Creativity in 5 simple steps

4 min read
Joseph Shaffery
  •  Apr 26, 2016
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There are tons of innovation techniques, tools, and tricks out there for getting teams to work better together: design thinking, human-centered design, and creative confidence are some of the biggest ones right now. The worlds of engineering, quality assurance, and business have their own set of methods in addition to those found in design and UX.

It’s a lot to take in.

My team has tried following a set method, only to find that it doesn’t quite fit with the way people work around us or the project itself. If you pick one process, it’s tough to tell whether it’s better than another. At the core of the methodologies are values or principles. You can maintain a value even if you change the process to fit your particular project.

I’ve taken 5 key principles from across different methodologies and written them on the wall for my team to see and measure against.

On the wall, these principles require no explanation. My team knows what they mean—the words are prompts to get us on track when we’re lost or stuck.

Creativity is something that everyone has, and these values aren’t intended to switch something on that otherwise doesn’t exist. By working towards these principles, we can ensure that we maximize the potential of the individuals on our team. 

1. Do

Reasons are excuses. If something is important enough, you can make it happen.Twitter Logo If something isn’t important enough, then it may not even be worth trying to do it.

I’m one of the very few people who somehow missed out on the Star Wars movies as a kid. I saw bits of one or another but never an entire film. With the release of The Force Awakens, I decided to watch all of them.

“Reasons are excuses. If something is important enough, you can make it happen.”

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In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda teaches the difference between trying and doing: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Don’t try—do! Search for ways of doing things rather than finding reasons not to do things.Twitter Logo To try is to give some effort and see how far you get. To do is commitment. Find a way to do something and then improve it. Look for how to do something rather than looking for obstacles that will stop you. Decide whether to do something or not to do it. Whatever the decision, don’t try half-heartedly.

As UX designers, we’re lucky that prototyping is so fast and cheap. We often think up reasons why we can’t do something, but a better approach is to build a prototype and then learn from it.Twitter Logo

2. Empathy for understanding

Empathy is the experience of understanding from another person’s perspective. Many people touch a product or service along design, development, and in its day-to-day use. Understand these people to shape and develop the product or service.

When considering a website, traditionally you’d think of the user as the person who accesses the website once it’s been created. There may be many more users to understand in order to create the best product. Use empathy to understand the client commissioning the site, the developers building it, the people implementing and updating it, as well as the end users.

“Search for ways of doing things rather than finding reasons not to do things.”

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There are many tools and techniques that can get you closer to understanding your user. The design kit by is an excellent resource to get you started. Understand your user, and understand your stakeholders. Talk in their language. Be a user for a day, then be a different one the next.Twitter Logo

3. Embrace failure learning

A couple of years ago Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, gave a talk at the Design Museum in London. He talked about design and how 80% of the design his team created would be thrown away but the 20% remaining would go on to form some of the most iconic products in the world. 

When you’re designing concepts, your first idea may not be the best one, but it may have already taken time and effort. It’s already been invested in.

The more you’ve invested in a design, the more difficult it becomes to stop and start again. If a design is really bad, then it’s a little easier because you have to throw it away, but if the design is average then it’s hard to justify the loss. By stopping average, great can emerge.Twitter Logo

But in a world of deadlines and deliverables that’s not always possible. Often projects kick off with big meetings full of highly paid people. Time is taken to discuss intricacies in length and a solution is put forward. The more time, effort, and emotion put into an idea, the harder it is to change it or throw it away.

The purpose of our design team is to build something quickly to test an assumption, without investing too much. We’re ready to fail and change direction.

Another blocker to embracing failure is that people are naturally afraid of sounding stupid—and they’re afraid of failing. A culture of sharing ideas means that more ideas are put forward.Twitter Logo We quickly turn an idea into a prototype, then find the issues and build another prototype—the final result is far better than if you’d either not given an idea or had to go with the first one. People with the best ideas very often have the worst ones as well.Twitter Logo Encourage all ideas so you can expose the best ones.

“Encourage all ideas so you can expose the best ones.”

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I attended a webinar by Jeff Gothelf, author of Lean UX, about lean UX principles.  I sent out a tweet about the need to embrace failure. He corrected my terminology: “Call it learning. No one wants to fail. Most people want to learn.”

This sums up the drive here—embrace learning and experimentation and encourage lots of  ideas. There is no such thing as failure, only learning.Twitter Logo Encourage it, practice it, live it!

4. Iteration — problem solution

Learn about the problem, build a solution, learn through the solution, and refine the problem. Build another solution and repeat until you have a solution that you’re happy to move forward.

It’s human nature to feel that you need to know everything about a problem before you start “doing.” This can mean that you take a long time to start “doing”—and even longer to figure out if you’re on the correct path.  

In a webinar, Dan Olsen introduced the concept of problem space and solution space. The idea is to quickly find out as much as you about a problem and then come up with a solution. Test the solution and find out what you don’t know about it. Change the detail in the problem and come up with another solution. Test the solution and find out what you don’t know. Go back to the problem space and repeat.

“There is no such thing as failure, only learning.”

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When you’re faced with a problem, there will be unanswered questions. Build a prototype as early as you can to answer those questions and help you understand the problem in more depth. Build another prototype to answer the next set of questions, and keep doing this process through design and development.

5. Collaborate with others (creative confidence)

Involve other people in the design process who are not necessarily designersTwitter Logo

A point that interested me when visiting the at Stanford University was the makeup of the “design” team.

Traditionally, design is carried out by designers. One might think that the teams at are made up solely of product design students. They’re not. The teams are crafted around the products being designed. If a medical product is being designed, then the team will have medical students as well as business and engineering students. A core team may bring in users or other experts to offer their insight and advice. This mix allows for creativity to truly blossom.

The key is to involve people early on in the process and help them help you come up with ideas. This doesn’t take the designer’s role away from them, it means they have to adapt to become the visualizer of others’ thoughts as well as their own. 

The challenge for us is to pull in ideas from everywhere and encourage others to join in with the ideation phase, even (especially) if they aren’t designers by trade. 

A great tool is sketching. As designers we do this all the time, but in the corporate environment that I work in people are more comfortable with a laptop and a projector than with pen and paper.

If you’re trying to get people involved by asking them to draw, don’t start with a blank page.Twitter Logo Start with a drawing and ask them to modify it. Once they’re happy to draw over your work, they’ll be happier to draw their own ideas. People aren’t mind readers. They may think they understand, but until it’s something tangible, they rarely do. My advice: get into the habit of sketching and encourage others to as well—especially if they aren’t designers.

Creativity doesn’t just come out of thin air—it needs to be helped alongTwitter Logo.

Next time you’re running a project, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are we doing, or are we finding excuses not to do?
  2. Do we empathize and really understand our users, stakeholders, team, etc.?
  3. Are we facilitating a collaborative environment?
  4. Are we iterating, or are we trying to get it all done the first time?
  5. Do we embrace learning? Do we feel it’s okay to fail sometimes?

“Creativity doesn’t just come out of thin air—it needs to be helped along.”

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Further reading

My inspiration came from the following:

In The Achievement Habit, Bernie Roth explains the difference between trying and doing in detail, with some great examples from his time teaching.

Tom and David Kelley have published various books about innovation and creativity. Creative Confidence is about how you can help yourself and others to create and develop ideas.

I first heard about problem space and solution space during a webinar with Dan Olsen.

Jony Ive is someone I look up to as one of the most successful designers of the 21st century. At the Design Museum in London, he discussed design at Apple and that failure is part of the success. My notes from the talk are here.

I visited the last year. It was interesting to learn how the teams are mixed across disciplines.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard