Learning designers, like all other designers, are paid to solve complex, open-ended problems; (there’s more on this here). Such problems, particularly in the current rapidly changing environment, are often not capable of being solved using well-tried solutions. So learning designers need to develop creative habits that allow them to generate appropriate ideas when required – both consciously and unconsciously. Such creative habits often have some “playful” elements that may be difficult to integrate into the organisational cultures where they are required.
If learning designers need to be able to generate ideas on demand, then it would seem to be a good idea for them to be taught idea-generation techniques. Such techniques often form the centre-pieces of courses on creative thinking and creative problem solving. Although many books have been written about idea-generation – by popular authors such as Edward DeBono and Michael Michalko – the very broad range of methods employed tend fall under four, overlapping categories:
- Generate many ideas. The well-known techniques of brainstorming and NGT (nominal group technique) work on the basis that quantity of leads to quality of ideas. Developing a large number of ideas often lays the ground for novel combinations, new perspectives, and so on (see below)
- Break patterns of thought. Techniques that encourage people to think differently by taking discussions to extremes, turning ideas upside-down or inside-out aim to break existing thought patterns. These techniques tend to work well when a person or group is “stuck” for ideas, perhaps following extended periods of unconstructive analysis.
- Connect the unconnected. This is possibly the most well-known principle of creative thinking: that new ideas arise through combining existing ones. However, idea generation is rarely so simple. The key appears to lie in looking for stimuli in unexpected places, and then trying to make new connections.
- Look at things differently. Adopting a different perspective can provoke the mind to generate new ideas. This is particularly effective where the new perspective forces a person to confront their assumptions, break patterns of thought and make new connections.
However, various researchers have pointed out that creative techniques may be largely ineffective in cultivating genuine creativity where applied in the absence of a number of other factors: appropriate knowledge of the subject in question, motivation, environment, style of thinking, and so on. Certainly, applying such techniques in a “turnkey” manner, purely as techniques, is unlikely to succeed.
A phrase commonly used by designers when describing parts of their process is “playing with ideas”. This means a number of things:
- Taking raw ideas that might emerge, and elaborating on them, teasing them, seeing where they take you; the musician David Gray (interviewed here) talks about “excavating” ideas, and enlarging them.
- Cultivating a playful, light-hearted spirit
- Being motivated by enjoyment of the process itself, not external rewards; this is consistent with the work of researchers such as Teresa Amabile who have shown that intrinsic motivation (motivation from the act itself) is more likely to result in creative thought.
It appears that when we allow our minds to “play”, we are more likely to make connections and shift perspectives, and thereby generate ideas that more structured, logical thought would not manage.
It seems odd to be proposing a bulleted list of suggestions aimed at cultivating greater playfulness in generating ideas. However, the research undertaken in developing this site certainly suggested that there are some simple lessons to learn:
- Embrace ambiguity. A characteristic of childhood play is an acceptance of ambiguity, of things being open and uncertain. Graphic and interior designers often spend considerable amounts of time sketching (engaging in a [link] dialogue with their materials) without clearly knowing where they are going. This ability to be constructively uncertain – to say “I don’t know” and even to seek out things that don’t quite work – is a key skill for designers of all sorts. However, at various points, working with such ambiguity may not feel like play at all. In fact it has been described as “wrestling”, even of “being possessed” by an idea.
- Think appropriately. During most creative processes the designer will have to think in different ways at different times. At one extreme they need to be intuitive, divergent and open-ended in their thinking, while at the other, they need to be logical, analytical and judgemental.
- Develop trust. An open-ended, ambiguous process requires trust, both between team members, and between designers and those who manage them. Researcher Guy Claxton has shown how delicate ideas can be to “hostile conditions”, such as where an idea is too strongly challenged before it is mature. As new ideas tend to evolve, rather than emerge fully formed, they can be vulnerable and be quashed by being judged too harshly, too soon. And insecurity and pressure on the designer can lead them to grab onto the first idea that comes along, and hope that it works out.
- Take a break. This is a paradoxical issue (which is fine, as this is all about creativity). On the one hand, it is clear that, in order to allow the subconscious mind to “play” with information, a designer needs to alternate periods of intense activity, and complete calm. Classical accounts of the creative process particularly mention the importance of the calm, reflective phase, usually calling it “incubation”. And many writers on creativity have pointed out that ideas often come to people just as they start feeling relaxed: in the shower, while taking a walk in the park, or when waking up refreshed. On the other hand many designers talk about the need to feed their mind with new stimuli constantly; to blur any distinction between work and play, so that their reservoir of information, raw ideas and impressions never runs dry.
- Work with the right people. Another paradox! Clearly some people are more inclined to generate new ideas than others (see Belbin’s team roles, or Kirton’s adaptor/innovator scale). So it would make sense to use these people to do creative work. However, various researchers have shown the importance of combining people with different styles and approaches in creative teams, as homogenous groups are susceptible to “groupthink” (agreeing with each other!). Constructive disagreement is just as important as constructive uncertainty.