Clothes, Remixes, and Happy Accidents

Or: Why to Explore Your Ideas on Paper or Screen

Working within any field, there are certain problems and scenarios that appear again and again. Over the course of your career, you learn from these and develop an understanding of common patterns and implications. Based on your growing experience, you build a expanding toolbox of approaches and solutions. You are able to solve challenges faster and hopefully don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.

Yet, with this experience also comes a certain danger.

Danger, Will Robinson

Increasingly you may find yourself judging and picking solutions in your mind only. Instead of spending time investigating, exploring, and playing around with them in real, concrete ways, it may become a mere mental exercise.

In the field of Experience Design or Graphic Design, this means less time is spent putting your ideas on paper, whiteboard, or screen. Fewer wireframe sketches are drawn out, less alternative Photoshop screens are mocked up. Instead, you more and more solely decide in your mind which approaches will work and which won’t.

Unfortunately, this may keep you from finding better design solutions.


For one, sometimes you simply can’t fully evaluate things until you actually see them. As Ryan Singer of Basecamp/37signals put it nicely in ‘The Documentation Dilemma,’ “You can’t fully judge a design until you’ve tried it in action. The clothes simply look different when they’re on.”

While Singer is discussing the step from static design to a working prototype, the same is true for the earlier step from an idea in your head to a design on paper or screen. You can’t fully judge a concept until you see it. The clothes look different in your mind than in your closet.


Secondly, the best (new) ideas often are the right combination of several different (older) ideas. “Copy, Transform, and Combine are the basic elements of creativity” notes Kirby Ferguson, TED presenter and creator of the very watchable ‘Everything is a Remix’ series.

While Ferguson is examining the combination of other people’s ideas, the same also applies to your own ideas: Combining elements from different concepts often leads to better solutions.

But how can you best explore these combinations? By putting all your ideas on paper or screen, and reviewing them side-by-side. Correctly judging individual ideas solely in your head is already difficult enough. Discovering potential combinations of these becomes even more complex. Lighten your load by having real visualizations of your ideas in front of you.

Happy Accidents

Lastly, and just as significantly, the process of exploring an idea can be as important as the idea itself. Unforeseen and unexpected things happen. And often they can lead to new and better concepts.

As you move a graphic element across the screen in Photoshop, you suddenly may see a new and previously unthought-of layout option. As you draw a wrong line while sketching on paper, a very different way of solving this problem may appear. As you accidentally choose the wrong font size, a new approach to hierarchy may suddenly present itself. These are not mistakes, but rather part of the process. And with open eyes and an open mind, these ‘happy accidents’ often result in better outcomes.

Mind and Matter

Learning from and relying on your past experiences is an important part of your process. And you always will have to eliminate some ideas this way. But don’t forget to spend time on simply putting things on paper or on screen. Physically or virtually play around, experiment, explore, investigate. More often than not, this time will turn into time rather well-spent.

(An earlier version of this post was originally published at