Aspiring designers, are you designing only for the sake of design?

As an aspiring designer, perhaps you have been wondering why you can’t break into the industry or are not growing. If so, you are not alone. As a creative director and a mentor, I have met many designers and mentees with similar questions. And to answer, I always ask one question: are you designing only for the sake of design? Why did I ask this question? In this article, let us look at one of the most common yet fatal pitfalls aspiring designers make when trying to break into the industry and how to avoid it. Let’s dive in.


Design education frequently overlooks one crucial aspect: the core of design lies in problem-solving, not just achieving visually appealing outcomes. Rather than starting with the end result, designers should prioritize identifying and solving business problems. To become effective and successful, designers should follow the following three-step approach when tackling their projects: defining the problem, focusing on it during design, and evaluating the solutions' effectiveness. This problem-solving mindset enhances designers' strategic thinking, improving their presentation and employability.

The one thing that bootcamps and certificates cannot teach you: design isn’t about the end-results

Let’s admit it. Many of us aspire to become a designer because we admire the results designers can create. It might have been an eye-catching movie poster, a highly artistic website, or an electrifying movie trailer. And it’s natural, then, for us to start designing in the hope of recreating the same or even better results.

I was the same.

When I first started out over a decade (or two) ago, I also thought of design as creating visually attractive things. And just like many others, I opened Photoshop and started fiddling around, thinking I was doing design.

The harsh truth is design isn’t about creating eye-catching stuff. Instead, design is about creatively solving problems, and all the posters, websites, and movie trailers that inspired us are but only the result of the design process. So, by aiming to create the results from the start, we accidentally forget the most crucial part of design: solving problems. What happens, then? All the posters, book covers, movie trailers, websites, and social media posts you created may be visually attractive. However, they are soulless. They cannot achieve anything, and they cannot resonate with the viewers.

What’s more, we also need to remember that businesses are not looking for designers who can create visually attractive designs. That’s but a plus. What businesses are looking for are designers who can help them solve their problems. So, if you are finding it hard to land an interview or a job, maybe it’s time to review your work: are you solving any problems, or are you only designing for the sake of design?

But what, exactly, can be counted as problems?

Many mentees and designers usually argue with me when I ask whether they are solving problems or are just designing for the sake of design.

“The business’s website has an outdated design, so I set out to redesign it.”

“The application lacks this specific function that other applications have, so I redesigned it to add it in.”

Do these statements sound familiar to you? If these sound like one of the problem statements in your case studies, then I will have to deliver one piece of bad news to you: they are not accepted problem statements.

As designers, we must remember that design is heavily intertwined with business. As a result, many problems that designers set out to solve usually stem from problems that the business is facing. Just because a business’s website is “outdated” doesn’t mean that the business would initiate a “redesign” project. Instead, a “redesign” project is usually initiated when, for example, the current website’s copies and appearance no longer fit the business’s positioning or if a business recently launched a new product/service and required its website to fit in the new offering. In many cases, these problems are also accompanied by different metrics and KPIs to measure the effectiveness of the final solution for additional optimization at a later date.

For the sake of reference, here is an edited version of a real brief from a client at our agency:

“Our business will be launching a new product at our next product announcement event, which will happen in the next six months. Following this product launch, we want to create a landing page introducing our latest product. We want to ensure that information, such as our product’s unique features and improvements over the last generations, are properly highlighted. Furthermore, we want the landing page to be designed to convey the cutting-edge aspects of the technologies implemented in our product. (…)”

As you can see from the above brief, the problem isn’t creating a landing page but properly conveying the unique selling points of the product that will be announced in the next launch event. Furthermore, it’s not only the product’s unique selling points but also the philosophy and the characteristic of the technologies implemented in the product that must be portrayed on the soon-to-be-designed landing page. It is your job, as a designer, to create a landing page that meets all of the requirements of the client while still being user-friendly, and that will be your problem statement.

Switching to a problem-solving mindset

Now that we have talked about how vital the problem-solving aspect of design is, let us talk about how you can switch to a problem-solving mindset and improve your chance of landing that next position of your dream.

Fortunately, there is a three-step framework for this.

The first step is to keep the problem in the focus of your design. To do this, ensure that you’ve identified the real problem required by the client. Read the brief given to you carefully and highlight all the information as to what your client wants to achieve through their request to you. If you still find the information unclear, don’t be afraid to sit down and have a brainstorming section with your client. If you are working on a fictional case study, then don’t just simply stop at the surface problem that’s visible to the naked eye. Try to dig down at least three levels before finalizing your problem statement. Let us look at a simple example:

Let’s assume that you deem a business’s website outdated. Ask yourself, “why does that matter to the business?” “How does that impact the business?” and “What would an ideal solution look like to the business?” The answer to these questions will help you draft a much more complex problem statement and create a reference point that will be vital for the next steps.

In the second step, ensure you continuously refer to the problem at the start during the design process. This is to ensure that you are constantly reminding yourself to solve the stated problem and are not designing only for the sake of design. All too often, designers chase after aesthetically pleasing gimmicks and stray away from their goal to create solutions. You want to avoid this.

In the last step, evaluate your design against the problem. Did your design solve the problem? How effective is it? If you could continue to improve the solution, how would you improve it so that it could better solve the problem?

By repeating these three steps in multiple projects, you will gradually develop a problem-solving mindset and will naturally start to focus on solving problems through design. Furthermore, you will also start presenting projects and solutions with a more strategic approach. This, in turn, will not only help you to become more confident in your presentation but also portray you as a more mature designer compared to other applicants at your level. With some luck, you will have a significantly higher chance of landing the opportunity of your dream.

Some last words

As an aspiring designer, it’s easy to chase after visually attractive end-results. This is not an incorrect way of working. After all, visually attractive results inspired us to become designers and are our inspiration for further growth. However, design is more than just that. Design is about solving problems creatively.

If you are feeling stuck in your job hunting or not growing, perhaps it is the problem-solving aspect of design that is holding you back. Evaluate your case studies and past projects again, and if it is indeed the problem-solving aspect of design that is your obstacle, it is never too late to start shifting your mindset into a problem-solving-centric one.

Lastly, never forget the passion that led you to become a designer. The path to becoming a successful designer may have obstacles, but as long as you stay true to your passion and continue to learn and grow, you will eventually land the opportunities you’ve been dreaming of.

Good luck on your journey!

Published on
March 5, 2023