Do Structure And Process Create Space For Creativity?

Dennis Hambeukers
Sep 22 · 12 min read

Or does it kill creativity?

I think that depends on the design of the process.

There are some fundamental differences between the way designers work and most other professions. Most professions are more structured and have more processes in place than design. Designers like to be free. They don’t like structures and processes. They like to iterate, experiment, go through different tasks in seemingly random order.

Holistic vs fragmentary

Structures and processes are built up of parts. Designers like to tackle problems as a whole. That creates a natural aversion to process. Designers have a holistic worldview: all things are connected. This is one of the qualities of designers that a lot of other professions lack. This is very valuable in a world that is governed by specialisms, boxes, departments, silos, procedures. Designers can bring a much needed different view on things. But there is a breaking point for this. If things get too complicated, viewing problems as a whole becomes too hard. If designers want to move into bigger projects, they need to learn to think in parts as well. They need to learn to think in systems. Concepts like Design Systems or the Atomic Design approach force designers to split design problems into parts and see the big picture at the same time. If designers want to move from Producers to Architects (terms of the InVision Design Maturity Model), they need to add fragmentation to their skill set.

If designers want to move into more complex projects, they need to up their planning skills. Structure and process are only possible if there are parts, fragments. Designers need to see that there can also be creativity in structured processes. They need to see that scaling up is not possible without structure and process. The bigger and complex the projects, the harder it becomes to deliver quality if you just wing it.

Emotions vs ratio

Structures and processes are rational. Designers are emotional people. They use their emotions and intuition to create beautiful solutions. If you will permit me a false cliche: designers are right-brain people. This creates a natural aversion to left-brain things like structure and processes. The fact that designers are in touch with their emotion, intuition, and feeling is hugely valuable in a world that is governed by cold, hard rational thinking. This right-brain thinking is one of the most coveted competences in today’s business. Just like the idea that emotion and creativity reside in the right half of our brains, the idea that emotion and ratio cannot co-exist is a myth. The truth is that ratio and emotion can enhance each other. A whole-brain philosophy will take creativity and problem-solving to a whole new level. Designers that can leverage both the power of emotion and ratio will have far more value to add, much more impact that just using the power of one of both. There is nothing that limits people to move freely from the one to the other except the limits they have in their heads. Structures and processes also have huge benefits and it would be stupid to not to try to use that.

A safe place

Designers like to believe the myth that structure and process kill creativity. It makes the world clear and simple. This mental model is their comfort zone. But outside that comfortable, warm, cozy bubble lies a place where they can have the best of both worlds, take the impact of design to a whole new level.

Designers like to believe the myth that structure and process kill creativity.

To scale or not to scale, that is the question

The only question that is relevant is whether designers want to scale up: move to bigger projects and create more impact with design? Scaling without some level of fragmentation and rationality seems difficult to me. The holistic emotional approach has its natural limits. But if you don’t want to scale up, that does not really matter.

Design your design process

Limit creativity

In my experience, most processes limit creativity. Processes that are linear and are based on waterfall-thinking, don’t allow you to go back on earlier decisions. So there is no room for progressive insight, new ideas that you usually get once you are knee-deep in the problem and not before. On top of that, any linear process is not aligned with the creative process because creativity is more like a ball in a pinball machine.

A process should serve people

Too often people who use a process, start valuing the process over what the process was trying to achieve. I’m a firm believer in the first rule of the Agile Manifesto: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” — Agile Manifesto

In other words: processes should serve the people in the project, not the other way around. This might sound like a no-brainer, but in my experience, people tend to lose sight of why they are using processes in the first place. Look ma, we’re using Scrum! As if that will make everything turn out all right. People love to transfer their responsibility to the process and the tools they are using. It relieves them of the duty to think for themselves. Lovely.

Design process elements

Design might seems like a totally random, chaotic process. But when you look at it from a distance, there is some structure to be seen. The way I see it there are two elements in design processes:

  • divergence and convergence: generating ideas and focussing on the best ones.
  • iteration from one idea to the next: just start doing and then iterate on your idea until the idea is good enough.

The most famous model of the design process is the Double Diamond as it was defined by the Design Council based on extensive studies on the design process. In addition to divergence and convergence, the Double Diamond model also adds:

  • research: not only is there divergence and convergence in the delivery of solutions but also in figuring out what the problem is exactly. Design is a great way to learn about the problem.

In a previous post, I combined the Double Diamond with the iterative trial and error process of design in the Kite Model Of Design:

The Kite Model Of Design

Design process goals

You see that in the Kite Model, the goals of design are engagement and learning. The success of any design depends on the ability of the team to engage all stakeholders and the ability to learn about the problem and how to best solve it. On top of that, I see other goals you will want to achieve with your design process:

  • Facilitate co-creation: the design process should be designed in a way that it is easy for people to come together and share insights and ideas. Co-creation is good for generating ideas but also to create engagement. As a solitary designer, you run the risk of getting stuck in the same groove all the time. Involving others in the creative process can get you out of the groove.
  • Leverage the power of open reviews: people who are not part of the creative process in co-creation can still be mobilized to take you out of the tunnel vision you tend to acquire if you are in lone genius mode.
  • Clear responsibilities and planning: to avoid energy loss and get more out of teamwork it’s a good idea to have all the roles, steps and responsibilities clear so you don’t have to worry about that.
  • More conscious decisions: to learn and grow it’s a good idea to articulate, to write down, to talk about the decisions that are being made. Design is an intuitive endeavor but if you want to scale it or take it to the next level, making the intuitive process more conscious helps.
  • Establishing a base level: designers are deeply involved in their work and that means they have a tendency to always go for perfect. If you are on a time schedule and a budget, done is better than perfect. And in a lot of cases, the quality standard of the designer is way higher than that of the client. If you work in an Agile mindset, you can always iterate your design to a higher level in the next round. Going for perfect designs can be counterproductive.
  • Focus on results: for most designers, design is about making beautiful things. This is one of the most obvious benefits and goals of design. But designers run the risk of losing themselves in the aesthetics and losing track of the goals. In the design process, you want to incorporate keeping the eyes on the goals.
  • Facilitate collaboration: collaboration is different from co-creation. In co-creation, people have an influence on all the aspect of the design. But even if there is no co-creation and responsibilities are clearly separated, you still need to collaborate with other people in bigger projects. For group work, you need structure, clarity about roles, responsibilities, and timelines.
  • Create space to experiment: if you are able to make the standard elements of processes clear, if you get the basics right, you can create more space in terms of energy and time to focus on the cool stuff: experimenting, pushing the bar.

Design process innovation

I think we should not mindlessly copy the processes of others but consciously design our own with specific goals in mind. Following the first rule of the Agile Manifesto, the number one rule should be that the process helps and doesn’t limit creativity. This does not only go for the design of the process but also for its use. We should not put any responsibility for the quality of the process on the process itself. The users of the process should stay responsible for the process. Never blame or hide behind the process. I think these are the top two rules.

#1: the process should aim to increase creativity

#2: nobody can ever hide behind or blame the process

A group of people that are really inspirational when it comes to innovating the design process are the guys from Google Ventures that created the Design Sprint method. What they did is study what makes co-creation processes work and what doesn’t. They investigated how people can be taken out of their comfort zones and how group creativity can be stimulated. It’s almost an anthropological study into the creative performance of a group of people. In it, we can find a couple of useful ideas:

  • It is a good idea to spend some time with all stakeholders to determine the common goal, the shared vision.
  • It is a good idea to spend some time with all stakeholders to determine the questions that need to be answered in order to arrive at the desired future.
  • It’s a good idea to spend some time looking at the big picture of the user journey for your product or service.
  • It's a good idea to give all stakeholders an equal amount of time to express their point of view about the shared vision and the questions that need answers.
  • It’s a good idea to let people vote individually on the most important aspects.
  • It’s a good idea to categorize aspects into themes.
  • It’s a good idea to look into best practices inside and outside your industry for inspiration.
  • It’s a good idea to let people synthesize the inspiration from best practices individually.
  • It’s a good idea to actively push people outside their comfort zone to get as crazy as possible.
  • It’s a good idea to let people develop their own solution individually.
  • It’s a good idea to synthesize the best individual ideas into one common design.
  • It’s a good idea to prototype solutions.
  • It’s a good idea to test ideas with real users.
  • It’s a good idea to timebox elements of the process.

This might seem like a lot of good ideas to mash into one process. But it’s all geared towards engagement and leveraging individual creativity in conjunction with group discussion to create novel ideas. The Design Sprint method from Google Ventures is sold to work best on big problems: “The bigger the problem, the better the Sprint works.”. But I believe that elements of it can be used for everyday design projects:

  • A kick-off for projects where the shared goal and questions are determined could help focus any project.
  • Taking a more analytical and collaborative approach to inspiration can raise the quality of solutions and engagement of stakeholders.
  • Using creativity techniques like crazy-8-s can be useful additions to the way designers work.
  • A co-creative process built on the step shared goal → questions → inspiration → experiments → synthesis → prototyping → testing could be a good starting point to design your process.

Design your process

In the end, I don’t think there should be one process to govern all projects. I think we should consciously design a process for the specifics of the project we are undertaking and the goals and obstacles thereof. In any project, there are two critical success factors: quality of the solution and stakeholder engagement. One without the other is useless. In a traditional design project, the focus tends to be on the quality of the solution. But not getting all stakeholders on the same page is killing. A genius solution for the wrong problem is equally detrimental. It’s about finding the balance between individual creativity and the added value of group interaction.

Recommendations

If I look at the principles and exercises in the Design Sprint method, I see a lot of useful elements that can be used in any project. I see some easy things to start designing a process.

Project kick-off:

  • Spend some time in the kick-off of a project to create a shared vision. In the Design Sprint method, this only takes about half an hour.
  • Also, spend half an hour to find out the biggest questions that need answers.
  • Spend another half-hour on a high-level customer journey.

In one and a half to two hours, you can collect a lot of information, get everybody in the right problem-solving mindset and on the same page.

Benchmark:

  • Involve stakeholders in coming up with solutions. Give them some homework and let them present their findings. 3 minutes of lightning demos per person will only take half an hour.

More often than not people come to a designer for expert advice but people have their own ideas in their heads as well. If you can bring these out in the open, you can get people engaged and explain the pro’s and con’s to establish your expertise. And this can also get the designers out of their bubble.

Get crazy:

  • Don’t be afraid to use creative exercises. Designers may think they are creative enough to survive without creativity exercises. Get over your pride and dive in.

Designers with a lot of experience run the risk of using the same tactics all the time and staying inside their bubble. Any designer can benefit from exercises to push them out of their comfort zone like the crazy-8’s: think of variations of your idea, one minute per idea.

Prototype:

  • Prototype anything.

Prototypes of any sort are a great way to collect insights, uncover problems, engage people, validate choices, create a platform for communication, etc. You can prototype anything at any time. Parts, concepts, ideas, processes, anything.

Learn and adjust

I don’t believe you should have the whole design of a project ready upfront. You can (and must) change things up depending on what comes up. I see designing the process as part of the project. If the project runs into a challenge, design a process that will help you get over it:

  • Identify the hurdle that needs to be taken, the goals that must be met.
  • Design a process that will help you get over it.
  • Execute.
  • Analyze the results.
  • Evaluate the design of the process and design the next step.

So,

the question is not really: does a process create space for creativity? but: how can we design a process that increases creativity?

I see a new role in project emerging: the process designer :)


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :)

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht. https://www.zuiderlicht.nl/

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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