Designers begin by defining the real need.

We’ve all the heard the adage that problems are opportunities in disguise. But did you ever consider that people might be bringing you so-called problems that are really solutions in disguise? Think about it. I’m sure this happens to you, too.

When you were kid, did your mom or dad have a problem with your choice of music? It was probably expressed in terms like, “turn off that #@*! music” — which was really their solution to the problem.  If instead they said, “Gee, I hate that Megadeath song, please make it go away,” you’d understand the real problem. To solve it, you could choose to put on headphones, or listen to your music in the basement, or switch to Rachmaninoff. Three easy, workable solutions that get at the heart of the “real” problem.

Let’s play this out. Do your colleagues or clients ask you to solve their “budget problems” by cutting your price, when the problem is not too much cost, but too little revenue? Wouldn’t it be better to work on solutions for growing attendance, or sponsorship, or merchandising?

Bruce Mau talks about the value of design thinking and how, when people hand us a “problem” that is really a solution, we need to push back, clearly define the problem, and then consider ways to solve for it. In 1997, when Capitol Records asked the marketing team to help launch the new Duran Duran CD, their “problem” was how to boost radio play to create demand for the CD and earn prime display space in music stores. Instead of solving this problem, a couple of people pushed back and suggested that what they really needed was cut-through publicity in a crowded market. They convinced Capitol to release “Electric Barbarella” as a single on the internet for 99 cents a download, and create an exclusive remix for $1.99. It was a first. The publicity was crazy — and the entire music industry was disrupted.

Instead of starting with solutions, consider what you want to accomplish and solve for that. If you define your problem as “I need a hammer” you will attract a lot of people selling nails. But if you say, “I’d like to display this picture,” you may discover that a refrigerator magnet does the trick.