Writer’s block. Creative slump. Brainstorm desert.

While there’s a thousand and one ways to dub the ever-unwelcome state of inspirational plateau that hinders progress, it doesn’t have to induce hair pulling. Sometimes all it takes to scale that wall is looking outside the box, across the room, out the window, make a left and then a U-turn.  At this juncture, removed from the initial confines, is where you’ll gain a fresh perspective and find the solutions to tackle those roadblocks.

Looking Outside the Box… in a Hyper-Sense

As design students at General Assembly tackling a Netflix offline concept project, my teammates and I were tasked with integrating a new feature into an existing brand identity and user interface. Our goal as UX designers was to make utilizing this new feature so seamlessly integrated and intuitive that everything would look-and-feel as if it had been part of the product all along. Naturally, this was easier envisioned than executed. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves struggling to visually convey data usage. How can we communicate to our users that each movie download would take away from their preset download capacity? Should we use symbols? Words? Numbers? A combination of all three?  We mulled for a good two days, simmering in what seemed like an ocean of ideas, but none that especially clicked or fit with what we were looking for.

How can we communicate to our users that each movie download would take away from their preset download capacity?

We covered our brainstorming wall with illustrative metaphors that conveyed the usage of data for our Netflix concept project.

Our Research Lead suggested we try an exercise based on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, a technique she was familiar with due to her years in improv performance. She encouraged us to think of the most outrageous and straight-up ridiculous answers to our data usage question, providing Pixar’s example as fodder: “Let’s say Bambi went to hell. Well, that would clearly never happen in a Disney movie,” to which our other team member quickly answered “but in a way, Bambi did go to hell.  His mother was killed by the hunters, and he grew up an orphan.” Almost instantaneously, our brains whittled an outlandish idea into something feasible.

Over the next couple of hours, we covered our brainstorming wall with wacky illustrations that conveyed the usage of data—everything ranging from fish being captured and turned into sushi, to snow falling and becoming an igloo.

The Benefits of  Knowledge Diversity

Utilizing Pixar’s techniques became a turning point in our project, allowing our brains to momentarily step outside traditional UX confines and  into a space where a fresh perspective could eventually be applied problem at hand. Our three-person team, each with respective backgrounds in engineering, improv, entertainment, creative writing and finance,  is a plentiful and diverse pool to draw from.

Utilizing Pixar’s techniques became a turning point in our project, allowing our brains to momentarily step outside traditional UX confines and into a space where a fresh perspective could eventually be applied to the problem at hand.

Purists may argue that having a strict design based background and education is what makes a good UX designer. However, the spectrum of what a digital designer does encompasses far more than just visual aesthetics. Wouldn’t it, in turn, make sense for their background to reflect this variety of responsibilities? How can someone design the multifaceted concept that is a user experience without utilizing skills and techniques garnered from a variety of experiences? Companies such as Slack Technologies (who boast a private market valuation of $2.8 billion) see the benefits of encompassing skills that stretch beyond a single discipline, crediting a portion of their success to the CEO’s background in philosophy and their editorial director’s failed stint in theater.

The CEO of Slack, Stewart Butterfield, holds an undergrad degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.

The very definition of creativity is a kind of resourcefulness outside the constraints of the tried-and-true, and designers would benefit greatly by pulling from non-design aspects of their lives.  Applying ideas, skills and techniques pulled from other backgrounds, or even hobbies and interests, can result in unexpected creative innovation. My team would’ve never thought to incorporate an improv technique into our problem-solving, but allowing ourselves to essentially “wig out” with something non-design-related really got our creative juices pumping. It also allowed for an amazing sense of team camaraderie to blossom, as our team felt like we were just having fun together.  As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, stated in his TED Talk “Tales of Creativity and Play,” people with the comfort and security to play in their workplace take more creative risks. These risks can lead to innovation and productive teamwork.

And That’s a Wrap…

When you notice your creative team struggling, encouraging them to look to their hobbies, interests and other professional pockets, be it a previous career path or their weekend Etsy business can help refresh a mental dry patch, and ultimately enhance the creative process. Give it a shot and see what unfolds. Share your best roadblock story with us or try this technique and let us know what happens! We’re listening.