Inês Silva | August 23, 2019

How to stay creative while working on product design

The definition of creativity itself has been changing a lot through time. The romantics used to associate it with the idea of an eccentric genius. Creativity occurred only inside his head, making it exclusive of arts and sciences. Somebody outside these areas couldn't consider oneself creative.

Later on, creativity abandoned the exclusive focus on the individual genius. It started to become associated with everyday activities. The concept was simple: everything we hear, see and surround us influence the things we create. That intersection of ideas between ourselves and others is what makes creativity happen.

Most of us are still influenced by the romantic idea of a lone visionary who conceives something in a flash of insight. This is an illusion. Ideas only pour out easily 3% of the time. The other 97% correspond to dedication and struggle. We need to balance these two to avoid discouragement and despair over time. Creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to pace yourself [1].

I believe that we all have the potential to solve problems and express ourselves creatively. What stands in our way are these hidden barriers - the misconceptions and assumptions that impede us without our knowing it.

Ed Catmull, Creative, Inc

Breaking design systems

While graphic and web design rely almost only on aesthetics, that's not feasible while designing digital products. Behaviors and patterns are set industry-wide, and people are familiar with these more than ever. For example, swipe to dismiss, form patterns, underline for links. These are completely ingrained in our brains. It means that our relationship with this object is established. It's familiar. This is also proof that something about the design is working [2].

Every component and interaction we create is part of a global language. If we don't want to have a conversation fragmented into many languages, why would we do it on our computers? That's why design systems were born. They offer a set of components, patterns, and guidelines that can be put together to speed up work, making everything scalable and consistent.

Atlassian Design System
Atlassian Design System

In the last few years, design systems have been helping teams to push products further. Yet, this comes with a downside: it can make us lazy in the long term. Searching for components is easier than trying to look for different scenarios. Systems can make us resistant to change, but it is our job to open ourselves to it, instead of being protective. The design system shouldn't be the single truth of the product experience, but a guide to it.

We don't need to follow all the patterns and guidelines, nor products need to look or act all the same. We need to establish empathy and empower our users, to make sure products meet their expectations. Our goal is to define the problem first, then figure out how the design system applies - understanding when to break free from it is what make great products unique.

Design is a process of divergence and convergence. Constrain your divergent thought too soon and you’re resigned to end up with repetitive solutions and a lack of creativity and depth.

Jon Gold, Declarative design tools

These concepts aren't new, but it's easy to forget them along the journey. This happens because our brain creates systems and habits to improve our daily life routine. Once you master any system, you become blind to its flaws. Even if you see them, they appear far too complex and intertwined to consider changing [3]. The same problem applies to design systems. It's difficult to change that mindset and go the other way around.

Strategies to embrace change

Deep down, we all know that accepting and being open to change it's easier said than done. Putting ourselves in uncomfortable and unknown positions it's hard. We fear what we can't control because mistakes feel embarrassing. Being ashamed of failure is deep-seated in our heads from a very early age. Whether it was at school or in sports, we feared to fail, because failure hurts.

We tend to refuse to loosen our grip from a safe place until another safe place awaits. Yet, neither certainty and stability guarantee the safety they imply. Change is going to happen, whether we like it or not. Rather than fear it, we should choose to see it for what it is and let it work in our favor [4].

While knowing what something is going to be before you design it could remove some of the uncertainty and stress, it is antithetical to what design is. Design is a process of finding out. Plus, if you already knew what something was going to be, why bother doing it?

Paul Sarhe, Two-dimensional man

As children, we had no choice but to be open to new things, because most of them we've never seen before. Though, along the way, as adults, we tend to become afraid of surprises and seek to control outcomes. Creativity demands swimming in the opposite direction, leading to who-knows-where. The beauty of the creative process is in its chaotic nature. We need to find a balance between some structure and safety but also let it become messy and stay messy for a while. Embracing our inner child to set aside preconceptions. This will help us suspending the habits and impulses that block our path to creativity.

Illustration by Justyna Stasik
Illustration by Justyna Stasik

Sometimes this is hard to put in practice. Especially if we don't find ourselves in the best environment and mindset to be able to do it. So how can we change that?

Let go the idea of designing only in your head

Asking for feedback and making room for the views of others is the only way to learn how to trust and hear them. It will make us willing to experiment and make it safe to try something that may fail.

Don't be afraid to show incomplete work

If we make problems safe to discuss, embarrassment goes away. It's important to include people on our problems, not on our solutions. Everyone will learn and inspire one another.

Accept that your work is never done

As challenges emerge, missteps and imperfections will always be present. We need to be comfortable with that idea. Our job is to loosen the controls, accept the risk, and rework, rework, and rework again.

Impose internal limits

This is a great tool to make us change the way we are working and invent another way. Forcing ourselves to work within constraints help us find smarter and innovative solutions.

Learn new things

It's important to push ourselves to try things we haven't tried before. By training our eyes to look-out for the unexpected, we make a habit of examining every clue that presents. Discoveries are made by giving attention to the slightest hint.

Clear your mind

It's fundamental to suspend ideas and thoughts, otherwise, we'll run in circles. The best way to keep ideas flowing is to stop what you are doing for a while and come back later. We need to create the habit of calming down and make time to reflect.

Wrapping up

Design systems aren't responsible for creative blocks, but we need to run away from the idea of having everything systemized and built to design fast. While planning is very important, we can't control everything, nor should we. People are moved by emotions, not systems. We need to be fully aware of that to design not only products people will use, but products people love. Beauty, order and understanding often come from mistakes, spontaneity, and things unplanned [5].

[1][3][5] Catmull, E 2014, Creative, Inc, Bantam Press
[2][5] Sarhe, P 2017, Two-dimensional man, Abrams Press
Banner photo by Andreas Gursky (Paris, Montparnasse, 1993)