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This chapter is from the book

Introducing the Pickle

Dante had his Inferno, you have The Pickle. A pickle is a problem, as in “I’m in a pickle!” The Pickle is the problem—the unnamed, undefined issue you’re trying to solve creatively. Like Dante’s Inferno, The Pickle presents tiered stages of definition. Place the problem you are solving in the stage of The Pickle that best defines its specificity, outline the other stages, and then choose the stage that presents the real problem, the one that can be solved with the greatest combination of novelty and relevance.

As you can see in the diagram, The Pickle presents four stages of problem design. Each stage provides creative opportunities, but the middle stages typically produce the brightest prospects. The innermost stage provides the obvious solutions, whereas the outermost stage presents the biggest picture. The primary goal with any problem is to place it in the right stage of The Pickle.

Recall in Chapter 2 that I described a problem we faced at my agency. In response to the question “What improvement would you like to see around the agency?”, many of the employees asked if we could build a deck cover over the outdoor deck that extended from the rear of the building. After immersing ourselves in the problem, we discovered that the problem presented to us 1) wasn’t the problem that needed to be solved and 2) didn’t present the greatest opportunity for novelty and relevance. We needed to place the problem we were presented into the proper stage of The Pickle.

Each stage of The Pickle can be expressed as distances from the inevitable solution in the same way that we use the phrase “30,000-foot view” to describe a summary perspective or the term “molecular” to describe a hyper-detailed evaluation. You can place your problem on any stage of The Pickle, but outlining the remaining stages requires a relational view.

The Four Stages of the Pickle

Stage 1: The Inch


Stage 1 is the most common problem you encounter because it is usually presented with some shade of solution wrapped in the quandary. The solutions typically implied in Stage 1 problems may ultimately be appropriate, but in this form there is no opportunity to explore alternatives in an effort to validate them.

In the deck-cover Pickle, the problem defined for this stage was the original problem posed, How can we build a cover for the deck?

Stage 2: The Foot


Stage 2 is the face-to-face evaluation of the problem, the detailed view that provides clarity and a natural filter for any solution applied to any of the problems in any other stage. Stage 2 solutions typically provide the greatest balance between novelty and relevance but are still focused on elements of execution or provide some detail of restriction.

In the deck-cover Pickle, the problem defined for this stage was, How can we integrate a year-round outdoor space for times when employees need to escape and recharge?

Stage 3: The Yard


Stage 3 is the arms-distance perspective of the problem. It is close enough to see the nuance but far enough away to see the bigger picture. Along with Stage 2, this stage typically represents the most fertile soil for creative solutions but also yields the greatest risk of sacrificing relevance for novelty because the problem is still fairly open.

In the deck-cover Pickle, the problem defined for this stage was, How can we encourage more agency socialization and collaboration?

Stage 4: The Mile


Stage 4 is the mile-high view of the problem, the broadest problem you can solve without losing the soul of the problem at hand. This is usually the most difficult to define because it is the furthest away from a tangible, measurable solution. Stage 4 presents the problem that has the most possible solutions because the problem is overtly broad. There is ample opportunity for novelty and little for true relevance.

In the deck-cover Pickle, the problem defined for this stage was, How do we improve the quality of work life?

You can see that Stages 2 and 3 are the sweet spots for creative solutions with novelty and relevance but require some work to define the right problem.

Deconstructing the Pickle

There are two key details to note about the stages of The Pickle.

First, each of the problems designed for each stage start with the word how. It is a powerful word that rarely implies a solution and encourages a thoughtful response. Framing problems to begin with how isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it represents a solid first step to effective problem design.

Second, you can fill out the stages by working outward or inward. If you start with a Stage 1 question, you can ask, “What is the larger question that this answers?” This provides the context for the next stage. If you start with a Stage 4 question, you can ask, “What are possible answers to this question?” and drill down until you arrive at a Stage 1 question. The latter method requires multiple iterations as each stage is answered, whereas the former will typically lead to one path. Both provide opportunity for creative response.

If you’re like me, your head hurts a little thinking about The Pickle. As a creative, you are accustomed to solving problems but less accustomed to designing them. However, growing stronger creatively requires a healthy understanding of problem design to create the richest environment for creative opportunity. When ideas are scarce, the vacuum is almost always caused by poor problem design. Alter the problem slightly, and you’ll realize ideas in greater quantity and quality.

The Pickle in Practice

Let’s run the three specific problems presented earlier through The Pickle to see where they fall and what the other stages may look like:

In each case, the original question was a Stage 1 problem, but the other stages provide opportunity for creative solutions. In problem 1, bigger cabinets may be the right solution, but it seems like ideas that would solve Stage 3 have an opportunity to be more novel and more relevant. In problem 2, it doesn’t appear that a brochure would have the most impact. Solving Stage 2 or 3 may produce more effective results. In problem 3, you may have to go all the way back to Stage 4 to ensure that dollars really should be spent on advertising. Perhaps a product alteration or a new distribution channel may serve profitability better. If advertising is the need, Stage 3 opens the door to many mediums and a host of creative solutions.

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