How to design like MacGyver

MacGyver, sporting his iconic leather jacket, sunglasses, and mullet, calmly holds a rocket on his shoulder.
MacGyver TV Series | Season 1, Episode 18

I recently re-watched the classic 1980s action TV series MacGyver. This show was a staple of my childhood — it’s the reason why I always carry a Swiss Army pocket knife and have a paper clip in my wallet. And let’s s not forget how well MacGyver rocked that mullet and leather jacket.

As an adult, watching this nostalgic 80s TV show has given me a unique and new appreciation for MacGyver’s talents. I realized many of his approaches to problem-solving could be used successfully in the design world.

The MacGyver series was created by Lee David Zlotoff and ran from 1985 to 1992. It starred Richard Dean Anderson as Angus MacGyver, a resourceful and inventive secret agent employed by the fictional U.S. government agency, the Phoenix Foundation.

MacGyver is a master of problem-solving and resourcefulness, with a remarkable ability to think on his feet. With his keen intellect and knack for improvisation, he devises creative solutions using everyday items, such as duct tape, paper clips, and chewing gum.

One of MacGyvers most admirable qualities, besides his problem-solving abilities, is his inclination for non-violence and his refusal to carry or use a gun. His weapons of choice are typically a Swiss Army knife and a bit of ingenuity.

The TV show was so popular the Oxford Dictionaries added MacGyver as a verb meaning “to make, form, or repair (something) with what is conveniently on hand.” For example, “The driver MacGyvered a makeshift car jack with a log.”

MacGyver smiling while holding duct tape

As designers, we tend to think the only way to achieve good design is by following a particular process or methodology. Many so-called experts spend countless hours discussing, writing, and preaching about various design processes. They tend to believe following rigid rules is the only way to achieve quality design outcomes.

Such a mindset would make sense if we lived in a perfect world . But as we know, the world is not perfect. It is full of stumbling blocks, such as technical constraints, business logistics, and human factors.

Like MacGyver, we will encounter many sticky situations whilst having limited tools and resources available to solve a problem. In these circumstances, following a formalized process is not an option.

Such constraints in the design world include having little to no research, small budgets, short timeline deliverables, and poor guidance.

During these calamities, thinking like MacGyver provides us with a path to solving design problems using the knowledge and resources at our disposal.

MacGyver picks a lock with his Swiss Army knife.
MacGyver TV series | Season 1, Episode 4

MacGyver has chemistry, engineering, science, and physics expertise, but his true talent lay in his critical thinking and resourcefulness.

As designers, we can use this same set of skills to tackle design problems. While we may be unable to utilize chewing gum and a paperclip to solve it, we do have a few practical options:

  • Prioritize tasks: Establish which tasks are most important, and focus on that first.
  • Take advantage of existing data: Analyze available data such as user analytics, customer service inquiries, and usage patterns.
  • Utilize competitor analysis: Analyze the design and user experience of competitor products to understand what works and does not.
  • Reuse and recycle: Reuse existing designs, components, and code, as this can help to save time and resources.
  • Involve stakeholders early: Involving stakeholders throughout the design process ensures everyone is on the same page.
  • Get internal feedback: Reach out to friends, family, and colleagues for design functionality feedback.
  • Rely on UX and design best practices: Utilize common industry standards and design principles to create user-friendly designs.
  • Utilize artificial intelligence (AI) tools: AI can help designers in many areas, including automating tasks, providing insights into user behavior, and even help inform design decisions.
  • Go with your gut: When all else fails, use your intuition to fill in the gaps to make decisions.

Many designers should be familiar with most of these techniques. While some design gurus will disagree with a few of these strategies, they are not in your shoes. When presented with limited resources, we sometimes only have our intellect and intuition as the tools to pull off the job.

We will always encounter design projects lacking resources with unrealistic timelines and unforeseen hindrances. Sometimes, doing our best with what we have is what matters most.

MacGyver disarming a bomb.
MacGyver TV Series | Pilot Episode

We know having a lack of resources makes it difficult for us designers to do our job. However, it can also be incredibly frustrating. I know I am guilty of getting angry, annoyed, or panicked when designing a product and having limited time or lack of research to do the job correctly. This situation is where another noteworthy approach to MacGyver’s thinking style comes in handy — his ability to stay calm under pressure.

It wasn’t until I watched MacGyver as an adult did I notice his level-headedness while disarming a bomb or trying to escape from a group of bad guys. As a kid, we’re generally not in situations where we have to make serious decisions that require calmness under pressure.

While designers may not have to disarm a bomb with bubble gum or build an airplane out of a lawnmower to save lives, we will have to make decisions that impact users and businesses.

Here is a list of actions designers can do to help stay cool under the wire:

  • Take deep breaths: Taking a few deep breaths can help to relax your body and mind and reduce stress.
  • Focus on the task at hand: Focusing on the task at hand can help you stay organized, allowing you to remain calm and collected.
  • Take breaks: Taking regular breaks can help reduce stress and give you time to clear your head and relax.
  • Focus on what you can control: Instead of worrying about things outside your control, focus on what you can control and take action to manage your stress.
  • Listen to music: Calming music can help relax your mind and body, allowing you to remain calm and focused.
  • Talk to someone: Talking to a friend, family member, or colleague can help to put things into perspective and provide a distraction from the situation.
  • Visualize success: A successful outcome can help reduce stress and give you a sense of control over the situation.

Many people can steer the ship when things are calm and going according to plan. But when chaos ensues and the water gets rough, the ability to calmly think on your feet instead of reacting impulsively or irrationally is vital. Not only does this skill make us better designers, but it also makes us better leaders.

MacGyver smiling and pointing.
MacGyver TV Series | Season 4, Episode 2

MacGyver may be a fictional character, but his creative thinking and resourcefulness are fundamental skills designers can use to solve real problems.

Techniques such as reusing design elements, reviewing existing data, inferring usability patterns, and even utilizing AI may not be the perfect strategies— but there will be times when this is all we have available.

Improvisation isn’t the only lesson we can learn from MacGyver. Thinking calmly under pressure and being confident that our knowledge and intuition can solve design problems is a skill that makes us highly versatile, resourceful, and respected— no mullet and leather jacket required.

Categorized as UX

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