Ask the Obvious

Why playing naive is sometimes the answer

When we are engaged for brand strategy, our first step is the interview—which is typically one on one—between the client and one of our brand strategists. We always ask to interview the CEO, the marketing department, and a few others. We’re sitting in their offices and the company name is proudly displayed in the lobby or on the door, and we start right off by asking the obvious—“Who are you?”

That question is followed by another, seemingly obvious, question, “What do you do?” These are the kinds of queries that challenge assumptions, in such a fundamental way, they can make us sound a little naïve. In fact, the first thing that comes out may be obvious—but it can get deep very quickly. “Well, we’re Little Unicorn, and we make muslin swaddle blankets—but we also make nursery decor, crib sheets, hooded towels, big kid quilts, outdoor blankets, bibs, burp cloths, diaper bags, and…“

Designers are known for asking a lot of questions. Whether a designer offers strategic services or not, for most, the starting point in the design process is to confront the norm in a given industry with seemingly obvious questions. Apparently, the practice is so common that there’s even a joke about it. How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb? Duh: Does it have to be a lightbulb? 

As design author Warren Berger says, “When designers ask whether ‘it has to be a lightbulb,’ what they are doing is reconsidering and reframing a familiar problem in an unconventional way. In the case of the joke above, the problem of having to change the 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 sunshine in.”

Everyone can and should question the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way” shouldn’t be the answer. “What if I tried this?” and “Why do you do that?” can lead to new and innovative products and processes. The designer behind Nest created an entire company based on questioning the conventional form and function of the thermostat.

Questioning is one of the five skills of innovation, a critical habit of creative thinkers in all fields. But questions don’t end with the client. Good designers question themselves throughout the creative process. Why am I using this color? Why this shape, this material, this look? Should it be traditional or modern, simple or complex? Should it be bigger, smaller? Is this solving the client’s problem?

By asking obvious questions the designer identifies the audience and purpose and pushes the creative solution to its fullest potential. It doesn’t make you a stupid designer to ask the obvious. Bruce Mau, the audacious Canadian designer, said, “The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will seem naïve. But naïvety is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïvety is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can’t be done.”