Ants and good designers have a lot in common: Part 1

By Cyndi Dawes, Practice Director.

Innovation and problem solving are often thought of as being about great ideas. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are often talked about as creative, but is that alone the real clincher to success? Don’t get me wrong, without great ideas—and let’s face it, some poor ones along the way—real effective change does not happen.

It seems ants, weaver ants in particular, might just be onto something. Turns out, they are great at joint problem solving.

What are they good at? Well to start with, they are excellent at collaborating. Ever see an ant working alone?

That’s right, they know the power of the team or community. Persistence is their middle name and they never give up. The thing that makes weaver ants top-notch problem solvers is the step between having an idea and implementing it. They make collective decisions as to which idea to progress and test and refine it. Argentine ants also show strong problem solving abilities by not getting hooked on tried and tested solutions when solving a maze problem or seeking food: "The ants didn't become locked into a redundant trail, and were able to switch from a strong trail onto new ones that were more efficient.” Sound familiar?

It might if you are familiar with a design approach to problem solving. Sure, as designers we are often parodied for the huge number of ideas generated, as evidenced by our multicoloured post-it notes. But it’s the next couple of steps that really take us closer to making real change. We evaluate ideas, we test them against the outcomes needed, we make lo-fi prototypes, we seek feedback, we refine and test again… and then we implement. We learn by doing.

Weaver ants do this too. Jacob Wilde’s TEDX talk on weaver ants looks at how weaver ants repair their broken nests. He refers to three stages of problem solving; ideas, judgement and implementation. It’s this judgement piece that makes ants so successful and stops us as designers bringing things into the world that don’t actually solve a problem or enable a better outcome or experience.

The temptation is always there to go straight from idea to implementation, speed is of the essence for so many of us (even in these new slow times). The lesson from ants and experienced designers is to spend time refining and testing, and exercising judgement in addition to creativity to deliver truly valuable change.

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