an illustration of a designer sketching on a tablet while seated at her computer at a desk. A thought bubble with a light bulb inside extends from her forehead.

How to Solve Problems Like a Designer

Designers are incredibly unique creatures. Where other people see a blank space, a designer sees an opportunity to create. Where others outside the field might think in black and white, designers think in full spectrum. There are just so many things that make designers unique, but that’s the beauty of being one. It means that there are things only you can see.

This becomes a relevant fact when it comes to problem-solving.

A Look at Design Thinking

Yes, even designers have their own framework that they use, whether knowingly or subconsciously, every time they are presented with a problem. This is what you call “design thinking.”

Through design thinking, one is able to convert observations into insights, and these insights into products and services that aim to provide solutions to existing problems. It’s not just about presenting options that look good or follow trends. It’s also about being able to make a difference, eventually creating ways to make each user’s life better.

a designer sketches a potential page layout at a very organized desk

Design Thinking vs Traditional Problem-Solving

So, what’s the difference between traditional problem solving and design thinking?

When you solve problems the traditional way, you pinpoint the problem and use a scientific approach to find solutions. After all, science solves almost everything, right? Well, not all the time. A scientific approach rarely leaves room for flexibility and innovation, which means that when something goes wrong, you have to start from scratch.

And what if the problem pointed out isn’t really the real source of the issue? Then you would have exerted a lot of effort and used up a lot of resources before figuring out that you’re trying to solve the wrong problem. At the end of the day, this leads to failure.

This is where design thinking comes in.

Where traditional thinking starts in identifying the problem, design thinking starts with observation. This allows the observant to truly understand the nature and culture of the problem instead of JUST the problem.

Five Steps in Design Thinking

The process involved in design thinking applies five different principles that often makes it more effective than the traditional method.


The empathy stage is where the problem solver tries to understand the audience. After all, two people may have the same problem but with different contexts. Two people may have financial problems, for example, but one could be inherited while the other is mostly because of the lack of discipline. This is why it is very important to understand where the people involved are coming from.

When you empathize, you try to take a deeper look into what your audience’s values, beliefs, and needs are. For you to gather the data you need, you would have to observe – a lot! You have to watch how your audience moves and listen to the way they speak. You have to engage them and start conversations. It’s a process of interaction, of building real connections.


The definition stage is where you try to establish a point of view. Now that you are armed with the data you have gathered through audience observation, you can finally compile it and find patterns and connections. What do all these pieces of information mean? What does it say about the audience you worked with and their needs?


This is the stage where you start formulating ideas to come up with possible solutions. Remember that this involves creative thinking and not the usual exact scientific process, so nothing is really off limits here. Throw in every relevant idea you have. It’s not about finding that one perfect idea, it’s all about opening up as many possibilities and opportunities as you can.

The best way to do this would be to collaborate with other team members. Every person has their own brand of creativity, so the more people pitching in, the more unique ideas you get.

post it notes with design elements, pencils, markers, an iPhone, and other office supplies are laid out neatly on a table


Now that you’re in the prototype stage, you can start trying out multiple solutions. Remember that you have quite a few ideas to try out from the previous brainstorming session, so the more ideas you try, the more ways for you to solve the problem as well.

And yes, it’s possible that two or three different approaches could show satisfactory results. Even better, the prototype stage could also show you a few new ideas that you weren’t able to think of before.


In the testing stage, you will be able to find what the best solution is for each specific type of audience. You can finally let your audience experience how your ideas work and see if these ideas are truly as genius as you think they are.

As mentioned earlier, you could see two or three solutions that would work – it’s all about discovering which one is the most efficient and effective.

In the testing stage, it’s possible for you to go back to any of the previous stages you have already completed. If your audience finds something wrong with your prototypes for example, there may be a need for you to go back to the drawing board. Of course, that’s the beauty of design thinking as opposed to traditional thinking. This process leaves enough room for change and flexibility, so you can jump to any step you want as needed.

As you can see, design thinking is just a jumbled up version of the traditional scientific method.

Tips for Applying Design Thinking

So how do you effectively apply design thinking in solving problems and creating solutions? Here are a few tips you can use to make this work for you:

Focus on Your Users

Remember that this is not about you, it’s about your audience’s problems. You have to think about how your users would feel every step of the way. The moment you disregard their opinions, beliefs, values, or insight, you also open up the path to failure.

a woman works at a laptop while seated on a bed

How do you know whether something will work for your users if you haven’t gone to the testing stage just yet? Focus on the first step – observe. A few questions that would help are:

  • How does the solution work?
  • What mood are you putting your audience in?
  • Is everything readable or easy to understand?
  • How well does the design match the brand’s values, image, and goals?

As you answer these questions, you can slowly see what makes your users happy and adjust your methods and approach accordingly.

Always Create Visuals

You’re a designer, so there’s a big chance that you are able to imagine the end result in your mind. But what about the users and clients who are not as creative as you are?

Visualizing the end product will tell you right away whether a certain approach would work or not. The best example of this would be the mockups you present to clients before finally working on the project. Through visuals, you can always make sure that everybody is on the same page. Remember that everybody thinks differently, and you wouldn’t want your entire team to envision different things in their minds. Great visuals can help clear things up.

Don’t Stick to a Single Solution

The beauty of design thinking is the fact that you can make as many solutions as you like. Maximize this feature by coming up with a number of solutions and letting your audience decide which ones are the best. This is also the best way for you to make sure that you cover all possible corners of the field, instead of submitting a single solution and being overshadowed by the competition just because they used an approach you could have also used.

Always Ask for Help

Any creative process requires the feedback of a number of people and not just a single person. You wouldn’t want to paint a masterpiece that no one but you appreciates, would you? Because of this, no matter what happens, always collaborate with the right people. Ask for help. Ask for feedback. This is the best way for you to find kinks and issues that you may not be seeing or you may not have thought of.

You don’t even need to wait until you’re ready to deliver the end result before asking for the opinion of others. From the idea-generation stage alone, you can already accomplish so much if you let a few more people into your circle and ask for suggestions.

Immerse Yourself

When you’re working on building solutions for a problem, be in the zone. Get rid of distractions and find ways to focus on that single thing for now. You can do as much as you need to do just to get yourself in the zone. Set the right kind of music for the kind of work you expect to do. Free your workspace of useless clutter and surround yourself with things related to the project. Get out there and talk to people who can positively influence whatever you’re working on. Be the actor or actress who lives out the life of the character they’ll be playing in their next movie. Immerse yourself.

a man holds a tablet, looking at it pensively

Set Realistic Deadlines

Letting the ideas pour out and working on creating viable solutions out of them takes time. You can never submit a half-baked product just to say that you met the initial deadline. As much as possible, study the timeline and see if any of the dates seem too tight. Explain,carefully, to the people involved why some deadlines might have to be pushed. Yes, your ultimate goal is to deliver results in the fastest time possible. But if these results are mediocre, then what’s the use?

Be Open to Starting From Scratch

Design thinking is a continuous and flexible process, and there are times when no matter what you do, you always get stuck. In this case, be open to throwing out everything you’ve worked on so far and starting fresh. Sometimes, we get too engrossed in whatever we’re working on and fail to see opportunities passing by. So when something just isn’t working out, stop, breathe, and go back to the beginning. This time, a fresh perspective helps you find those missed opportunities and end up with even better results.

Find Inspiration

Sure, you want the solutions you offer to be as unique and as innovative as possible. This does not mean that you’ll start from ground zero. Try to look around and find inspiration in what others have done so far. This would give you a great starting point to take advantage of things that other people may have missed.

Of course, make sure you know the huge difference between finding inspiration and copying. Some people set out to find inspiration, only to end up imitating a lot of the aspects that go into their original inspiration. And most of the time, it’s not even intentional! Again, it all goes back to asking for feedback. Other people would be able to tell you if you’re moving far from your goal of coming up with a unique solution or if you’re on the right track.

Ready to embrace design thinking? These books will help you take your problem-solving skills to the next level.

Design Thinking Books

Design Thinking by Gavin Ambrose

The cover of Design Thinking by Gavin Ambrose

An introduction to the process of generating creative ideas and concepts. It identifies methods and thought processes used by designers in order to start the process that eventually leads to a finished piece of work.

Graphic Design Thinking by Ellen Lupton

The cover of Graphic Design Thinking by Ellen Lupton

This book explores informal techniques ranging from quick, seat-of-the-pants approaches to more formal research methods for stimulating fresh thinking, and ultimately arriving at compelling and viable solutions.

A Designer’s Research Manual by Jennifer Visocky O’Grady

The cover of A Designer's Research Manual by Jennifer Visocky O'Grady

Doing research can make all the difference between a great design and a good design. This book provides a comprehensive manual for designers on what design research is, why it is necessary, how to do research, and how to apply it to design work.

Writing and Research for Graphic Designers by Steven Heller

The cover of Writing and Research for Graphic Desingers by Steven Heller

For designers, writing and research skills are more necessary than ever before, from the basic business compositions to critical writing. This book is a complete, introductory guide to various forms of research and writing in design-and how they explain visuals and can be visualized themselves.

Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell

The cover of Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell

This book will teach you how to find the information and know-how required to make design work.

Some designers waste a lot of time second-guessing themselves. This makes them feel burnt out even faster. Have confidence in your ideas. You won’t find out if they work unless you actually get started.

If you find yourself getting lost in the middle of the process, take a step back, but never stop moving. Just take a breather and dive right in. Before you know it, you’ll have the results you need.

Get started.

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