The Think Blog

How to Foster Great Design with Creativity and Structure

person at a white board leading a creative exercise

Often, creativity is thought of as a boundless, abstract concept associated with art and the humanities. It’s more of a feeling; a muse that inspires poets and fine artists, or a spirit that befalls free thinkers. It’s no wonder, then, that many struggle associating creativity with corporate goals. What’s inspiring about key performance indicators? How can product requirements spark our imagination?

As experience designers, we’re not only bound by the business objectives of our clients, but also by what people need or want from the thing we’re designing. So how do we foster creativity in a structured and data-driven environment?

The first step is understanding that creativity is simply potential with constraints. Even artists are bound by the materials they use or the size of their canvas. With that in mind, here are some ways you can spark creativity no matter what type of environment you’re working in or what your role on the team may look like.

Start by listening

If you’re a design leader, you’re likely accustomed to working within constraints like time, budget, scope, requirements, etc. to generate multiple possible solutions, but it’s important to keep in mind that before you put the proverbial pen to paper, you have a lot to learn about what you are designing.

Strong design leaders are good listeners. To listen well, we rely on research to discover what we don’t know and understand the needs and wants of the people and business processes we’re designing for. This type of listening can take the form of competitive analysis, in-depth interviews, contextual inquiries, workshops, or requirements gathering, but no matter what research method you use, the goal is to gain a strong understanding of the problem in front of you.

Often, getting a better understanding of your challenge is what generates excitement about solving it. Research releases some constraints you might have thought you had, and lays down others you didn’t realize were important. Most importantly, this is the stage where you can unleash creativity and begin to form ideas.

Generate lots of ideas

Through conversations with users and business stakeholders, whiteboard drawings, and notepad sketches, we work to pursue as many viable solutions as possible.

Often, this is the freest moment to explore what might happen inside and outside of constraints. When this happens early on in the design process, you can rule out less successful ideas before they turn into costly rework down the road.

Once you generate multiple ideas, take them back to users and business stakeholders in the form of research and reviews, respectively. This way, you’ve given yourself the freedom to explore, all while keeping your various constraints in mind.

Share your work (and work in progress)

Sharing work in progress can seem daunting, especially considering the stereotype that artists are fragile about feedback, but here is where our definition of creativity at Think Company is formed.

When it comes to design, transparency is key. Our work is never truly finished. Design is continuous and iterative, and requires consistent input from the people and processes that it serves. Showing work in progress is how we gain that input to fine-tune our solutions. Users and business stakeholders are typically quick to let designers know if designs miss the mark, or if ideas aren’t quite what they need or expect. And while hearing that kind of feedback may feel like failure, it’s an opportunity to improve designs and find the right solutions faster.

Sharing in-progress work also invites stakeholders and other team members to be creative with you. Folks might be hesitant to offer suggestions or ideas if designs feel “too polished” or “buttoned up.” Eliminate this inhibition, and be open to working with others early and often to bring great ideas to fruition.

Gather feedback

Gathering and processing feedback on designs through research and reviews helps to uncover untapped ideas, and unleashes the freedom to think differently. New concepts and constraints lead to new ideas and possible solutions. Without research and requirements, creativity could generate solutions that aren’t useful.

The marvel of creativity is being able to take the pieces of everything you’ve gathered (feedback, requirements, research, and constraints) and making something useful, usable, and delightful from it.

It’s in this process that we know we’ve done something truly creative. Creativity must not only be defined by what our imaginations can produce without limits, but also what our imaginations can produce with limits.

Build trust with collaborators

If you’ve implemented any of the above suggestions to spark creativity, then you are well on your way to building trust! By taking time to understand the problem, generating ideas, sharing your work from sketches to prototypes, and checking in with your users and stakeholders, creativity flourishes. You create an environment where clients who never consider themselves “creative” become just that.

At Think Company, we call this the “marker” moment, and it typically reveals itself when clients “pick up a marker” and begin drawing out ideas themselves—or when stakeholders can defend design decisions with confidence and a sense of ownership, knowing they’re serving business and user needs.

Build diverse, supportive teams

Science has proved that human beings are more creative when we work in diverse teams. Being around people who are different from us promotes the introduction of different perspectives, which in turn helps generate lots of ideas that can lead to more holistic and well-informed solutions. (Remember: generating lots of ideas helps spark creativity!) When working with clients, we don’t always get to choose how teams are built, but any differences among individuals in a team in terms of race, gender, philosophy, team role, etc. should be celebrated as a strength, understanding that those differences can take you beyond your own perspectives and assumptions to find bigger and better solutions.

With that diversity comes a responsibility to be supportive. When team members feel listened to and understood by other members, team leads, and client stakeholders, they’re more excited about the work and focused on solving the design challenges at hand.

Remember that creativity is a discipline

Creativity is not just a feeling, it’s a discipline. It’s the ability to focus and build something marvelous where it felt like there was a mess before. You can do this by generating many ideas, bringing users and stakeholders into your process to understand and think critically about ideas, and fostering a diverse and supportive community where those ideas can flourish and morph into the best approach.

For businesses, that mess might be the refactoring of a legacy platform suffering from feature-bloat, the tangled web of taxonomy and content structure, or wild inconsistencies in a design system. As design leaders, we can use the power of creativity to unravel those sorts of problems to have a real impact on tools and services, and those who use them.

Thanks so much to fellow Thinkers Brittany, Adam, Rachel, and Neha for their contributions to this post.