About being sensible

Missives from Hothouse Design

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Think like a designer and stop solving problems that don't exist

Deirdre Wilson – Monday, May 22, 2017   


Good ideas come from following a design processAre you annoyed by ‘ideas people’? Every time I hear someone described as an ‘ideas person’ I hear ‘loose cannon’. It is so much worse when someone tells me that they are an ideas person because I have to try and keep a straight face and not say something rude. As a designer I find it as annoying as having design described as that ‘arty-farty’ stuff.

The problem is that ‘ideas people’ are contributing the growing heap of rubbish ideas. Whilst rubbish ideas aren't filing up the physical environment, they create a lot of mental clutter and cause a whole load of procrastination.

Ideas are very sexy. They are compelling and attractive. But they lose their lustre quite quickly. Try this: write down every ‘good idea’ you have for a few weeks then go back and review them. Many of them will look like fool's gold when revisited.

But ideas in isolation are not helpful. They are only one possible solution to a problem that may not actually exist. And, they are designed/created/envisioned using the language and experiences of the person coming up with them which is a single point perspective.

I recently had a call from a credit card company offering to tell me if any of my suppliers charge a surcharge on credit card transactions. Regardless of how many times I told them that I had no idea what they were trying to achieve, they insisted that they were helping me. They went ahead and then reported back to me with news of which suppliers charge for credit card transaction and provided me with contact details for my suppliers.

That last bit again: they provided me with contact details for my suppliers. Seriously!!

They had an ‘idea’ for a service they insisted on providing me – a service that I hadn't asked for and and had said repeatedly that I didn't understand. Obviously providing me with contact details for my existing suppliers is idiotic.

Worse than wasting my time, they have sent one of their staff off on a useless task which resulted in them being told by me to ‘go away’. Surely that can't have made that person feel useful or successful or productive. They have also made themselves look risky as a result of behaving like loose cannons with the information they have about my business.

‘Ideas people’ take a ‘solution first’ approach vs a ‘problem first’ approach. The result is often the creation of a whole raft of new problems. Solutions derived with no real understanding of the problem just create more problems.

Good ideas are generated only after problems are identified, pulled apart and measured and context and consequences are establish for the outcomes required. It is getting a lot less sexy now, isn't it? Only when you know what you want to achieve, what you have to change from and what resources you can employ to get there, can you start to generate ideas to reach that outcome.

Good ideas arise from viewing the situation for a distance. People really close to the problem often can't get a good view of the context, They are expert in the aspect that they see. An outsider will ask naive questions that broaden everyone's view of the context.

Design thinking is a bit fashionable at the moment, but not for designers – it is the way we were taught to think. I am an industrial designer and my early education was based on the design thinking manifesto of J Christopher Jones. JCJ wrote an impenetrable book outlining an astonishing array of design thinking methodologies, and to this day they continue to inform my approach to problem solving.

The basis for design thinking is this process: find out stuff, work out what it means, come up with ideas, make prototypes, then see if it works.

Coming up with ideas happens after you have done your research and worked out what it means i.e. discovered patterns, gained insight, worked out where to focus. Only then can you define the problem narrowly enough to come up with ideas that are worth pursuing.

Ideas in isolation are just brain farts. They need to be trapped on something like idea fly paper. Write them down so that they stop distracting you and step away, slowly and carefully. The allure of a sexy idea is not new – here's some more reading on the subject: http://www.hothousedesign.com.au/blog/how-to-be-both-productive-and-creative-while-avoiding-mental-indigestion

And don't try to help me without checking with me to see if I have the problem that your help is supposed to fix.

This post is by Deirdre Wilson, Director of Hothouse Design in Melbourne Australia.

Why am I writing these blogs? Because experience transforms information into knowledge even when those experiences aren't your own. So we share experiences that we have collected over a long time to help readers transform information into knowledge.

We have a passion for process and explanation and we are really good at helping people explain stuff. And we develop really robust processes that allow things to be done over and over again with reliable outcomes.

By combining being good at explaining stuff with robust processes we end up being a really good fit for people who need to explain complex stuff over and over again.

Basics. Know what they are. Get them right. Repeat.

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