Do You Have a Business or a Design Problem?


Whenever people engage my services, it’s usually in service of a problem.

As a graphic designer, I’m often tasked with creating visual communications and systems, that solve these problems.

However, having done this for many years, I can say with some certainty the majority of briefs that land on my desk are business problems, not design ones.

Is there a difference? Does this distinction actually matter?

In a word, yes. Because we can’t solve business problems with design.

Design can be a large part of the process. In fact the process can be driven by design.

But design can only be in service to strategy and insight. If the strategy is wrong, design can’t make it right.

It can provide distraction or misdirection – a sexy ad campaign, a sleek website, a new logo.

But this is typically a short-lived distraction. Eventually customers and clients will see the business for what it really is, beneath the hype.

They’ll know if a business lives up to it’s marketing campaign. They’ll know whether it truly embodies the values emblazoned on the homepage.

And they’ll share their experiences with each other. They’ll vote with their feet and their wallets.

This is how reputations are built. Especially when there’s a disconnect between design and value.

But the term ‘design’ is broad and multi-faceted, so let’s break down where it fits in this context.

Design for Life

There are of course, many forms of design. There’s graphic & communication design, product design, UX design, and identity design to name a few.

Each field is more specific or appropriate to a particular type of business.

For example: product and UX design is more of a vital concern in the consumer tech space, as opposed to say, the entertainment industry.

I would argue however, that all forms of design are primarily concerned with three things:

Usability, communication and aesthetics. Or some combination of the three.

The issue becomes when we employ these considerations to solve strategy, positioning and value.

However, this is slightly different from the term Design Thinking.

A more recent concept, in Design Thinking companies utilise a design-led philosophy to create human-centric experiences and engagement.

In a McKinsey report on the subject, Experience Design Director Julian Koschwitz, defines it as thus:

“In today’s increasing pace of digitization and decreasing lifespans of business models, design thinking has proven to be valuable for many challenges concerning growth and innovation. At its core is the ability to change the perspective of common strategic thinking… Instead of setting up long-term roadmaps and pre-set specifications, design thinking proposes prototypes, experiments and collaboration with the user in a continuous, iterative approach.”

Examples of companies leading this approach include Apple & Airbnb. But even this progressive model relies on a particular culture to thrive.

In short, employing Design Thinking is the result of strategic intent. Koshwitz goes on to say:

“To elevate this approach from a niche practice to an accepted business approach, it must be firmly integrated into an organization.”

Different Strokes

So if in a general sense, design is concerned with usability, communication, aesthetics, and Design Thinking is a methodology of human-centric design, how does a design problem differ from a business one?

To illustrate let’s consider some scenarios:

Scenario 1

A company that makes and sells its own products, isn’t making enough sales. They decide to commission shiny new sales material.

However, the problem they want to solve – lack of sales – is not dependant on their sales material, it is dependant on the value of their offering.

Who the product is for, what value does the product create, where it is positioned in the marketplace, and how much it costs.

Sales material can only support and present the inherent value of a service or product. It cannot create this value.

Therefore this is a business problem, not a design problem.

Scenario 2

A company that sells tickets online, isn’t making enough sales. They investigate why this might be.

They discover their customers find their website confusing, and difficult to navigate.

As a result, the site does not create confidence and fails to convert customers.

A more effectively designed website, could streamline the customer journey, and create a positive shopping experience for their customers.

Therefore this is a design problem, not a business problem.

Straddling the Fence

Naturally there’s some overlap between a business and a design problem. But understanding the nature of a challenge, will produce a far more efficient and effective result.

I’m often asked to design logos for companies and artists. Most of the time, the expenditure of time and resource on these projects, is not down to creativity.

It’s usually because the problem is not the logo. It’s the strategy. The why.

If such a process is rendered to a mere aesthetic concern, we risk it becoming entirely subjective and arbitrary – “I’ll know it when I see it”.

Which in turn incurs time, endless revisions, inflated costs, and inevitable frustration for both client and creative.

So if we want to be in service to our customers, our clients and audience, we need to understand what they need from us.

We need to understand how we can best serve that need, and what’s getting in our way right now.

We might not be able to solve business problems with design, but perhaps with the right intent.

– Greg Bunbury

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