How to Unlock Creativity and Generate Great Ideas

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Creativity is the driving force in UX design, but even the best designers sometimes struggle to unlock their potential. While generating brilliant ideas isn’t easy, it’s also not an impossible task that only a select, super-talented few are capable of doing.

That’s because creativity isn’t a skill—it’s a mindset.

Here are a few tips to help you build a more empowering mindset that can unleash your creativity and lead to truly innovative solutions for even your most challenging UX problems.

Remove Internal Limitations

The very first step that needs to happen in any creative process is getting beyond the internal limitations and excuses that hold you back. These limiting thoughts can take many forms. Maybe you’re afraid of being rejected or you worry that whatever ideas you may have won’t be good enough. Even if those concerns are justified, allowing them to become barriers sabotages the creative process and prevents you from developing innovative solutions to problems. There are already plenty of external factors you may need to overcome as you develop new ideas; don’t make the process more difficult by imposing your own internal constraints.

There are all sorts of limiting behaviors that hold back our creativity. Lack of experience, for example, may cause you to think you’re not yet qualified to share your ideas. In hierarchical organizations, it can sometimes be uncomfortable to offer a suggestion that you think would address an existing problem or pain point. But it’s important to realize that these are self-imposed constraints. It’s the kind of fearful thinking that allows bad ideas to be adopted because nobody in the room had the courage to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Let Go of “No”

Creativity is all about redefining the boundaries and scope of what’s possible. Whether out of habit or fear, it’s very easy to allow the realm of possibility to narrow. We cling to the same old policies and procedures not necessarily because they’re the best way of doing things, but because “that’s the way we’ve always done things.” In order to design truly creative solutions, you need to stop for a moment and reconsider your assumptions. Instead of saying “We have to do it this way,” you should be thinking “How could we do this differently” or “Why do we do it this way?”

In the world of improv theater, performers always fall back on the concept of “Yes, and…” when they’re playing off one another. The idea is that when one person presents something, you have a responsibility to accept it and then add something to it in order to keep the performance going. This allows performers to riff back and forth, with each person driving the scene forward while the audience comes along for the ride. If everyone just said “No” all the time, the scene would never go anywhere and devolve into a boring, disjointed mess.

Design ideation operates in a similar fashion. When an idea is presented, it should have a chance to live, breathe, and grow. Even if the concept ultimately doesn’t work out, the process of working through various versions of it and shifting perspectives on the problem can help lead to other creative solutions.

Live in the Gray

People love options. Choosing between clearly-defined options is safe and easy to manage. As consumers, we know how to weigh the costs and benefits of choices. But it can also be quite limiting. The world isn’t purely black and white. When we think about the design process as a matter of choosing between predetermined (and often mutually exclusive) options, we shut down the potential for true creativity. Sometimes, the best solution to a problem is found in the gray area between those choices.

While creativity is typically depicted as a riot of color, it’s actually more appropriate to think of it as a sea of gray. Devoid of color and texture, gray represents endless possibility. It could be shaped and sculpted into anything, with any color imaginable added to it along the way. Thinking creatively is all about living in this gray space between the options we already have. It’s an expansive way of thinking that reframes the creative process, shifting it away from the simple cost-benefit analysis of making choices and opening up a potential universe of options no one has yet considered.

Don’t Be “Realistic”

Nothing kills the excitement of an ideation session faster than someone crossing their arms and saying “That’s a good idea, but we can’t do that because (insert excuse here).” It’s an understandable response, and it usually comes from a well-intentioned place. After all, wouldn’t it be irresponsible to waste valuable time and energy developing an idea that would cost too much or be too difficult to implement?

Um…actually, no.

Creativity is all about being irresponsible. It’s about thinking big and redefining possibility. Confining ideas and solutions to the same old constraints is going to lead to the same old results in most cases. If you enter every ideation session constrained by practical considerations, it will be difficult to find the inspiration to think beyond the status quo. It’s an approach that might be able to address a lot of symptoms, but it doesn’t effectively solve the root cause of a problem.

Of course, that’s not to say constraints aren’t important. Ultimately, ideas have to find a way to adapt to the real world, and that often means making compromises and sacrifices. But much like a tree, ideas need to have the opportunity to grow before they’re trimmed back and shaped to fit in with the rest of the landscaping. By waiting to impose constraints until later in the design process, creative ideas are able to develop organically and move in directions that might not have been possible if they were developed with the end result in mind. Even better, they might push the boundaries of what’s possible in the process.

Working to unlock your creativity can be a challenge at first, but with time and practice, it can be developed like any other muscle. The more you push yourself to reframe what’s possible, the easier it will become to generate the brilliant ideas you’re looking for to solve your biggest UX problems. So cast those limiting behaviors aside and start thinking about what “could be” instead of what “can’t be.”

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