The Key to being a better designer? Solve Epic Problems

The Key to being a better designer? Solve Epic Problems

Confidence is a funny thing. Too much of it and you’re an arrogant arse. Too little and no one even notices you exist.

I spent a lot of my early career looking to prove myself through sheer projection of confidence, through working with big name clients, on ‘worthy’ projects, through the sheer quantity of work I was producing.

I poured my heart and soul into the most frivolous of products because I was consumed with output, bigger, better, bolder! I was chasing ego-gratification and approval.

You could do that.

Or, you can ask yourself a simple question, with a hella simple answer.

Q: How can I be the best designer I can be?
A: Becoming a better designer starts with solving epic problems. Period.

You want to prove yourself. I get it. I’ve done it. But treading the same ground as numerous others is no way to get ‘seen’ in today’s saturated design market. And beyond that, redesigning apps that already have scores of talented designers working on them will almost certainly not help you feel fulfilled. Nor will does it actually contribute anything new or useful to the world. Nor does it show anything about your unique design ability.  

Now, I’m not trying to put down anyone’s side hustle. The projects you do for fun are meant to be fun. But I hear so often from people that are frustrated creatively and trapped in a cycle of pushing pixels for projects that don’t inspire. So if you want to ‘level up’, you’re going to have to have a good look at the motivations and attitudes that drive your work.

“We spend a lot time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”– Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design at the Earth Institute.

If the most fundamental definition of design is to solve problems, then it stands to reason that in order to become a better designer you need to solve better problems. But when I look at the creative work around me I see people devoting a lot of energy to solving the same simple ‘problems’ time and time again.Sure, these may be fun solutions to create, but do they really help you to become the kind of designer you want to be?  

Pizza delivery at the touch of a button (you know walking to get that pizza ain’t a bad idea). Changing color schemes on an app that sends the word “Yo”.

An app that tells you your fly is down. (Don’t you want amusement in your life?)

Is solving any of these ‘problems’ really helping you stand out from the crowd? And what portion of society are you solving problems for?

“The people who need design ingenuity the most, the poorest 90% of the global population, have historically been deprived of it.”– Alice Rawsthorn, Design critic.

You don’t need to go work for Facebook to create something that is meaningful, you don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars ‘upskilling’, you don’t even have to abandon your day job to find your mission. You just have remember that design is, in itself, about ‘optimising and calculating the optimum’ solution.

So how do we find an epic problem?

First of all we need to define epic. Epic doesn’t need to mean solving the issues of world hunger, poverty or hatred. (But by all means, if you want to give those problems a crack)

To me, if you’re creating and contributing more than just pretty pixels, and actually providing solutions to problems people face on a daily basis, THAT is epic.

  1. Be honest with yourself. What kind of designer are you aspiring to be? Are the problems you’re solving even slightly connected to the things you’re passionate about? Ask yourself what really matters to you or the people you care about and you might find the answer.
  2. Talk to people. All sorts of people. People not like you. If you just talk to the crew at the local coffee shop, you’re not going to be inspired. You’re going to be talking to people just like you. Go wide. Expose yourself to different ways of thinking and you’ll find different problems. Ask people the big, gnarly, complex problems that people get emotional about. Problems that, when solved, change lives.
  3. Ask (the right) questions. Listen. You know what people love talking about? Themselves. When you ask open ended questions and listen non-judgmentally for the answers, you’ll be amazed at the insights you might find. Really listen. Being a designer means being connected to your world, you can’t create in a vacuum.                                            
“User-centered design means understanding what your users need, how they think, and how they behave – and incorporating that understanding into every aspect of your process.” – Jesse James Garrett, User experience designer

Now you’ve found your epic, how do you go about solving it?

There are no hard and fast rules, becoming a great creative is an individual journey. However I prefer to use a human-centric design process.

  1. Empathise. If you don’t empathise with people you’ll never connect with their lives, their problems, or how you might help. This is where you find your epic.
  2. Be uncomfortable. Discomfort forces growth and practice makes..better. Read on for the deets.
  3. Prototype.
  4. Test.
  5. Iterate.
  6. Repeat.

And don’t forget to share!

Wax on, Wax off...

  1. Searching for epic solutions to epic problems is not easy. In fact it’s downright uncomfortable. But this is where the magic starts. To ease this discomfort you’re forced to look outside of yourself, to increase your knowledge and skills. You adapt to the new landscape. You read, you learn, you listen more attentively (like a mouse on an open field, primed for danger. Sort of). You do everything you can to get ‘comfortable’. This is what it means to ‘level up’.
  2. Forced into a corner, the plucky field mouse signals to his comrade for support! (Yea I’m totally keeping this up). One of the ways you can upskill is to reach out. Being outside your comfort zone forces you to connect with others. None of us has all the answers all the time. No man is an island. Etc. Etc. But this stage isn’t about asking someone else for the answers. There is absolute magic in the process of creative collaboration, one that produces unimaginable results. Epic solutions are born of this magic. Here are some epic solutions to collaborative problems.
  3. This entire process brings about an awareness. You’re more aware of how your work is making you feel. When you spend your days designing brochure sites (just an example, no judgements), you can end up disillusioned. But in the process of solving an epic problem, your motivations come back to life. And hopefully you remember why you chose to be a designer.

Epic is as Epic does...

If you have an impact, a real impact on people’s lives, you’re doing epic sh*#. The problem doesn’t need to be massive, it just needs to be real. From using design to balance gender representation in social media, to connecting the visually impaired to the sighted, or even offering a new product that genuinely fills a gap in the market.

If the struggle IS real. Solve it.