Sunday, April 10, 2011

Divergent Thinking Isn't Enough

There’s a common misunderstanding about the creative process that keeps many of us from advancing our own creative skill. The misunderstanding is that creativity is about “following the muse,” doing whatever you want with no limits. This myth is further promoted by business magazines and television commercials that, say, celebrate everyday people covering their walls with ideas on post-its.
I teach design-thinking outside of a design school, so I get students who, on day one, don’t consider themselves creative, but because of this wide-spread conception of what creative thinking is it’s relatively easy for me to teach them how to generate a lot of ideas in one sitting. I teach students the’s guidelines for brainstorming and in a few weeks they are good at it. They’ve gone through many packs of post-its. This kind of brainstorming is called “divergent thinking,” as opposed to the more linearly-focused thinking, called “convergent thinking.”

But design is an iterative process, a constant push and pull between divergent AND convergent thinking. And teaching my students to change gears fluently is the more difficult challenge. Students who are given license to engage in divergent thinking don’t have a lot of practice transitioning back to convergent thinking. (This problem is what Jon Kolko, the director of Austin Center for Design, refers to as ‘the synthesis problem.’)

So in those cases when the instructor has taught students good divergent thinking, the problem is that students tend to either engage in it continuously (we’ve all experienced this, when the brainstorming just never ends) or they converge on the most familiar and safe idea they’ve come up with and pursue it exclusively. Either way is unproductive because the class is neglecting the potentially successful ideas they generate during the brainstorm. The real successful thinker transitions fluently from divergent to convergent thinking, to capture and pursue the best ideas.

I offer here a few tricks for navigating this transition from divergent to convergent thought.

If you have a wild idea that you want to explore, then choose a safer one and develop them both simultaneously. Similarly, if you are afraid to step out of your comfort zone, then work on a safe idea but also work on a wild one. This mode of working has at least two benefits:

1. In case your risky idea fails, you have something to fall back on.
2. Working on two ideas simultaneously will, most likely, produce a third, superior idea--a combination of the best parts from each.

This second reason is similar to a phenomenon Roger Martin from Rotman School of Management calls “the opposable mind,” which is a version of what John Keats called ‘negative capability’: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Do yourself a favor and choose a formal constraint to work with. Formal constraints are little tricks that designers use to create order from complexity. Sure, as a graduate student I railed against the grid - that comes with the graduate school territory - but in the end I came back to it with a new appreciation. The complexity of any situation is just too much to bear for an extended period. “Hire out” an organizing principle for your project - a limited color palette, a texture, a modular system, a metaphor. You can always stray from the constraint once you’ve established it; in fact, you should.

Good designers look to introduce new ideas with the intention that they will be adopted and spread. In contrast, an amateur designer will often say, “This new design is for everyone.” No, it’s not for everyone. It may be for a wide range of people, but it’s not for everyone. Good designers identify all of the people who are affected by their design and focus on those who are most likely to pick it up first. They design for those people. And when they are really good they design with them. Any successful start-up spends lots of time with early adopters until they are not only comfortable with, but enthusiastic about, your design. They will be your evangelists, your advocates, your marketers. But you have to spend some focused time with them.

I was invited to a tech-development meeting the other day because the team wanted to bring in a designer to get feedback on their mobile interface. When I got to the meeting, I was shown static wire frames of the interface and was then asked questions such as “Do you think this button would look better here or there?” I was asked these questions because people think designers are put on this earth to make stuff look cool. But they are not. They are put on this earth to make stuff work well. And stuff works well not in a static way, but over time. Any design has three time-based scenarios that the designer needs to be concerned with:
1. How do I attract  a new user to my design?
2. Once I attract her, how do I engage her with the design?
3. Once she is finished, how do I get her to come back and bring friends?

The successful designer transitions fluently from divergent to convergent thinking, to capture and pursue the best ideas. To help them do this, they can choose two ideas (one safe, one wild); choose a formal constraint; choose early adopters; or choose a time-line.



  1. Your process has so many more applications than "mere" design. As an entrepreneur, my mind reels at the thought of reconciling your deceptively simple ideas here. Love it!

  2. Thanks, Paul. Let me know how it goes : )


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