Conventional wisdom tells us that in order to be creative, we must be unfettered. Thinking outside of the box, by its very description, entails an intellectual environment that is boundless. Indeed, what I have learned both academically and professionally regarding so-called "brainstorming sessions" is to shoot for the sky, forget about feasibility, and entertain the whimsy of our idealistic design dreams.
But is shooting for the sky when rethinking a design problem within an inherently constrained technical landscape actually effective? Or does our free-spirited enthusiasm actually backfire?
I used to be one of the many people that felt it was effective, without question. More recently as a product designer with an increasing passion for code (or at least, a UXer with a strong will to finish an iOS development course on Udemy), I've noticed a certain inspiration that occurs through limitation.
Because our choices in UX design / product design are often just a microcosm of our choices as a whole, I feel there is no better place to seek explanation for the phenomenon we refer to as “creative thinking” than epistemology. Unless you are into innatism, the mind can be seen as a blank slate upon birth. We enter this world without any preconceptions as to our purpose, and transitively, how we should interact with the world around us. In a sense, our minds are free to the greatest extent, unlimited in their capacity for exploration and innovation.
Over time, through our interactions with and observations of the world that encompasses us, we begin to form opinions, habits, and tendencies based on the feedback we have received from such interactions. These newly acquired bits of constraint allow us to revise and improve our interactions the next time around.
It is our desire to survive that allows to us adapt and evolve. Touching fire burns your hand, but most likely just once. Over-indulging in delicious sweets causes you to gain weight (perhaps more than just once), and encourages you to exercise (hopefully). Bringing it back to product design, building a product that lacks a proper understanding of its users burns through resources and results in more iterations before reaching the final product (far too often). Through trial and error, our experiences with the interface of the world expose the limitations we must abide by. Fire extinguishers, the field of nutritionism, and the value of UX have all come to fruition because of a greater understanding of the limitations of reality, or at least reality as we’ve experienced thus far.
From Empiricism to Inspiration
Product design is no different than something as inherently fundamental to life as survivalism. We seek to arm ourselves with information so that our interactions aid our goals, whatever those subjectively manifested goals may be. Principles, morals, even design preferences can vary from person-to-person, but the way in which the underlying knowledge behind those mental decisions is formed is experiential. Without using our experiences (personal and vicarious) as a way to discover new limits, how we can push those limits and consider what results might occur by modifying such constraints? It is the act of arming ourselves with awareness of our limitations that prevents us from being left to bask in a blank slate, lacking the fuel to form opinions and make informed decisions. This article may sound like a pitch for empiricism - and perhaps it is - but if it is, it’s so because I’ve found it to be the best explanation for innovative design.
Consider this quote from John Locke:
“Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any Ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience.”
Questioning a child at birth about the dangers of fire would yield a result with little value. Similarly, asking a fireman (no offense firemen) for input on the usability of your responsive website probably wouldn’t get you anywhere. Without an acute awareness for the limitations of the subject at hand, how can one be expected to creatively problem-solve for such an environment?
There’s no crime in not understanding the ins and outs of a particular interaction; a problem only surfaces when action is taken without awareness. Creating a wireframe or mockup for a particular organization can only yield positive results if you are acutely aware of the process flows, pain-points, user desires, internal company goals, technical frameworks, competitive edges, internal and external consistencies, and a boatload of other factors at play that serve as a basis for forming a mental model of possible paths of success. To propose design solutions without this initial guidance would be to design blindly.
Going back to my journey down the path of learning iOS development, I had always viewed the inner-workings of apps as complex, daunting creatures that could only be tamed by the wizards of code. I’m great at user research, wireframing and prototyping, and high fidelity visual design. However, if you had asked me to design something for a map-based app that addresses the common user pain-point of using too much data, I would have scratched my head, opened up YouTube or Facebook, and engaged in the usual procrastination process. Asking me to be the so-called expert in crafting a solution for a technical landscape that is foreign to me would make me feel like the child describing fire – where would I even begin?
If I could have designed a solution at all, it likely would not have been an efficient use of the incredibly vast frameworks that I now know Swift (Apple’s programming language) offers. Having gone from iOS neophyte to a UXer with decent coding competence, I can confidently prototype a design solution that takes advantage of the “MKMapKit” framework’s data efficiency methods so that the user can toggle a switch, slider, or other input method to properly adjust the frequency of data requests.
So, in a rather ironic fashion, I’ve broken free of traditional thought by thinking inside the box. My advice to you guys is to not be afraid to stand in opposition to everyone’s natural inclination to “be free” and “shoot for the sky” when engaging in creative thought. Sometimes having your head in the clouds while discussing a wireframe or designing a user research study isn’t as effective as it is catchy - such conversations might benefit from taking place here on Earth, where these things actually exist. There’s a lot of inspiration to be gained in the process of more passionately engaging your limits. Design solutions are best manifested when there is an appreciation for the balance between creativity and possibility.
Being a dreamer is fun. There’s no arguing with that. Reinforcing this perspective that boundless creative thinking is fun, there are a multitude of stereotypical scenarios that perpetuate this notion that, if we could just be absolutely wild and free when we brainstorm, we are going to hit a home run; the painter with a temporary creative block, looking to gain inspiration for their next big hit by meditating – or maybe the rock star, daydreaming with their head out in the clouds, looking for something in the ether to whisper some lyrics to them. Do these clichés ever result in substantial results?