While we don’t like to admit it, there are moments in a designer’s career where you hit a plateau for creative growth.
This is not pleasing to us. Most designers I’ve met are more obsessed with chasing their next evolution than rabid Pokemon GO players.
But training yourself at being a better problem solver is a tricky business. In my experience, there is no clear path. However, there are things you can do to keep your creativity going.
Here are some of the principles I’ve followed in my pursuit of growth:
1. Be unqualified for what you’re doing
The sign of a good designer is being able to solve problems you’ve never run into before. So find problems you’ve never been trained to face.
While terrifying, leaping headfirst into work you are unqualified for is a guaranteed way of improving yourself at a breakneck speed. From zero, the only way is up.
“Get out of your comfort zone” is the more common advice, but is often interpreted as choosing red instead of black for your next turtleneck, and that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about being up shit’s creek and having to invent the paddle.
Stress-testing your adaptability will not only force you to kickstart your problem solving skills, but also bring a breath of fresh air to any project you take on. To paraphrase Paula Scher, you are capable of your most creative work when you are wholly unqualified to do it. It‘s easy to break the rules when you don’t know what the rules are.
Some more radical designers do it by switching profession every now and then, but luckily there are less dramatic ways of experiencing this kind of “trial by fire”. Taking on a side project or pitching yourself for a smaller project at work are excellent ways of getting started.
- The stakes must be just right. Too little, and you’ll lose momentum and motivation. Too high, and the negative consequences will outweigh the benefits. Make sure there is a measurable outcome, to hold yourself accountable.
- Choose something that is unfamiliar, but where you’ll be able to apply your design sensibilities. Something like writing a short story, managing a social media account, coding your own website, designing a physical object if you usually do digital ones (or vice versa), creating a font, editing a film...the list is nearly endless.
- Feeling defeated? Accept that you will make a lot of mistakes, but trust your problem solving core.
2. Stop reading about design
Some of you stopped reading this now to spite me, didn’t you?
What I mean is: don’t just learn about your field.
Is reading another god damn article about dieter rams going to make you significantly better at solving UX problems? Probably not. I’m not saying that staying on top of developments in our industry is bad or that you shouldn’t get the benefits of what other designers have learnt.
But the world is a very, very big place, and being able to solve problems for people requires you to look outside of our narrow field and see what they might be seeing.
Not every project will give you the time you need to do extensive user research or ethnography. However, if you dedicate your time to learning about the world rather than reading more about design, you will have a valuable foundation to build from when you need to understand where a user is coming from. And while you’re at it, why not pick up a bit about psychology, science, sociology, maths, philosophy and other perspectives on the world?
Yes, you’ll be a Jack of all Trades. Not getting stuck in one way of thinking is what will make you a better problem solver.
There’s no such thing as a UX expert anyway. How could there be, with an infinite amount of possible experiences?
What you can do is keep expanding the limits of your mind. It will give you plenty of great inspiration.
- Learning a little about design is healthy. Aim for a balance that suits you. If you’re spending a lot of time on it at the moment, take around 50% of the time you currently spend on design-related content and use it to read up on other things.
- You don’t have to read. Listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, get a diverse set of hobbies, go to events, talk to your grandparents, travel — do whatever knowledge/experience gathering activity that suits you. Podcasts when commuting is my favourite way to learn. Here are some links to really good ones and it’s not even close to complete.
- Learn more with less time by starting a research club. Everyone chooses a different subject, get’s a week to research it, then reports back what they’ve learned.
3. Find awesomeness in everything
Boring is a state of mind, not an inherent property.
Let’s face it. Sometimes we’re just not that into a project. Everyone has things they think are interesting, and things they think just…aren’t. I for one, never lost sleep wishing I’d get to work on a project with an insurance company.
You could say it’s ok to be uninterested in the subject you’re working with, as long as you do your best to create a good user experience.
But if you can’t muster up excitement for what you’re creating, what makes you think others will?
Being able to identify what is amazing about a subject is a core part of being able to create a really great experience. And you’re in luck: there’s something awesome about everything, if you look closely enough.
Take broccoli as an example. Have you ever thought twice about broccoli?What if I told you some people hate broccoli because we’re locked in biological warfare with its species, and only some of us evolved the ability to ignore the bitter chemical it produces? That every single green dot is actually a tiny flower bud that would bloom and give birth to a new broccoli if you left the broccoli be?
You can give someone a healthy vegetable, or thousands of tiny broccoli babies that they destroy with every bite of their mighty teeth. Which one would you prefer?
Credit for broccoli facts go to Surprisingly Awesome.
Finding out what is awesome about a subject will not just improve the morale of you and your team, but also improve your design. People talk about sprinkling “delight” into design and it’s usually interpreted as a clumsy helping of UI animations. Real delight comes from being surprised by something you thought was mundane. Give any subject the broccoli treatment, and see what comes out.
- The scale, history, science or stories about something are usually where you will uncover intriguing facts, and is a good place to start.
- What you find interesting is of course personal, so make sure to test if your target demographic is as excited by your findings as you are.
- Remember the research club from the second point? It’s also a great opportunity to practice picking out and presenting the most awesome aspects of a subject.
- Less is still more. Your goal is to make an experience less boring, not try to hook people in for hours. Chances are, people will still want to do a boring task as quickly as possible — but you can add interest in a non-obstructive way.
- A good example of this principle in action is the app Dreams. They took what was awesome around saving money (that small sacrifices eventually grow into the funds for fulfilling your dreams) and created an engaging and useful service around it.
Growth, but not like in Pokemon
So there you have it — three principles that might help you become a better UX designer.
That is if you believe, like me; to become a better problem solver, you have to grow sideways, not up. Unlike many other forms of personal growth, the goal is not to become more specialised and knowledgeable about what you’re doing, but to become more open and receptive to new and better ways of doing things.
We must constantly be learning new things, and questioning things that hold us back. We must learn to step back and view a problem from all angles, instead of getting stuck in the solution.
This is really, really hard — but it’s important. Because if we concentrate on learning “how things are usually done”, we become blind to better solutions.
I work as a UX Designer at Apegroup where I help companies create beautiful digital experiences. We are a design and technology agency in Stockholm. Want to know more about how we work with design? Read more at our website.
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