Learning To Solve Design Problems When They Have No Absolute Solution

When I first started learning about design I had a lot of questions. While I didn’t know the answers, I did hold expectations about what they would be like. For example, if I didn’t know how many columns a grid should have, I assumed my confusion arose from not knowing the right grid formula to apply. I was looking for the exact solution where no exact solution existed.

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Last night I was replying to an email with several design related questions and I realized the person asking held those same expectations. It helped me realize that many people who ask questions about design seem to be seeking that same absolutely right answer that I used to look for.

Design doesn’t work like that. Unlike 2 + 2 = 4, design problems don’t have such an absolute right answer. In design 2 + 2 might equal 4. It might also equal 3 or 5 or 17. In fact part of what we have to do in forming a design solution is deciding which of these many answers is the best one to apply.

The Science of Design

When I began my design education I approached it entirely as science. If given a certain set of conditions I expected there to be a single right path to a solution. I thought the way to increase my understanding of design was to know more of its rules. If I knew the rules, I could apply them to a problem and they would inevitably lead me to the right answer.

For example if a design problem called for an aesthetic that was elegant and sophisticated, all I’d have to do is find the rule for choosing an elegant and sophisticated typeface along with a color scheme and layout that were also both elegant and sophisticated.

In some respects that is what you do. You look for a typeface, color scheme, and layout that communicates elegance and sophistication. However, there isn’t a single typeface, color scheme, or layout that will work. There are a variety of each that communicate elegance and sophistication in nuanced ways, particularly when used in combination with each other.

My approach to learning at that time came more from a math and engineering background. If the problem in front of you is to add 2 and 2, you would consult the rules for adding numbers, which would lead you to the single answer of 4. The problem 2 + 2 always results in the answer 4 and no other answer is correct. Where design was concerned I was looking for similar formulas. I wanted to know what typeface = elegant + sophisticated.

You need to see past the context of a single right answer in order to become a better designer. There’s more art involved in design. How you recognize and determine the problem is often something of an art. If you see the problem as having a single correct solution that you must find, you’re approaching design in a way that won’t lead you down the best path.

The Art of Design

It’s taken me considerable time to realize that design doesn’t come with that absolutely correct answer to the problem that rules will automatically guide us to. Every design problem comes with a set of conditions and constraints and can have many solutions that are workable. While it includes aspects of both science and art, design leans more toward the art.

Much of our work involves defining the problem in order to whittle away the many possible solutions down to a manageable few. We make choices and add constraints to further reduce the possibilities and lead us down a path to a solution. We follow design principles to help us make these decisions.

We won’t know for certain if the path we walk down will end at the best or even a workable solution, but we continue to make decisions based on the knowledge we’ve gained and the experience we’ve acquired and have faith they’ll eventually lead us where we want to go.

Ideally the large decisions we make early on will lead us down a successful path that will help make the smaller decisions along the way easier and more obvious. However, ultimately we have to travel a path to a solution without being able to tell if we’ve chosen a best path until we’ve walked the whole thing.

Hopefully we can recognize if we’ve chosen a good path well before the end, but often we can’t. Sometimes we have to hold faith we’ve chosen well, while accepting when we find out it may mean starting over down a new path.

We also have to accept that even when we’ve walked down a path to a workable solution, it might not be the best solution. Another path we can’t see might also have worked better. The only way to know is to walk down that other path or see the results of another designer’s walk down it. We might at times get a clear vision of that other path, but only by walking down it can we know.

The lack of a clear and single solution means there’s more creativity to what we do and also more unknown along the way. We want to find the best solution when there is no single best solution and we can’t really explore every possibility. It can be maddening when you think about it.

Closing Thoughts

Learning to design better is like learning to communicate better in any language. The words and grammar of a language can’t ever tell you what’s the right thing to say. They can only offer guidelines for how to say it in the moment.

If you’re like me and approach learning design as an effort to find the right choice, you need to rethink your approach. Design isn’t about learning the single and inevitable correct solution. It’s about learning the different tools you have to communicate and how you might use those tools in the moment.

Learning design is learning about communication tools and guidelines for how to work with them. The more possibilities we see the more options we have for finding a solution in the moment. Ironically the better we get at design the more difficult we make it to design, because we’ve given ourselves so many more options to choose from when we need to choose.

However, as we learn our tools and add to our toolbox we get better at knowing which tool to choose under a given set of conditions and constraints. Ultimately every design problem needs to be solved by making a series of decisions through knowledge of what’s come before, our own experience, trial and error, and some faith in yourself that you’ll choose well or recognize quickly when you haven’t.

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  1. Hey Steven, it was a treat to read the piece as never found such a detailed study on the science and art of design before. Well, I quite second you in saying that better designing is just like better communicating. It’s all about how perfectly you express your thoughts and emotions through the work of art.

    • Thanks Tomasz. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      It really did take me awhile to realize this about design. For too long I was looking to solve design problems the same way I solved math or physics problems. Once I understood design problems required a different kind of solution, it made finding those solutions a little easier.

  2. Wow! Interesting! I can say that this is not only ones opinion or perspective regarding Web Design, this is actually a fact. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. A great and interesting read Steven. I have been thinking about this topic recently too (to the point of having this as a topic for my own blog once I get it set up!) and found this post very thought provoking.
    As the saying goes, “there are many ways to skin a cat” (not that I condone that action) and I too believe that it comes down to one’s interpretation of the problem/question and communicating your idea across to others.

    • Thanks Mike. Yeah I think this is one of those concepts people don’t see right away with design. Like I said, I originally approached design problems like mathematical problems. It wasn’t until later that I realized design problems are different. There’s more subjectivity in both problem and solution.

      Let me know when you get your blog up and running.

      • I will do Steven. I may put a post up on the forum regarding my blog and portfolio site as I am a bit unsure how to proceed with them, and I haven’t been on the forum for about a week, so need to catch up!

        • Posting on the forum will work. Feel free to ask some questions about how you might proceed too. I’ll definitely answer. I can usually come up with good ideas for the direction of a blog. I’m sure others will share good ideas as well.

  4. Hi, this is a long shot but i need an answer to a very simple question,
    What is a good design solution?
    i have come up with so much info and am getting so confused , can you help please, my son needs this question answered and i offered to stupidly help, i will add not do the work for him, but help find info, thanks in antisipation

    • i’m not sure there’s a simple answer. Every design problem is different and so every design solution must be different.

      I guess my answer to the question would be a good design solution is one that solves the problem well. At a minimum a good solution will work. Beyond the minimum it might delight or it might solve the problem in an elegant way or it might point the way toward a solution to other problems.

      It’s a simple question, but one that’s no simple to answer.

    • As Steven says in his article and reply, there is no simple or single solution to the design of the website. What you need to ask is what is the purpose of the site, what is it’s function? For example, to have people sign up for a newsletter say. By using good design techniques it can have an impact as to how successfully this. As long as the design solution addresses your requirements, that is what good design is about. There is not necessarily only one correct way to do it.

      • It seems like such a simple question, but as soon as you try to answer you realize the answer isn’t going to be so simple.

        Maybe a good design solution is one that best meets the goals of the design problem.

        Still vague, but I’m trying.

  5. Good Evening Steven,

    Whilst researching for my current brief, I stumbled across your blog. After taking a gap year at uni I have headed back into my second year with ambition, enthusiasm and a two week old son. Naturally, my brain has struggled to engage with the design process this time round, between bottle feeds and nappy changes. However, after this read, I have been able to ease the pressure of what my final outcome SHOULD look like, have become more focused on visual communication and am now actually looking forward to exploring my options.

    Thanks for your help! Time to crack on with it whilst my sons asleep!

    • I’m glad I could help Hayley. Completely understandable if your mind isn’t focused on design 100% of the time. 🙂

      Don’t get too caught up in thinking there’s only one way your solution should be. In school you probably do have to design a certain way to meet the requirements of the assignment, but in the real world there are multiple ways to solve the same problem.

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