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Designer Joke

April 14, 2015

10 Amazing Things An Old Joke Exposes About Designers

Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Does it have to be a light bulb?

What this joke reveals about designers:

1. Designers are notorious for our unruly nature, our irritating habits of questioning everything and refusing to simply do what we're told. And it is those very traits which make us so valuable to your business and to society in general. Designers, through a combination of nature and nurture, question assumptions and givens. We ask, "why?": "Why do we do it like that?", "Why can't this be better?" or "Isn't there a better way?". We're not trying to be trying; we're reframing the problem and applying critical thinking. Why do you need designers to screw in the bulb? Why did the light bulb burn out in the first place? How do we know it is burned out? Is a light bulb the best solution here, or can we just open a window? Why is it dark here anyway? What is wrong with the dark? Are there opportunities in the dark that we can turn to an advantage? Designers expand the boundaries of a problem, seeking the root issues, the fundamental truths, or the hidden motivations.

2. Designers also ask "Why not?". We ask why something hasn't been done. We question the assumption that something is impossible.

3. Designers approach problem-solving in a systemic manner, similar to what scientists and engineers do. There is a method to our madness. We apply rigorous method and painful iteration to try to bring our ideas and our clients' ideas to realization. We fail repeatedly until we don't; we fail forward. We test our assumptions, ask those challenging questions, explore preposterous concepts and revise our ideas. We respond to feedback loops and iteratively improve our prototypes.

4. Designers empathize with other people and observe human behavior closely. We are instantly in that space, trying to understand this situation with the lightbulb. We can imagine ourselves in others shoes. We look at what actually is and not what we hope is or what we think should be. By observing real problems, actions or challenges without prejudice, by imaging what we ourselves would want as a human being, by thinking about what could be instead of what is, designers can find meaningful solutions to problems.

5. Designers synthesize information. We don't rely on a single source of input. We ask questions, we conduct research, gather and analyze data, observe, look for patterns and anomalies, apply lateral thinking, promote multiple solutions, absorb feedback and draw on our experience and finely-tune intuition. Synthesizing all of information from various sources allows us to connect dots that others might not. "Ah-ha!" moments happen because we do the work to set the stage for the light bulb to come on.

6. Designers embrace change. We are flexible, dropping one solution when another one proves to be better. We adapt to new information and look for the new opportunities in situations. We are eager for the new, the different, the better.

7. Designers want to make the world a better place. We abhor inefficiency, awkwardness, and the dull. We want things to work better, look better, feel better, be better. We don't accept that anything has to be the way it is. We don't accept the lightbulb or the dark. This drives our need to solve problems unrelentingly.

8. Designers are uninhibited. We studiously maintain a sense of childlike wonder about the world. We're not afraid to ask the stupid, obvious question or to fail. We're not afraid to propose the preposterous idea. After all, it might work... (see No. 2).

9. Designers wield balanced brains. We apply both our right- and left-brains, our intuitive and our rational sides, to each problem. We imagine outrageous Rube Goldberg machines as possible ways to change the lightbulb, while analyzing the problem of why the lightbulb is burned out at all. The juxtaposition of the two ways of thinking feeds innovation.

10. Designers inhabit the future. We live in the realm of what can be most of the time. So for us, what is possible is more tangible than to others who need to inhabit the present. Anything is possible in that scenario of the light bulb, and so right away we start to probe.

Do designers struggle doing all these things all the time? Sure. Creativity and innovative thinking on demand is a tall order. No doubt you've given feedback to your designer that they did not accept gracefully—at least at first. Perhaps you've had to terminate a project because you and the agency could not see eye to eye. That is human nature. But designers actively struggle against those impulses to force ourselves into that uncomfortable place of change, even if we don't always do it happily or willingly. We know we need to go there to succeed.

Everyone can be creative to some degree, if they adhere to the behaviors listed above. "Design thinking" has been a hot topic in business school and journal circles. David Kelly of IDEO's d.school at the Institute of Design at Stanford is one of the leading protagonist of design thinking. The idea is to take the skills and techniques that designers use to be creative and convey those to business school students to encourage a new crop of innovative business leaders. The jury is still out on whether this will be effective or not. Alternately, business and society could tap into the professional creative thinking that designers do "natively" by engaging them in more problem-solving activities rather than constraining them to the purely aesthetic.

Designers, of course, can't solve all your business's or organization's problems. But we can help organizations move forward, to break new ground, to refocus their efforts, to evolve.

What is preventing business and society from benefiting from designers' natural abilities? Perhaps they aren't asking designers the right questions.

For more on the topic check out the documentary Design Thinking. The trailer is free, but the movie is pay-to-view.

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