As I worked on Glimmer and studied the ways designers solve problems and create new possibilities, it seemed they invariably started by asking questions. And often they ask what the designer Bruce Mau (left) calls “stupid questions:” the kinds of queries that challenge assumptions in such a fundamental way they can make the questioner seem naïve.
Designers are so known for questioning everything, there’s a joke acknowledging this tendency:
How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: Does it have to be a lightbulb?
Joking aside, when designers ask whether “it has to be a lightbulb,” what they are doing is reconsidering and re-framing a familiar problem in an unconventional way. In the case of the joke above, the problem of having to change that lightbulb may be reframed as a need to bring more light into the room without constantly having to change the bulb. This, in turn, may lead to putting a window in the roof to let the sun shine in.
So what does all of this mean to the rest of us non-designers? The inclination to ask stupid questions, as we step back and reconsider the world around us, can help us to reinvent our daily routines or reboot our careers (just by asking “Why am I doing what I’m doing?”). On a larger scale, it can help companies regain focus and help governments retackle old, entrenched problems. For example, in Glimmer, I show how the ability to ask stupid questions helped the company OXO redesign the basic potato peeler and thereby revolutionize an industry. The book also shows that designers are applying the “stupid questions” principle as they try to reinvent social services, such as providing better care to seniors. And on a personal level, Glimmer shows how everyday people have used this technique to change everything from the way they shovel snow to the way they haul themselves out of bed in the morning.
You don’t have to be an expert to know how to ask stupid questions. In fact, experts often have the most trouble getting themselves to ask stupid questions because they know too much (or so they think). Designers, on the other hand, are often in the role of “anti-experts”—they tend to come at challenges from the perspective of the outsider. “When I’m totally unqualified for a job, that’s when I do my best work,” the designer Paula Scher told me. She said that if you have too much expertise—if you think you know the answers already—you won’t be as open to offbeat possibilities. But if you’re a neophyte, says Scher, “you’ll ask what would seem to be obvious. From ignorance, you can come up with something that is so out of left field that it has been ignored or was never considered a possibility.”
So if you don’t need expertise, what do you need? Imagination, an open mind—and enough guts to ask those rudimentary questions. As Mau points out, “The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will seem naïve. But naïve is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïve is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can’t be done.”
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