technical and visual interest of a site, it can be hard to judge how good, or indeed inspiring a site is unless you also know what the brief / problem was.

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  23. 27

    Very informative and an inspirational post. I can relate so much to your paragraph about the design brief !

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