The True Design Problems of Our Time

Around the globe, designers are working on such important problems as the placement of buttons, the hue of blue that will get you to click on said button, and whether the text on that button should be all-caps, mixed case or all lower case. These incredibly important problems earn designers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. That’s how vitally important they are.

So important are problems such as “click-through rate” and “time on site”, that these designers have to spend all their time working on these, rather than more minor problems.

The More Minor Problems

If you look at the time and resources dedicated by designers into solving problems, you’ll likely find that the following rank quite low on their list of design priorities.

Obviously, these are quite minor problems, and nowhere near as important as what hue of blue the Facebook top bar is produced in. Because that problem affects 2 billion people for a few seconds a day. Whereas these problems only affect everyone, all day, everyday.

So, how do we design solutions to these problems?

The Answer Does Not Lie In Silos

Design loves silos and niches. People love to add more and more qualifiers to their job titles to stand out from the crowd and cut out their little niche in the overall work to be done. That’s why we have:

None of these roles on their own can solve the problems we’re now facing. And specialisation in a topic is not the way to solve a generalised problem like Global Warming. Why? Because, to a UX Designer, everything looks like a problem for UX. And to an Email Designer, everything can be solved by sending out an email.

What we need is a different approach to design, with designers who have a more generalised worldview and the skills and understanding to work with specialists when needed, but identify and work on the lead-obvious solutions to our problems. I call this “Holistic Design” and its an activity undertaken by “Designers”.

There’s no qualifier on the title there. A Designer is someone who intentionally uses creativity to solve a problem. And they’ll do that through research, understanding, and idea synthesis across a variety of domains.

The Holistic Design Approach

Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

Holistic Design considers the system being designed as an interconnected whole that is also part of something larger. There are no silos, instead there is a web of inter-connectivity. The applications we use are connected to the device they operate on, this in turn is connected to the power grid, the internet, and other elements. Together, these create a system that uses natural resources to let you crush candy.

By taking a holistic view of the problems we wish to and need to solve, we’re able to look outside of the traditional silos of design and look for solutions that exist between the previously possible or probable.

For example, where an app designer may consider the solution to excess waste is to create an app that lets you share that problem with the council, a holistic designer may look at how the bins are designed, how often they are emptied, the type of packaging that is thrown away and ways to limit and manage it, the source of the rubbish, etc. Then, by bringing all of this understanding together, work with specialists to create the solution(s).

Who Can Design Holistically?


Anyone can take a holistic approach to design. They just need to “take a step back” and look for the connections. In the same way we look to identify problems with out home appliances by looking at what is connected to them and what they are connected to - “Have you checked the plug?” - we can do the same with design problems.

Look at the problem. Research to understand the context. Look to other areas for inspiration. Ask “Why?” about existing solutions or approaches. Bring everything together to create a new solution. That’s how we all become designers, and face the TRUE problems in front of us.