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I'm out to single-handedly put an end to the design community's collective belief that we are problem solvers, and that design is a problem-solving activity. Design is not a problem-solving activity and we are certainly not problem solvers.

The "problem solving" story is a myth. Most of us heard it first as students and, without much thought, have embraced the notion ever since. Why? Because, on its face, it seems like a reasonable description of what we do as designers. Further, by making that claim, we think we become more credible in the eyes of the business community. That may be what we think, but how's that going?

There certainly is some "puzzle assembly" going on and some "figuring out" to be done, no doubt about that. It's absurd, however, for us to kid ourselves and tell our clients that we are problem solvers. I can't think of a group more poorly suited to take on real problems. Most of us struggle running our tiny businesses and fail to get outside our personal aesthetic to see and understand the real context of the work we do. Besides, if we are really problem solvers, how do we explain all those little yellow Post-it notes sticking out of our collections of design magazines, annuals and books?

The dogma designers share about being "problem solvers" is our profession's unrecognized enemy and a significant undermining falsehood."

The "problem solving" dogma has been deeply engrained in design education since the beginning, and has become a marbleized part of the myth that every design educator, designer and design firm serves up to its various constituents, as well as to each other. It is a part of our almost religious faith in design. We believe we are problem solvers, as we once believed in the Tooth Fairy. Belief suspends real thinking. And, believe it or not, designers are not really problem solvers.

In the Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, "The enemy is dogma." He meant belief is the enemy. The dogma designers share about being "problem solvers" is our profession's unrecognized enemy and a significant undermining falsehood. Our profession and our collective credibility are weakened because so many of us traffic in this illusion. Ir's blasphemy to say that we are not problem solvers. It's heresy. I know it. Call Mel Gibson.

The misconception that we are "problem solvers" lies at the core of our collective frustration. Our clients haven't bought our story, but we have.

Context is everything. We need to think about design in another context. Namely, that design is about opportunities. Consider the possibility that design is an "Opportunity Taking" activity. We do figure things out, of course we do. We sort out details, bring clarity and fit all the pieces together. However, design ain't about problems. Design is about recognizing opportunities and creating opportunities—for ourselves and for our clients.

Thinking about design as an opportunity, instead of a problem, makes a whopping difference. It is an entirely different way to look at and hold the work we do as designers. Design, as opportunity, is a new context that will shift everything.

A problem is "any question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty or difficulty." On the other hand, an opportunity is "a good position, chance or prospect. " Notice the difference?

For example, imagine that one of your good friends is excited about the new flower shop she is about to open. She has asked you to design her stationery and create wonderful graphics for her new business. Are you really going to tell her this is a problem for you? Heck no. It's an opportunity to do something really great. It's exciting. Ditto with every assignment that has ever, or will ever, come across your desk. Each and every assignment is an opportunity. Do a great package. Create a great trademark. Make an awesome Web site. Help your client seize a business opportunity with a brilliant brochure.

Old-time believers are likely to disagree with my reinterpretation of the fundamental, bur false, tenet of the design profession. Doubting Thomas "believers" will say this is merely a matter of semantics. I have a question for them. What else is there but semantics?

I want you to remember my words every rime you tell someone that you are a problem solver. Instead, tell them that you are an "opportunity taker." ca

Michael Stanard, in over 30 years as a graphic designer—23 leading his marketing and design consultancy—has served a broad spectrum of customers, in a diverse range of industries. His designs have received numerous awards and honors. Stanard has been active in the development of new talent as an instructor in graphic design at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago and he is a member of Northern Illinois University's College of Visual & Performing Arts Advisory Board. He recently joined the board of directors of the Chicago-based Society of Typographic Arts (STA). In addition, he serves on the board of the Chester Gould/Dick Tracy Museum. He wrote the Opinion/Commentary column.


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