graphic design problem solving

Why graphic designers need to be problem solvers

What role do designers play in creating elearning and other digital content? Hint: it’s not just making pictures. Graphic designers need problem solving skills to add value to projects.

As a graphic designer for a niche company like Saffron, I have diverse responsibilities. I create design work for both print and digital. One day I’ll be working on designing a bespoke learning intervention, then I could be creating designs for physical promotional materials.

Should you be designing or solving problems?

Some would say that graphic designers are primarily artistic people with a creative bent – anything else detracts from the artistic and technical requirements of the role, which should be naturally free spirited. But others consider themselves to be problem-solvers. As is often the case, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I would argue that problem solving is a process that you need to develop as a designer and actually need to master. Once you’ve managed to gain enough experience problem solving in your design work, it becomes a valuable tool. In fact, it’s a skill that every employee should encourage in their creative process.

Problem solving in this case is not supposed to be a solitary achievement. When you’re working in an organisation, problem solving is a shared responsibility. This means it’s part of your job as much as everyone else’s.

A successful graphic designer has the mentality of a problem-solver. Problem-solving is about finding the issues, understanding them, and then generating alternative solutions.

A group of designers in a meeting

How to start solving problems

For this to happen, you first need to be your own harshest critic. Think pragmatically – is this design improving the project, or is it riding on the strength of other elements? Step back and try taking off your designer’s hat and think like a project leader instead. This is the first step to becoming a designer that has problem-solving embedded into your practise.

The next step is to engage your team. This is hugely important – when you’re solving problems as a designer, it’s to help the whole team. So, you must involve them in the process. Let them offer feedback and work with them to make the design process transparent, so that they understand what you can offer. Moreover, you must ask the same of them. Pay close attention. If you can’t understand the foundational processes you’re working with, you won’t be able to find the precise angle where your design work can offer solutions.

Solving design problems with prototyping

When you’re designing marketing assets, the problem solving process is about more than a good looking final product. It’s about the thought process and experimentation that occurs beforehand. The design input is one element of the marketing strategy, and often it’s a crucial part. This means there needs to be an iterative process, where design and marketing work together in stages towards a finished product.

The best advice is to try to see how your current progress would look like in the final form. This ‘protoyping’. It could be in a physical form – say by printing it on an A4 page so that you can review the design in its intended context. or digital. For example, when designing for a digital learning intervention you could design a mock up.

Using this prototyping technique is part of the “take one step back” process discussed earlier. This is where you let yourself consider and critique your own progress. This way you are putting yourself in the position of the target audience. You’ll be able to limit any miscommunication that could occur during the development of your design. Having taken this measure, you have the opportunity to spot necessary changes and if necessary, experiment to find a better approach.

Prototyping case study

For example: recently I was designing the graphics for the stand and the promotional materials for a major exhibition Saffron was showing at. This meant that I had to follow certain requirements and limitations, regarding the budget and the use of materials. So after I came up with a few ideas I made sure to get them printed as early as possible in the process to test them. This resulted in a clear path as to what design elements should be avoided and what worked well. This also helped the marketing team to see their own limitations, in terms of the content they had created.

Earlier I mentioned how important it is for different parts of the team to be as transparent with their process. As I was transparent with my design process; the marketing team had a valuable opportunity to review their own work and make changes before handing it back to me. After I had created a prototype print of an early concept, it became clear that the copy wasn’t suitable. In this way we were able to go back and forth with a tactile and digital copy.

In the end, I constructed a miniature scale replica of the stand, out of cardboard, with the printed designs stuck on it. It was an unorthodox and DIY approach, but prototyping was so effective in the design process that it becomes a vital tool in creating a successful end product. Everything from people flow and eye contact level, as well as design issues, could be considered.

Solving design problems with teamwork

When designing for digital environments, there are other tools you can use to adopt a solutions-focused approach to design. Great user experience is the key outcome for most digital products, and this must be at the front of your mind. The design process must be structured around clear visual communication and rewarding interactions.

In the digital environment you discover first-hand how the designer is not an island. Rather, you are part of a team of equally important skillsets, and rarely is the designer the main authority. Collaboration is the driver of success here. Everyone in the team brings not just unique skillsets, but unique perspectives that will allow you to solve even complex problems through a cross-disciplinary effort.

Team discussing with sticky notes


Last year I was working on an immersive bespoke elearning course that had been commissioned by an important lifesaving organisation. They needed a highly accurate and immersive replica of their daily environment to quickly train their team members. We were using many innovative technologies and methodologies simultaneously in the development of this course.

To make sure that we stayed on track and were able to manage the complex techniques used to create such a unique course to high standards, we leaned hard on our communication skills. Following an internal catchup, the design, development, instructional design and marketing teams each took opportunities to share ideas on how to approach the project.

This informal, mood board style approach led to a variety of ideas that informed design and development concepts. Through brainstorming a combination of disciplines at once, we were able to prevent problems arising through miscommunication, as well as creating a product that satisfied clients’ needs in terms of time and budget.

Graphic design and problem solving

To summarise, it’s clear that problem solving is key to creating design outcomes that are satisfactory to all stakeholders. If you’re interested in an aesthetically pleasing product with no regard for other measures of success, then you might forgo problem-solving in your design practise. But I feel that as a designer, my job is to contribute to a product that creates measurable results through successful user experience.

To achieve this, I have to always keep in mind the foundations of openness and collaboration. I’m always considering the end-user, and this will often mean that I take my designs out into the wild to rigorously test them. And when I’m testing them, I make sure to involve other members of the team to encourage a variety of viewpoints.

Ultimately, solving problems through design is about controlling the design process through continual revision and experimentation, and making this process open and collaborative.

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