Solving Problems Like a Designer

Bill Burnett and David Evans are teaching the most popular course at Stanford University right now. The name of the course: Design Your Life.

The term “design” is not meant in an abstract way. The course is actually about transferring ideas and principles of design to questions and problems of everyday life.

“Think like a designer” is the slogan of the course as well as a recently published book (Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life) by the two professors.

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Designers Love Questions

Everything that surrounds us, whether it’s in the office or at home, on the street or in the supermarket, is the result of a design process.
Packaging is designed just like sounds, the iPhone just like the red stop sign.

Behind all of these designs are questions: What should the slamming of a car door sound like? How big should a stop sign be so you can see it from a distance?
Questions about design often have more than one correct answer, which is the point Burnett and Evans are trying to make:

Just like there isn’t one correct answer in life about questions such as whether you should study business or geography, work in a start-up or a big corporation, or whether you should live in an old building or a modern apartment complex, there are numerous questions about design that have even more possible answers.

Their claim is – as was made clear through a recent article in the New York Times – that life can be designed in a similar way to Jonathan Ive’s design of the iPhone.

Design doesn’t just work for creating cool stuff like computers and Ferraris; it works in creating a cool life. (Designing Your Life, Introduction)

The Way to the Answers

How does a designer find the answers to this multitude of questions?

Through experimenting, developing prototypes and the support of the team.

According to Burnett and Evans, this process should now be applied not only to questions about design but to all of the questions we are facing in life. It is about trying out things, giving up on some ideas and pursuing others. This process isn’t limited to the time in university or to finding the right job. The two professors also organize their workshops with Google employees and deliberately aim their book at a wider audience.

5 Steps: Thinking Like a Designer

The design process consists of five steps: Emphasize, define, explore, develop a prototype, test.
Similar to agile software development, Burnett and Evans advocate testing things and, if necessary, quickly dismissing them to try out something new.

The first step is about establishing what the problem or question is. The second step is about defining the problem.

The third step is about developing ideas, brainstorming and thinking about solutions. During the fourth step, you should develop a plan and prototype. And the last step consists of testing the idea.

problem solving

Prototypes for Life

Burnett’s and Evan’s idea is to not spend too much energy on thinking about decisions, but instead trying different things and developing prototypes – just like with design.

That way, you shouldn’t just decide on a career change. Instead, you should experiment what it would be like to work in a different job. The important thing is to act instead of thinking about the issue. This is the strength of the proposed approach: putting ideas to the test and making decisions afterward.

The End of the Pro and Con List?

Many people use pro and con lists when they are faced with big decisions. On the one side are all the things in favor of making a certain decision, on the other side is everything speaking against it.
The pro and con list will probably not disappear completely.

But, there are many advantages in taking the design approach and trying out more things instead of spending all your time thinking about them.

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