Jeff Koons sculptures of balloon animals in big scale at The Gagosian Gallery

Art as a catalyst for creativity and design

Time to read: 8 min

"Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem." The quote is from John Maeda, Microsoft's Vice President of Design and AI. As a designer, I fully embrace this idea and think you should, too.

As designers, our mission is to solve problems. Whether graphic design, UX design, service design or industrial design, our goal is to identify challenges and find solutions. Just like artists, we need to be the ones asking the questions.

Not only should we strive to solve the problems presented to us, but also to challenge them. Finding what gnaws beneath the surface and redefining the question is the core of our practice. When we succeed, the entire experience, project, and design can be noticed, appreciated and even awarded. However, our real reward lies in improving the lives of the people whose problems we solve.

How art can inspire new perspectives

Art can inspire us to open up to new perspectives and see things from unexpected angles. Fascinating art evokes emotions and gives us new viewpoints to observe the world. Sometimes, it may seem trivial, like when Mona Hatoum plays with proportions. But a palpable sense of vulnerability arises when you physically encounter her enormous cheese grater.

In an article in SvD, Joanna Persman describes the feeling of "a foreboding charge in the seemingly trivial everyday objects that she scales up and presents in a new way." Hatoum's art succeeds in transforming the trivial into something monumental and alien, prompting the viewer to reconsider their view of the world. Similarly, Jeff Koons creates lasting impressions with his enormous balloon dogs by playing with proportions.

Artwork installation by Mona Hatoums in the shape of graters and the same hight as a human being.

Mona Hatoum, installation view at Magasin III with "Daybed" in the foreground. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

A functional solution is just one piece of the puzzle

As a graphic or visual designer, it is our task to convey content in a way that reaches the right person in the right way. However, creating a solution that works is not enough. We want to make something memorable, something that evokes emotions and stays in the viewer's memory. In that case, we can turn to art to be inspired to play with formats, proportions, contrasts, and expectations to create something unique and surprising.

Take, for example, iconography. We are used to seeing the emergency exit sign with the figure running through the door opening. But what if we add movement and humor to the icon? I saw such a sign at a museum in London in 2009. The iconic figure stood up, stretched its back, and sighed like Linus on the line before returning to its running position. Playing with expectations and challenging the established created something functional and memorable, and I won't forget it anytime soon.

Mrs. Gårman challenges convention

Since 2008, we have observed a significant change in our road signs in Sweden: the introduction of Mrs. Gårman. The initiative was developed in collaboration between the Swedish Road Administration and the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman (Jämo) and presents an alternative version of the traditional pedestrian crossing signs – now with a figure in a skirt and longer hair than the original Mr. Gårman.

Every day, I pass several Mrs. Gårman signs on my way to work, and it's always delightful to see them. They are shining examples of simple, effective and inclusive design, but to get there, someone had to dare to ask: why are only men represented on our road signs?

The introduction of Mrs. Gårman was not initiated because the existing signage was insufficient in its function but because someone, in a way reminiscent of the art world, reflected on and questioned the norms that shape our society. The role of art in constantly challenging and questioning the established is well known, and this spirit is reflected in Mrs. Gårman's appearance on our roads.

Image of a street crossing sign of a female crossing the street. Photo by Peter Hagström.

Photo: Peter Hagström.

Even functional solutions deserve to be questioned

We often focus on function before user experience. In medical contexts, the primary aim is to identify causes of illness and cure them. It's an entirely reasonable prioritization, but that's what makes it so heartening to see thoughtful solutions that consider other aspects. One example is a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine transformed into a fairy-tale environment to create a safe space that can mitigate feelings of fear.

In 2020, Philips won a prize in the UX Design Awards for an app concept that addresses the entire customer journey for children undergoing MRI scans by including preparations at home where Philips previously had no solution. The innovation team and designer have asked questions that broaden horizons and, in this case, the scope of the customer journey.

MRI scan at  Nicklaus Children's Hospital.

Photo: Nicklaus Children's Hospital.

Does all design solve problems?

In one way, yes. But are we solving the right problem? Does it have any effect?

Clients whose problems we are expected to solve rarely take into account underlying needs and potential additional features to create a memorable experience. Nor do they have an endless budget to challenge conventions. As professional problem solvers, we can make design solutions quickly to meet the demands of our clients. Still, unfortunately, this rarely results in something memorable, emotionally touching, or challenging established norms.

It is often said that the question is as important as the answer. So, be open to inspiration from art and dare to ask unexpected questions. Think of art's way of sampling, where music and art comment, paraphrase and reformulate various works in new ways.

A vending machine selling colorful flip-flop beach slippers. Photo: Francisco Anzola

Photo: Francisco Anzola.

Just like when Hawaianas identified a completely new sales channel by using vending machines to sell their flip-flops near the beaches, we can allow ourselves to be inspired by unexpected and creative ideas. In the end, it's about daring to ask the unexpected questions and allowing oneself to be inspired by art. By opening up to new ideas and perspectives, we as designers can create solutions that go beyond the expected and truly touch our users. Challenge formats, proportions, contrasts and expectations to create something unique and surprising. Good luck! See some of our cases where we've put these ideas to work.


  • UX,
  • Graphic Design,
  • Inspiration,
  • Branding,
  • Art,
  • Differentiation,
  • Positioning,
  • Service design
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