As professional designers we face new design challenges every day, taking great pride when we find solutions that truly stand out for their creativity. Sometimes these solutions arise in a straightforward way, and sometimes getting to them is a slog. Other times inspiration strikes like a bolt out of the blue, waking us from sleep or jolting us in the shower.

The whole creative process can seem mysterious, even (or especially) for those who employ it for a living. We are apt to wonder how we can possibly make sense of it, let alone harness it. How can we channel our creativity to optimize our performance at work (and maybe get a full night’s sleep or uninterrupted bath too)? How do we sustain our creativity over the long haul?

So much of what’s written on this subject is designed for the person seeking one great idea—the proverbial entrepreneur looking for the next killer app. Much of it offers support in the “you can be creative, too” vein. I set out to discover what resources are available for those of us who are already actively creative, but still need occasional help in keeping the momentum going and more expeditiously finding better solutions.

First, What is Creativity?

Creativity is more than simply making things. It’s realizing a new vision of how things might be. It’s not novelty for the sake of newness. In design, a creative solution will permanently transform how people experience an activity and meet previously unrealized user needs.

That definition sounds simple enough, but creativity can be notoriously elusive. When I sit down and try to do “something really creative” for a client, often the result is paralysis. Focusing on identifying a novel solution only adds pressure to the situation without adding clarity.

It’s better to simply get to work by identifying the design needs and then just diving in. Creativity will follow your lead. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how to make this process successful.

Prepare Yourself to Think Differently

Einstein once said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. The first step, as with all things, is preparation. And preparation starts with really understanding the problem.

User research is ideally suited to getting to the heart of a problem—through direct observation you can see exactly how people are using a system (if the system already exists) and surface unmet needs or desires. Even at the conceptual stage of a project, dialogue with potential users often leads to a nuanced understanding of the problem space. This understanding is likely to lead you to have a new perspective on what exactly problem needs to be solved.

User research also promotes empathy and a certain amount of psychological distance by taking the problem out of your immediate realm and turning it into something slightly more abstract.

One study showed that when people were asked to take a test designed to measure their creativity, and they were told the test was developed by researchers who were located far away from them, they found it easier to generate more and better ideas than people who completed the same test thinking it was developed locally.

Similar results have been observed when people tried to think of solutions for people “in one year,” or imagine how a person distant from themselves would use the product. When we make the problem more abstract, we remove some of the emotional pressure and free our minds to more playfully engage with it.

Stay Curious, Question Everything

When we make assumptions, we make it harder to see things in a new light. When we question what we see and what the user sees, or we consider how things could be if viewed from a different perspective, we set ourselves up to identify new insights.

Think about your experience visiting a café abroad. Certainly you know how to order and drink a cup of coffee. But in another country, you have so many questions: Do I order at the bar or will someone come to me? Do I have to ask for the check? Do I leave a tip? How much should I tip? You suddenly become sensitive to a thousand local variations on the details and watch people around you to try to figure out the correct behavior. If you can observe your current situation with this degree of sensitivity, you are bound to see things in a new way. But it’s not easy to put on or maintain this naïve state of mind, it takes vigilance and humility to ask questions that you (or your colleagues) might think are really stupid.

Creativity is more than simply making things. It’s realizing a new vision of how things might be.

I admit that I often find myself frustrated when a user researcher asks a study participant “what do you think this means?” when I think the answer is patently obvious. That feeling is inevitably followed by chagrin when the participant’s response reveals something completely unexpected.

This level of curiosity also requires some level of psychological distance. By taking yourself out of your own sphere of understanding and assumptions, you can find a fresh approach and gain insight into the problem space. One approach that usually works for me is to sketch out my preconceived ideas before even the research starts. This way, once we get going on the project, I’ll know that those ideas are already captured and I can spend the next few hours really paying attention to the user.

Questioning can also help you experiment with new ideas and make new connections. With the foreign café example, the observer asks a lot of “what” questions. Also ask yourself “why” and “why not”—even when you already think you might know the answer. You may be able to open up new paths that have not been explored when you change or reframe the problem space and the assumptions.

Frame the Problem

Getting to insight also involves effectively framing the problem. When you frame your design, you are essentially stating your interpretation of the problem that you intend to solve.

A study showed designers who spent the most energy framing a design task generated consistently higher-quality and more creative solutions than those who simply followed the requirements.

Questions like “How can I make this dashboard really cool?” or “What would a creative library page look like?” aren’t particularly helpful in framing the problem. A better framing might be “How can this system help a marketer explain what’s happening with sales and why” or “How can people become more educated about X without having to leave their task flow?” In fact, in my experience, the most successful designs come from the most creative approaches to framing the problem. Once you have the right question in front of you it becomes a (relatively) simple matter of execution to get to the design solution.

Start Somewhere and Keep at It

For designers, creativity is usually a fundamental requirement. However, the desire to find the best possible solution sometimes impedes our progress. We become paralyzed by the blank paper, or reach in desperation for gimmicky UI tricks that don’t honestly add value to the situation. Too often, our quest for a great idea prevents us from starting with a mediocre idea.

Your best idea may be the first one or the 137th one, but to get to either you have to just draw. Try to keep your inner editor at bay. Let ideas flow, whether good bad or indifferent. Eventually your editor is needed (and honestly it never completely disappears) to distinguish which parts of an idea are on track, which are not and how they can be improved.

Once you’re moving, you may experience what has been described as Flow. This enormously enjoyable and highly productive state is well documented. When you’re in Flow, your prefrontal cortex activity slows down. This means that your inner editor slows and you don’t criticize your ideas as aggressively. It might seem as if the departure of the editor would lead you to spend a couple hours generating garbage, but that is surprisingly not the case. Allow yourself time to get into that flow and to explore the possibilities.

Surprisingly, there are even studies that say a state of boredom is highly effective for creative thinking. Unfortunately, we’re hard-wired to abhor boredom and will typically do anything to avoid even a moment’s idle time. Still, developing discipline about setting times to focus and work—and resisting the urge to check social media—can help us work much more effectively.

People designing logos are often tasked with creating a hundred designs before they start selecting and refining a direction. This strategy forces them to get out all their ideas and move beyond the immediately obvious clichéd solutions. In other aspects of design we can use this strategy (maybe not 100 contact us forms, but how about 20?). The first couple of iterations are easy. The last few force you to think deeply about ways to put two parties in touch with each other.

Talk it Out

Having a trusted partner to question your assumptions and talk things through with can be really helpful. Even talking to yourself helps—simply articulating an idea helps give it shape and may drive you back to clarify what problem your trying to solve.

Be careful that in the course of these conversations you don’t lose fragments of ideas that crop up. It’s easy to get carried away on one thread and drop a lot of potentially valuable tangents along the way.

Collaboration also helps to foster a richer and more creative environment for yourself and colleagues. This environment and camaraderie is crucial for sustaining you through those days when design can be a slog.

When You’re Stuck, Take a Walk

If you’ve been generating ideas for a while and are not quite satisfied with the result, it’s a good time to take a walk. When you’re at an impasse with your design, rather than continuing to follow the same path you’ve been spinning on already, walking will likely spur fresh thinking.

A host of studies have shown that moderate exercise helps with ideation. In the studies, walking improved idea generation and would be useful in brainstorming, but it slightly impaired focused insight. However, because of the nature of the tests, the tasks were not ones, which the subjects could prepare for. I firmly believe—and have experience to support this—that once you are prepared with the underlying elements of the puzzle, a walk will help make the connections needed to solve your design problem. As with flow, when you walk your inner editor activity slows down, allowing for those new connections.

Walking also helps to prevent cognitive decline and bolsters your mood, another factor associated with improved creativity over time. Negative emotions are also somewhat correlated with creativity, but I don’t advise cultivating them as a strategy for the long term.

The Best Insights aren’t Easily Forgotten

Now let’s talk about those bolts from the blue. Creativity can’t be forced and it does not arrive on a timetable. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t create an environment that encourages and hastens it. Inspiration may still arrive at odd hours—and this is usually because it arrives at the moments it’s not forced. You might keep a sketchpad handy, though that’s optional. Most often the insight that leads to a great solution permanently changes our perception of the problem, it’s really hard to see things any other way.

The apparent effortlessness of the bolt from the blue belies the preparation underneath it. Without that preparation you would not get to the solution. Or if you did you'd have no way to know if it's right. Our work is work—every day we practice. We try. We fail. We try again. But every day that practice strengthens us.


Image of fireflies courtesy Shutterstock.

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Excellent insights! How the heck are you...been way too long....

Thanks Linda, great article!