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Designing Like MacGyver: How to Solve Design Challenges with Creativity and Resourcefulness

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

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Designers face challenges every day, from tight deadlines to limited resources. But what if you could approach these challenges like MacGyver, the resourceful TV character who could solve any problem with whatever tools he had on hand? In this post, I'll explore how you can apply MacGyver-like thinking to your design work and come up with creative solutions to even the toughest challenges.

If you are not familiar with MacGyver, it's an older 80's T.V. show. Growing up, my mom was really into it. I eventually got hooked too. But only because of the SNL parody, MacGruber, and the recent parody spinoff movie MacGruber. If you're here reading this post, chances are you were also first introduced to MacGruber. (Thank you SNL for helping bridge the culture gap between me and my mother).

The MacGyver Approach to Design:

For a little character background, MacGyver had this amazing ability to solve the most complex problems using everyday objects. Like creating a defibrillator to save someones life using a rubber mat, electrical cord, and two candlestick holders. (Doctor Mac S1 E15). In another episode, he fashions together a gas mask using only a plastic bottle and wet newspaper.

Crazy right? These crazy solutions work because MacGyver is always able to look beyond the apparent need at hand and focus on the REAL need. The need to save a man's life. At its core, the MacGyver approach to design is about using creativity and resourcefulness to overcome limitations. Instead of focusing on what you don't have, you focus on what you do have and find new ways to use it. This might mean repurposing existing materials, using unconventional tools, or thinking outside the box.

Examples of MacGyver-Like Thinking in Action:

Here are a few examples of how you can apply MacGyver-like thinking to your design work:

  • Repurpose materials. If you're working on a budget, you might not be able to afford expensive materials or the most up-to-date software. But that doesn't mean you can't create something beautiful. Look for everyday objects that you can repurpose, like cardboard or plastic bags, and find new ways to use them in your designs. Working on something less tangible? You can still repurpose digital material. Just be sure you are using open-source, or give credit to the creator.

  • Use unconventional tools. You don't need fancy tools to create great designs. In fact, sometimes the most effective tools are the simplest ones. For example, delivering client designs via Google Slides or Powerpoint. Or one of my personal favorite online tools: Photopea. Don't have an iPad to digitize your sketches with? Try using Adobe Capture which lets you vectorize photos from your phone and upload directly to your machine. These are tools most people have access to so they arn't kept away by paid subscriptions or high dollar equipment.

  • Get a new perspective. Sometimes, the best solutions come from thinking outside the box. If you're stuck on a design problem, try talking it out. Ask yourself what would happen if you turned the problem upside down or looked at it from a different perspective. Ask someone else what they might do. Bonus points if you can ask someone who is completely unrelated to your field. As much as you might think they won't understand your issue, their uninformed perspective might be exactly what you need to spark an idea.

Tips for Designing Like MacGyver:
  1. Use What You Have. MacGyver was a master of using whatever was at his disposal to solve problems. Similarly, designers can make the most of the resources they have on hand, whether it's repurposing existing assets or finding creative ways to use low-cost materials.

  2. Look beyond your boundaries. MacGyver was known for his unconventional solutions to problems, and designers can benefit from a similar approach. Sometimes, the most innovative solutions come from breaking free from conventional thinking and exploring new ideas.

  3. Embrace Constraints. Designers often face constraints, such as limited time or resources, that can feel like massive brick walls to creativity. However, constraints can also be a source of inspiration, driving designers to think creatively and develop innovative solutions.

  4. Learn to Improvise. MacGyver was a master of improvisation, and designers can also benefit from this skill. When facing a design challenge, try working quickly and iteratively to develop multiple solutions, and be willing to experiment and make mistakes along the way. This can help you arrive at unexpected and next-level solutions.

It's easy to get stuck on solving a problem when we get caught up on what we think the result should look like. But this limits our perception and possibilities. Creative problem-solving requires us to broaden our possibilities by looking beyond surface-level issues and identifying what is truly needed. Unfortunately, our expertise and experience can often hinder this process. We must learn to approach problems with a fresh perspective, as if we are newcomers who are not bound by our preconceived notions. We might not be trying to disarm a bomb with only a paperclip an straw in our pockets, but we can adopt this "use what we have" mind-set in our creative process to overcome the our limitations. Rushing to conclusions never truly solves anything. Not in design and definitely not for MacGyver.

Hi, I'm Kelsey. I'm a brand photographer and designer currently living in Gainesville, FL. I love nothing more than to work with others to bring out their authentic self to share with the world.

Have photography or design related needs? Let's chat!

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