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.

  • Julia

    Great article! Thank you for sharing your technique. I agree that diversity in backgrounds can lead to some unexpected ideas. Hopefully soon more companies will value people who came from different backgrounds.

    • Elaine Fang

      Hi Julia,
      Yes I wholeheartedly agree that collaborative diversity in any team is key to growth and innovation! Technology is evolving at such a fast pace that experimenting outside the confines of the tried and true could give your company or product that advantageous edge. Thank you for reading!

  • EmersonDameron

    The ability to draw connections between disciplines can’t be automated yet. The future may be in the hands of generalists.

  • Very insightful article. Like you said, sometimes we are so enamored in finding a solution within the confines of UX/UI that we can’t see the bigger picture. What was the solution you came up with for your Netflix project?

    • Elaine Fang

      Hi Brent! Thanks very much for reading. Stepping outside the box can definitely do wonders to the productivity of a creative team. Interestingly enough, through utilizing this exercise, my team realized that data usage conveyance was actually beyond the scope of our project. Had we stayed in our rut, we probably would’ve never seen that! We were also able to come up with a whole slew of other creative solutions for other parts of the project 🙂

  • Matthew Schmookler

    I’ve had this experience coming from a Tibetan medicine and yoga background. Fresh ideas and “flexibility” really flow in my process.

    • Elaine Fang

      Hi Matthew! What a fantastic and unique background you possess! I’m sure there are definitely techniques and philosophies from both medicine and yoga that could be beneficial to the productivity of a creative team. Would love to hear some of your ideas!

      • Matthew Schmookler

        I’m still figuring it out as I’m fairly new in the design world. Interestingly though I would say UX philosophy is very much rooted in some of the same basic principles as the spiritual philosophy from which both Tibetan medicine and yoga both come from….that our experiences are the most valuable part of our existence in the relative world. In terms of applying design and adjusting workflow outside of the box there are also some interesting points that can be applied. For example with Tibetan Medicine we understand how different colors, shapes and words can effect mood. On an internal level I feel that practicing Tibetan yoga has given me the ability to step outside of the box rapidly and let go of my ideas about how something “should” be. From there the sky is the limit 🙂

  • nz

    Good article, but I hope you’re not in the world thinking that UX = UI. UI is a component of UX (a large one at that), but UX encompasses how useful something is (so the mix of functionality), how usable it is (usability) and finally how it makes you feel.

    Maybe a bit pedantic, but important.

    • Elaine Fang

      Hi nz! Thanks very much for your feedback. As a practicing UX/UI Designer, I am very familiar with the difference between the two aspects, and it’s definitely important to know what each part stands for. As stated in the post, I am advocating for the fact that UX design goes far beyond just visuals, and because the process of designing a user’s experience is so multifaceted designers should look beyond tried and true methods.

      • nz

        In hindsight, my reply was jerkier than I intended.

        I’ve been “in UX” a long time, and I bristle at the phrase “UX/UI” since it implies an absolute connection that doesn’t exist.

        I would disagree with this line:

        > Purists may argue that having a strict design based background and education is what makes a good UX designer.

        I don’t know a single person that’d agree to this, and, again, it furthers this belief that UX is somehow merely visuals.

        In any case, this was a small nitpick that I’ve blown out of proportion. I appreciated the article and will be using the Pixar method shortly.

        • Elaine Fang

          Hi nz, I see your perpective; however I do think there is a very strong connection between UX and UI (albeit I am not saying they are the same thing). As someone who does both in my current position, I firmly believe it’s difficult to design good UI without a solid understanding of how the UX works. Many times, UI designers who simply take wireframes and apply colors and visuals end up changing the flow in order to better accommodate their aesthetic approach. However, when they understand the UX, their visuals more often than not end up complementing the usability instead of butting heads with it.

          Sadly, in my own personal design journey, I’ve encountered many instances where a pure design background was seeked for a UX position. But as technology evolves at the rapid speed it does, hopefully that mentality that will change too.

          I appreciate your feedback, and I hope the ‘Pixar Method’ works wonderfully for you 🙂

  • Faith Schneider

    I’m curious what the actual solution your team came to for the problem you were brainstorming for? How did you end up conveying the download capacity?