How to solve a design problem? Drill saga

The path to a solution is not always a step forward.

In this article, you will learn (or remember) what you need to decide any problem. I wrote it for a conference talk and also posted a video on my Youtube channel, but later I adapted it for the blog.

Ok … let s get started …

Drill saga

Best apartment!

I have lived in Amsterdam for 3 years. When I moved there, I was very lucky to find an apartment in a recently completed building. Therefore, my wife and I were the first people who lived in our apartment, and there was also an elevator in the house – you may not know, but in Amsterdam this is an important moment.

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
In Amsterdam, stairs suck

Probably due to the fact that we were very happy about buying an apartment in a new building, we did not realize that we were missing one important thing …

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
My life if I depended on the previous landlord …


Seriously … there was no light in the whole apartment, I had cables literally hanging from the ceiling. The landlord didn t want to help, so I had to resolve the issue myself.

Keep in mind that I am absolutely ZERO when it comes to this sort of thing, I had no tools at all, so there was a real challenge ahead.

Do you know how many designers it takes to connect a lamp?

Just one … but does it have to be a classic light bulb?

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
It will look much better this way …

This is not a joke … that s exactly what I thought.

I decided to buy ceiling lamps instead of ordinary bulbs, and had no idea that my epic was just beginning.

Problem 1

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
I think I need to buy this …

I need to drill into the ceiling, but I don t have a drill.

So … I went to the store and selected a suitable cordless drill, but when I got home I realized that I needed to solve the second problem ….

Problem 2

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
Of course, the drill is sold without drills …

The ceiling felt like stone and of course I didn t have the right drills.

I went back to the store and bought some stone drills.

As soon as I got home I was eager to give it a try, and as soon as I did, the third problem arose.

Issue 3

Drills on stone did not drill “stone” …

I went back to the store, but this time I decided to ask the guy at the counter.

If you know me, then you understand how desperate I was. I usually try to avoid communicating with strangers as much as possible.

To make it clearer for you, even before the pandemic, I didn t want to open the door to people delivering food, but I digress …

I tried to explain the situation and he advised me to buy another drill, more powerful, but also more expensive … this is another reason why I tried not to talk to him …

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
Ok … I m now I m ready

After that, I returned home. Guess what?

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga

Issue 4

A new, more expensive drill did not solve the problem.

So I went back to the store and told the consultant that it didn t help. Then he realized that I needed another drill, because my ceiling is not stone.

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
Ok … next time it s better to ask an expert right away …

He said it was probably concrete, otherwise the expensive drill he offered would have worked.

The new drill he recommended was even more expensive and was not in stock. Although I could rent a test sample for a couple of hours, which was at least cheaper than buying a new drill. So I did just that.

Did it work?

Yes!!! With this drill, I finally managed to make some holes in the ceiling and install the lamps.

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
Now I need sunglasses because the inside is so bright …

If you re wondering why the hell I m talking so long about installing lamps, wait, here s the answer.


At the beginning of my story, I thought the problem was that I needed to install a lamp, but it turned out that was my goal. My problem was that I needed to drill holes in the ceiling concrete

If your problem is clearly identified at the beginning of the project, it will be much easier to find a solution.

Answering the question in the title …

How to solve a design problem?

You start by understanding the essence of the problem, because what lies on the surface can only be part of the story.

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
Grab your shovel!

You can t just say that you need to drill holes in the ceiling, you need to understand what the ceiling is made of. But this is in theory, in fact it is not always that simple, there may not be an easy way to find out what the ceiling is made of.

As in my story, sometimes you need to try to solve what you think might be the problem, and hopefully through this process you will get closer not only to the root of the problem, but also to its solution.

How to solve a design problem?  Drill saga
Sometimes you just have to try to do something

I use this approach in design. When I don t fully understand the problem, I try to understand as much as possible by asking why and doing exercises like the abstraction ladder.

At this point, I believe that I understand the problem best and start thinking about possible solutions.

Even if the solution doesn t work, it still wasn t a waste of time. You have just found a path that you cannot walk, and that brings you one step closer to truly understanding the problem and finding a solution.

So … if you have a problem, no matter what it is, the first thing you need to do is understand it and get to the root of it.

As Charles Kettering said:

“A well-formulated problem is a half-solved problem.”

Thanks for reading!

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