My masters thesis at Georgia Tech focused on how we, as designers, can be more creative. This was a year long project that won the MS-HCI Best Project Award & produced two journal papers. While I'd initially hoped to steer the project towards more product design, the data had other ideas.
At the risk of getting too technical, this is a high level overview of the project. If you're interested in more detailed metrics, assessments & analyses, let's chat. It's also important to remember that while I use the term "designer", there may be variation across design disciplines.
As designers, we collect tools & techniques to help us understand user needs and solve problems. But for all our skills & tricks, so often we just make things up.
We get creative.
What does "creative" mean?
That depends. We often talk about people being creative, but what we really care about is whether their designs are creative. For this work, that meant measuring whether the design work produced in response to a design problem was creative. While creativity can be operationalized in a number of ways, I chose two that were most relevant to product design: novelty (how unusual an idea is compared to other ideas) and feasibility (the ease with which an idea could be implemented).
How do we design?
Though focused on the work, it was important to remember that designs are the output once information is processed by the designer. That may be the task at hand, user needs, or other relevant details. We process information in three ways, setting up three design scenarios:
Subconscious, immediate reactions
Designers receive a design problem and immediate create a solution
subconscious, delayed synthesis
Designers receive a design problem and are distracted by something else before they create a solution
rational, deliberate thought
Designers think about design problems before they create a solution
How does mood relate to performance?
In addition to looking at cause and effects, I was also curious how mood related to designers' performance. What happens if you're stressed or angry, bored or happy? To study correlations, I asked each designer to also complete a standard mood assessment commonly used with athletes to study performance.
(9 designer x 9 design tasks)
Designs were more novel when designers thought about the problem or were distracted before designing. Designs were less novel when designers reacted to the problem immediately.
When working on design tasks, designers should take time to solve design problems and collaborators should support that. Reacting immediately because you feel pressure to do so will negatively impact your design work.
Existing research has shown that, when you're solving a problem, there's a relationship between when you receive relevant information and the novelty of your designs. In this case, giving designers the opportunity to pull either consciously or subconsciously from relevant information helped to increase novelty. We characterized that period as "processing time" between receiving & solving a problem.
Designers who were angry and annoyed produced less feasible designs.
Anger is commonly associated with reliance on your rational ability which should mean greater feasibility. But from what we could tell, fatigue may have been a mitigating factor.
Designers who were content or happy produced less novel designs while those who were depressed produced more novel designs.
This was pretty interesting because a lot of work that’s been done around depression and creativity. And while it’s unethical to intentionally make designers depressed, it is interesting to think about how can we prevent designers from becoming “content” or settling.
Designers who were active or energetic produced more novel & feasible designs.
Again, very interesting. Links have been shown between activity levels and divergent thinking, and walking specifically has been linked to increased creativity.
How can we help designers to feel more active & energetic? Is a rigorous work day counterproductive?
Should we bring back recess?
Having explored links between mood, creativity and processing styles, I wanted to use the data to design some kind of intervention. How could I help designers to be more active & energetic, less content? I started by first asking 40 experienced designers about their design processes and strategies for being more creative. The responses weren't a surprise. Technology is a blocker to the creative process when it doesn't work. Simple things, like copy/paste or to do lists are a huge help. Phones and social media are a hinderance.
79% of designers said they just got away from the problem and did something else when they needed to be more creative.
45% go for a walk.
I could've stopped there and just said, hey designers -- go for a walk. Preferably outside. The simplest solution supported by prior research, anecdotal data and in line with our earlier work. But I started to think about whether we could augment the walking experience? What does it mean to go for a walk? What if you can't go for a walk?
I brainstormed options from different types of activities to more policy and training exercises to ways to help designers develop better habits. What if we could use augmented reality to enhance the walking experience? As I worked, I found myself evaluating my ideas based on novelty, feasibility and experience. I also kept coming back to the same idea:
What if you can't go for a walk?
What if you're a designer working with classified documents and you can't leave the room. Or the air quality is too poor to go for a walk? Or you're physically unable to walk? If walking is so beneficial, I wanted to consider how we might give people the illusion of "going for a walk" without actually going anywhere.
What if you can go for a walk in VR?
With virtual reality becoming more accessible, it could allow designers to disengage from their task while simulating movement through an environment. It could also be a valuable tool in helping designers to better experience the environments for which they are designing.
What if you're designing something for the beach and you could just go for a walk on the beach?
My first instinct was, “I’m going to build something.” But took a quick step back to understand my design constraints. First we had to balance the availability of technology with the availability of users. We only had consistent access to three Google Cardboard devices for testing that would allow us to adapt to student schedules. Next, we needed to consider what we wanted to test and learn. Assuming we wanted to control for as much as possible, the virtual environment needed to be pretty realistic— which eliminated the highly pixelated experience I could attempt to build in Unity.
Instead of building something new, I evaluated existing tools along two primary axes that were key to testing. First, how passive or active was the experience. Second, how abstract or realistic was the environment.
After identifying a variety of options, I tested them with three individuals unrelated to the project and asked them to identify which felt most like walking. Google Street View was the winner.
Google Street View allowed participants to “walk” around campus in the virtual space that was most realistic and control their motion. The motion itself was the least desirable aspect — users were transported between nearby locations, creating a path through Georgia Tech's campus. While paths were predefined, users had the choice of where to explore. The images were also static, but provided a high quality depiction of campus in 360 degrees. Based on available tools, this allowed us to perform an initial study.
HYPOTHESIS & TESTING
In addition to exploring in VR, we asked 18 designers to physically go for a walk or take a cognitive test before completing some design tasks. Each designer completed 9 tasks (3 per condition). Because prior research supported an association between walking + creativity, we hypothesized that physically walking would lead to move novel and feasible designs than the virtual reality or cognitive testing experiences.
But — we wanted to see what happened. Is it walking itself, is it motion and distraction? Is it just the time to process.
There was no difference in designers' performance after physically walking, exposure to virtual reality, or completing a baseline cognitive test.
This was not what we expected, but inline with earlier data that showed the value of processing time - regardless of what happens during that window. While I won't get into all of the mood correlations, they were fascinating and complex - particularly when analyzed using traditional models of affect. Shifts in designers' activity levels and positive or negative moods mapped directly to novelty and feasibility of solutions. Most intriguing were the parallels between boredom and depression; a story for another day.
While more research in this areas should and will be done, I feel confident saying that as designers, taking breaks or even just a minute to think should be a key part of our processes. While it can be challenging and sometimes against the norm, it's an important factor in creativity.