Mommy, where do ideas come from?

Last week some designers from Google came to our studio for a discussion about the  practice of interaction design. We each shared a bit about our team structures and processes, and talked about some of the unique challenges that we face as a consultancy vs an in-house design team. But some of the most interesting discussions emerged when we focused on the areas of overlap – the basic bread and butter of interaction design. One of the most provocative questions posed by the Googlers was simply: “Where do ideas come from?”

We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how we do things around here, but if we’re honest, this is the “then a miracle occurs” step in our design process.

This is where the rubber meets the road for every designer: you’ve done your research, synthesis, and analysis to clearly articulate the problem you’re trying to solve, and now it’s time to produce that winning design solution. You get up, grab a marker, and hope inspiration strikes somewhere along those five small steps to the whiteboard. As seasoned designers, it’s not something we think much about anymore – it just happens (unless it doesn’t). But as mentors, it’s important not to yada yada yada the best part (though we DID mention the lobster bisque).

So this week, we’ve spent a little time looking inward to try to develop a deeper understanding of where design ideas come from. Here’s what we found:

Research matters

Cooper designers conduct our own user research, and many feel that this provides indispensible fuel for design ideas. Experiencing real people in their actual environments fuels our senses of empathy and intuition that helps to guide us towards the ideas that make people happy, successful (and even better looking). Plus, the research phase affords us the opportunity to be fully immersed in the users and the domain for a few weeks at the start of the project, which in addition to providing rich data and empathy, also gives our brains boot-up time to start noodling on the problem and explore possible solutions in the background. Many of our designers confessed that they often doodle during interviews, sketching design ideas when inspiration strikes without the pressure of being expected to produce a solution. At the end of the research and analysis phase when patterns, goals, and requirements have been formally defined, designers can flip back through these quick sketches and easily pick out the good ideas from the bad and begin to improve upon them based on their deeper understanding of the users and the problems that must be solved.

Sometimes, words are worth 1,000 pictures

The first step in our design ideation process comes before any “official” sketching is done: we describe the users’ ideal experience in words. The scenarios we develop at this stage are forward-looking and technology-agnostic, focusing on the personas and how they think, feel and behave rather than on specific interface elements or technical implementations. We also identify experience keywords that describe the emotional response that users should have to the product. Not having to answer the “how” frees us up to think big, imagining the best-case scenario for how the product supports each persona in achieving his or her goals. Then, when it comes time to actually start sketching and exploring interaction, form and visual languages, we’re already united around a clear vision for the kind of experience that would truly delight our users, helping us to focus on design solutions and visual styles that most fully embody that vision.

Just do it

Fear of the blank page can be daunting for all of us. Sometimes, just pushing past that fear and starting to sketch can get the juices flowing. Our designers make sure to have a tablet, sketchpad, or whiteboard easily accessible at all times, and we don’t wait until we have a fully formed thought or idea to use them. We may look like we have a brilliant idea in our heads as we approach the whiteboard, but often those few short steps aren’t where the thinking actually happens – the ideas start to come only after we draw the first few rectangles. There’s something special about the process of sketching – even jotting down some really bad ideas helps us learn about the tensions on the problem and gets us closer to a workable solution. (See Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences for a fantastic exploration of the idea that the act of sketching is integral to ideation and design problem solving.)

The power of paired designing

Because we work in pairs, Cooper designers often can’t say for sure where one person’s idea ends and the other’s begins. But what we do know is that our design partners are a major source of inspiration and design ideas. We come up with ideas while we’re talking through the problem with our partners, or while listening to them talk through it with us. We piggyback on each others’ ideas, zeroing in on what’s good about our partner’s proposed solution and tweaking what’s not working, buoyed by the collective energy in the room. And just having someone there to call b.s. when we’ve gone too far off the reservation frees us up to explore novel and even downright crazy solutions that may yield useful insights or contain aspects that can be applied to a more practical design approach.

As Richard Buchanan (Emma’s grad school professor) used to say, “Ideas don’t live in your brain or my brain but in the collective space between our brains.”

Beg, borrow, and steal

As one of our designers self-deprecatingly put it, sometimes ideas come from “stealing from other people.” When we speak about it more formally, we call this drawing upon our knowledge of patterns, which sounds more legitimate – and it is.

In The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun purports that ideas never stand alone, and that all innovations are really just a combination of things that existed before. “The combination might be novel, or used in an original way, but the materials and ideas all existed in some form somewhere before…”

Many of the design problems we encounter have been solved before, and if that solution is familiar to your users and works in the current context, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Employing a familiar pattern like tabs for navigation may actually be the best answer, or it may establish a jumping off point from which you can then start to diverge in an effort to make it better or more interesting, without abandoning its virtues.

Drawing inspiration from products we use and like, others’ design work we admire, or even going on deliberate internet fishing expeditions to see how a particular problem is solved elsewhere are all common and commonly accepted sources of design ideas. So go ahead and steal – er, draw upon your vast knowledge of design patterns – without shame.

Draw inspiration from the world around you

In addition to relying on established interaction and visual design patterns in interfaces, many of our designers look more broadly to the world around them for inspiration. One designer noted that most of the books and blogs he reads are outside of the realm of design, which helps him think more broadly, with insights about psychology or business swirling around his brain along with technical innovations and even science. The physical world is also a great source of inspiration and ideas – whether it be designed objects like cars or running shoes, or things found in nature during a hike. Some of our designers keep collections of objects, elements, and even materials and textures that really inspire them. Visual designers in particular tend to turn to the physical world for inspiration as they seek to create the desired emotional responses defined by the experience keywords: if this interface needs to be approachable, what objects or even people do we perceive as very approachable?

Don’t be afraid to stare out the window

One of the benefits our designers enjoy is that we are typically assigned to only one project at a time, which means that our design problems not only get our focused attention during work hours, but also find their way into our background brain cycles outside of the office. Oftentimes, ideas come in the shower, on a run or bike ride, or while washing dishes – any time that our minds are given the freedom to wander. Even here in the studio, you’ll often see designers staring out the window, watching a ship come into port or commuter-ants scurry through the crowded streets below. Taking some quiet time for woolgathering helps to reduce stress, while also distracting the judging part of our brains. After letting our minds meander for a bit, we can often corral some of those fragmented thoughts into a useful idea.

Play with the constraints

While we’re ultimately trying to generate ideas to solve real problems, in the early stages of design it’s important not to confuse idea generation with problem solving. Hyper-constraining the problem, removing the constraints, or changing the constraints in unusual ways can really get the creative juices flowing. A few examples of tricks our designers like to use:

  • Ignoring technical feasibility for a bit, what’s the best way to inspire the desired emotional response to the product?
  • If we imagine we’re designing this product for the science fiction future, what would it be like?
  • What if the product were magic – how would it behave?
  • What if we needed to design this product for an alien who has one arm, gills (so it must be in constant motion), and can only see in the infrared spectrum?

One of our more popular sayings around here is “reality bats last,” which is our way of acknowledging that technical feasibility and the laws of physics DO apply to the design problem at hand. We know we’ll need to fold the necessary constraints back in to our design solution as we iterate it, but lifting them for a bit can provide inspiration or even just some much-needed levity as we tackle a particularly challenging design problem.

But enough about us. Where do your ideas come from? And we’re not buying that story about the design stork!

Suzy Thompson

Learn more

Subscribe to our mailing list and stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities.

Connect with us

Want to know how we can help your company drive real business progress?

Let’s talk

Stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities