Did you know you can become creative? In this article I want to propose some very basic design techniques which can help you to be creative during problem solving. Creativity is said to be composed of one’s expertise, motivation and creative thinking skills (as defined by Amabile). And it is in the latter area of thinking skills where creativity and design tricks come in. In other words, I believe you can train (some components of) creativity by applying the right techniques.

The techniques are ordered into three categories:

  • Knowing what to solve before starting to solve
  • Generating ideas from internal processing
  • Getting inspiration from external sources

Getting ideas in problem solving can be very intuitive, an I rather want it to be so, but when being stuck, Creativity Techniques come in very handy!

Knowing what to solve

The key for gaining creative ideas is knowing your problem and analyzing it from multiple perspectives. You can substract a challenge or problem from almost any situation in which you need creativity. Maybe you were looking for just some simple techniques to get ideas. However, this all starts with a good understanding of the problem. This understanding helps you to determine why you want to have ideas, what kind of ideas this could be and for whom these ideas should would be useful.

1. Problem Statement

The problem statement technique helps you to identify the major aspects of your challenge or problem to solve. It is composed out of four questions.

  1. What is the problem? When answering this question, try to get to the essence of the problem. Repeating a ‘why’ question can be a good solution to dig into the core. Let’s take the example of ‘we don’t have coffee’ as a problem. Why don’t we have coffee? Because the coffee machine is broken. Why is it broken? Because the grinder got jammed by coffee beans. Why got it jammed? Because Eric from Facility Management bought the wrong kind of beans. I could go on with the why’s, but I think you understand the trick by now :).
  2. Who has the problem? This question focuses on the target group of your problem, in other words: for whom are you problem solving, and is this ‘whom’ important?
  3. What are the goals? When answering this question, try to focus on what you want to solve exactly and which criteria are important.
  4. What are the side effects to be avoided? There are some outcomes which you really want to prevent going into. By pointing these out in an early stage, you’ll lower your chances going down the wrong road at an initial stage.

The answers from these four questions form the problem statement, and help you in getting directed ideas.

2. Design Vision

A vision describes how the world your problem is situated in should look like, and what need it should answer to. Often, your vision is framed upon the context and time you are living in, as the following example illustrates:

640 K ought to be enough for anybody
(Bill Gates’ vision, Microsoft, 1981)

In addition, do not be hesitant to make a vision personal, as it will make the process of problem solving often more amusing. Additionally, in a vision you can often detail the experience you want to give by solving the problem. Let’s say you are designing a new luxury bathroom for homes. A suitable vision could be: I want people to have a spa experience at their home bathrooms, feeling like they visit a professional spa. A vision helps to start dreaming about possible solutions of your problems, and sets a benchmark on what to achieve.

Opposed to a general vision, a design vision is geared toward having a vision in the context of a design problem.

Generating solutions from internal processing

3. Visual Exploration by Sketching

Sketching is a very powerful method to generate and compose ideas in a visual way. Just take a paper and start sketching some doodles of what ideas you are thinking about. Clarify sketches with comments, so you understand them at later occasions. This can help you in the composition and the forms of something you are going to make, but also helps you to compose and progress an idea visually.

4. Brainstorming

Brainstorming is an associative way of thinking in which (most commonly) a group shout out ideas and associate on each others ideas. The term was first coined by Alex Osborn, basically the inventor of the term brainstorming. In brainstorming, posts-its are often used to write downs any notable ideas. It often starts with a certain defined problem, for which a group of people generates ideas. At the end of a brainstorming session, the best ideas are often grouped and selected to be developed further.

Did you know? Brainstorming has four golden rules:

  1. Postpone judgment
  2. Generate as many ideas as possible
  3. Associate and combine on ideas
  4. Feel free to generate crazy, wild ideas

While brainstorming is quite popular, there are many studies showing it is more effective in individual context as in group context.

5. Using mindmaps

This is a structured method to map out ideas, and add associations where needed. Draw a keyword in the middle and directly start making associations with that keyword, and go on and on. If you are designing a party poster for example, you could use ‘party’ as a keyword. Below is a very, very simple example which explores the various aspects of a party:

Mindmap Creativity Technique

A mindmap is an effective tool for getting ideas, because it reflects the way knowledge in our brains is structured. Based on this fact, it is also a very effective way to take notes from lectures or seminars.

Getting inspiration from external sources

6. Ask family, friends or colleagues

By asking any outsider for help or ideas, you are decoupled from your own fixation. Outsiders can give novel insights in any solutions for your problem and help to think out of the box. Asking for help in solving a problem is, according to literature, a smart way to gain new valuable insights (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006). From an individual solving a problem, you become part of a collective creativity. By asking help, giving help and reflecting on these interactions, creativity can occur in a collective fashion.

Interested? Satu Parjanen (2012) elaborates on collective creativity in organizational contexts.

7. Take a walk

Go outside, take a little walk just around the corner en enjoy the fresh air, and look around to all wonderful things outside. The rewarded Senz Umbrella, which can be used in stormy weather, was invented because one of its inventors was walking outside after a tempest and saw a lot of broken umbrellas thrown away in dustbins. Walking around eases your mind, get you off the work for a few minutes and works relaxing, and sometimes even inspirational. When stepping back from the problem, your mind will have the space to process all you thought about, and ideas can start incubating (which in someway also related to internal processing).

8. Inspirational Websites

Obviously, the insane amount of images and articles on the web can serve as a big stimuli for Creativity. Especially stock photo sites and sites as Flickr have tons of photographs that can be a huge source of inspiration, but even Google Image Search can be inspirational. Other websites such as Behance or Designspiration can give inspiration which is more tailored towards solution in design problems. The amount of inspiration a search can give is however related to the search terms used, so search with keywords that match your design. Another way is to break down your problem in little chunks, and search for inspiration for each of these chunks.

9. Visual Collages

Collages are especially useful in an art or design related context, and can help to think about shapes, patterns and color (combinations) to use in any of your ideas. Thus, this method can either be to get inspiration on forms and composition of your design, or on colors, textures and materials. Below is an example of a – pretty awful, I must admit – collage I made (based on the 1970’s).

Collage Creativity Technique

Imagine that you have to design a retro alarm clock. A collage as shown above can give you direction in what shapes, materials, patterns and textures to use.

Some closing remarks

An external point of view can open up the box and help you to reach another green valley of creative ideas. But do not forget: although ideas sometime come up as sudden inspiration (‘the lightbulb’), gaining creativity has also to do with one’s expertise in a certain field. Often, someone with considerable knowledge and expertise in a certain field can be more creative, as he is familiar with the ‘building blocks’ to get new ideas. So never stop learning to fill your creative mental box, but get your knowledge out of the box as well!

Header image is provided by Senorhorst Jansen