How to Think Like a Designer

Designers are trained to think differently. How else can you take an old-fashioned idea like knitting and transform it into FlyKnit, a beautiful, cutting edge athletic shoe that eliminates waste by only using the yarn needed to make it (the designers at Nike must have had fun imagining that one). Or the Teavana teapot I use at home which never ceases to amaze guests because the tea comes out the bottom and not from the spout: it doesn't have a spout! Here are 5 simple designer traits that, when used together, will make you think differently and break age-old preconceptions.

Don't give up on a problem until you've come up with a solution

Designers believe they'll come up with a better solution, no matter how hard the problem. This optimism drives their creativity. When you're faced with a tough problem at work, remind yourself that constraints are also opportunities. If stuck, think whether you've seen a similar problem in another industry or context.

Steve Jobs did this when he took the magnetic power clip from Japanese rice cookers and applied it to Apple laptops. Very different industries (computers and cooking), same need (avoid a fall). So identify your problem and look for it in other contexts, and when you find it, use the solution as inspiration for your particular context. You'll be cross-fertilizing your way to a solution!

Put yourself in the shoes of others

Designing often means solving problems that you don't personally have--learning toys for toddlers, breast pumps for new moms, knives for chefs--without being a child, a mom, or a professional chef. You can only do this if you have deep empathy for the other person, the person who is in need.

Sam Farber, founder of OXO brand of handheld products, was inspired to create kitchen gadgets with a more comfortable handle after he saw how difficult it was for his wife to peel potatoes because of her arthritis. Be on the lookout for the pain points people experience throughout the day, imagine what they're going through and think about how you could solve them.

Think holistically

Often, people think that they need to spend hours jotting ideas down on paper to come up with the best solution to their problem. But focusing on the problem creates a sort of tunnel vision, you can't see beyond what you know. It helps to take a step back and see the big picture.

I give my students at School of Visual Arts (SVA) the following exercise: break chicken soup into its parts across emotion, physical, intellect and spirit.

  • Emotion of chicken soup is comforting, beloved, healing
  • Physical qualities are hot, steaming, liquid, chicken
  • Intellect is traditional, intergenerational, universal
  • Spirit of chicken soup is caring, childhood memories, home

Use the 4 quadrants with anything when you want to see the big picture.

Ask open-ended questions to practice an open-mind

Designers ask "what if" questions all the time and explore different outcomes to a given situation. Like what if we designed a teapot without a spout? What if we knit a shoe using only the amount of material we need to avoid any waste? What if we replaced chicken in the soup above with lots of onions (answer: French Onion Soup).

What is your "what if" question du jour?

Work with others

Designers understand that today's problems are often too complex for any one person to solve. You need people from other disciplines to build on each other's ideas.

It was a professional set designer who built big rock concerts who first inspired me to imagine that an office system can be lightweight, modular and easy to change, just like a theater set. We built our first prototypes of the Resolve Office System for Herman Miller from off the shelf, inexpensive set building parts. It was Jim Long, then director of research at Herman Miller, and his work around metaphors that helped me broaden the idea of the theater into an overarching metaphor--that the office is really a stage for the performance of work. And that, like a stage, an office system needs to be easy to change and adapt to different work performances.

Start a conversation with a person from another discipline, listen, learn and ideate together.

How about you? What are some favorite tools and tricks that help you think differently. I would love to hear from you.

Design the life and work you love!