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Design Process
7 minute read

Creativity Exercises to Boost Your Designs

Here are a few exercises that can help get your creative juices flowing, whether you’re trying to get started on a new project or find yourself stuck in a creative rut.

Read the Spanishes version of this article translated by Yesica Danderfer

Any designer or creative professional would agree that there is no on/off switch for creativity. Inspiration can be a frustrating, elusive beast: absent when you’ve set aside time for important work, and then striking when you’re in the middle of something else entirely.

There are a few creativity exercises that can help get your creative juices flowing. Whether you’re trying to get started on a new project or find yourself stymied by a creative block, here are some tricks of the trade to jump-start your mind.

The SCAMPER Method for Creative Thinking

The SCAMPER methodology, first proposed by advertising executive and so-called “father of brainstorming” Alex Osborne in the 1950s, remains a go-to for creative professionals today. Simply put, the scamper method proposes different avenues of thinking to help solve a problem or to examine it in a new light.

Substitute - Consider swapping one solution for another or replacing one part of a product for another. How would this substitution change the product?

Combine - What benefits or challenges would emerge if you combined your product with its direct competitor? What would be the result if you merged two completely dissimilar products to solve the same problem?

Adapt - Interrogate your existing process or solution to try to surface what adaptations could be made to evolve the product.

Modify - Is there a way to tweak the approach to the central design problem that would be more efficient or straightforward? What modifications would be required for the existing product to serve a completely different user goal?

Eliminate - The best design solutions are often the simplest. Look at your existing product or process and strip it down to the bare minimum required to achieve the user goal. What are you left with, and how can you use that as a starting point to explore potentially more optimal solutions?

Reverse - What effect will the reordering of the user flow have on the user’s ability to use the product?

Try walking your design solution or process through these seven questions to see what insights may surface. You may find that by making a modification to your existing idea, you may unlock hidden inspiration for product evolution. Or, by eliminating an extraneous feature, you can make your design solution more efficient.

Here's how graphic designer Ashley T. Bjørnsrud used the SCAMPER method on a teaspoon.

Magic Genie

Consider the design problem your existing product solves or the problem your product is meant to solve. If you were granted three wishes that would help solve the problem, what would they be? If you could solve your user need with magic, how would it work?

Try to do this exercise irrespective of feasibility or available technology—start with magic. Then reverse-engineer what specific details that bit of magic addresses. This kind of fantastic framework can be a real-world creative booster.

Just think of how much of our current technology would be indistinguishable from magic less than a century ago. Consider the smartphone and how someone might have asked: What if I had access to all of the libraries in the world and could speak with any other person alive from a box that fits in my pocket?

Thinking of magical solutions can spark creative thinking
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Arthur C. Clarke)

Have a Drink with Your Product

This is always a fun exercise to help designers and other stakeholders better understand their product or brand from a very human perspective. It begins by imagining the product or brand as if it were a walking, breathing human being.

Begin by writing down a series of questions about your product’s personality. How old are they? In what kind of apartment or home do they live? What kinds of things do they do in their spare time? What are their favorite places to meet friends? If you were to find them in a bar, what drink would they order—house wine, local craft beer, or a classic cocktail?

Posing these questions for your team to answer is a great way to gather insights into how others on your team see the product or brand. Discussing everyone’s perspective will help you zero in on the key qualities of the personality and will invigorate further creative explorations.

Brand personality mood board to jumpstart creative thinking
Designer Bree Chapin investigates a brand personality to spark creative thinking.

This is also a good opportunity to ask your team the all-important question: Why? Through this exercise, you define your product or brand as a human being. This person has these likes and dislikes and habits that help shape others’ perceptions of their personality. Your brand drives luxury cars and likes drinking expensive cocktails at high-end bars. Why? They like to project an air of wealth. Why? Digging further into the personality by asking why can bring you and your team closer to that eureka moment of understanding.

Add Constraints

It may sound counterintuitive, but imposing limitations around a design exercise or a project can often spark creative problem-solving more effectively than starting with open-ended freedom. Sometimes there’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page.

UX designers already understand how decision paralysis affects users. Present too many seemingly equal choices without a clear direction and the user’s mind can freeze up. There are too many possibilities to weigh simultaneously, and it’s taxing for the brain to search for differences that might hint at the proper choice. The same cognitive fatigue and paralysis can attack when starting creative work.

Add constraints to your creative ideation
Sometimes, restricting yourself to analog tools can kickstart your creative problem-solving more than the endless open space of a digital artboard.

To spur some creativity, try adding some constraints to your process. For example, time-box an ideation session to two hours. Limit yourself to only working with a sharpie on paper for those two hours—no pencils to erase and no screens. As Thomas Oppong writes in For A More Creative Brain, Embrace Constraints for Inc., “Obstacles can broaden your perception, open up your thinking processes.”

Create a Storyboard

Storyboards are a great visual tool for understanding a process step-by-step. Creating a storyboard helps designers establish a deeper sense of empathy and gain insight into the contexts in which their users are interacting with their product. They also serve as a great communication tool for various members of a team to discuss steps in the user journey.

Begin by boxing out a template of panels that depict your user going through the process of achieving their goal (try to do this on paper for starters). For example, if your product is an app that helps users share photos for events, imagine your user as an attendee of a party. Illustrate simply how the user behaves at the event, how they will be taking photos with friends, and then when/how they will want to share them later.

Creating a storyboard for creativity exercise
Creating a storyboard helps you look at and understand how your product is being used in a fresh way.

Caption each panel with a brief description of what’s going on, and try to imagine what the user is thinking or feeling at various stages. Storyboards do not have to be amazing works of comic book art, so long as the visual narrative comes through. Walk through the scenarios and look for opportunities to make a greater impact.

Change Your Surroundings

Having a routine can be essential to establishing focus in your work (especially for remote work), but the drudgery of predictability may also have the adverse effect of stifling your creativity. Whether you’re on-site or working from a home office, making sure to add variety from time to time is a must.

Depending on your particular situation, changing things up can mean spending a few hours working in a local cafe instead of your home office, or taking a meeting with a colleague in a nearby park.

Take your meeting outside for creative thinking exercises
Take your work outside; the change in surroundings (and a bit of fresh air) will stimulate your creative mind.

Most creative professionals—especially digital designers—do a great deal of their work on a computer. It can be all too easy to spend countless hours unmoving in front of a screen, but a change of scenery and physical movement can do wonders for your brain. Take a break. Sometimes, even just going for a walk (preferably outside) can jog the proverbial cobwebs from your creative mind.

Turning Creative Ideas Into Creative Planning

Hopefully, one or more of these creativity exercises will help boost your design, though this is just the beginning. Once your thinking is in high gear, and you have come up with some creative and fresh ideas, it’s time to put them into action.

Once you have a great idea for what you want to do, organize and devise a plan for how to do it. A helpful guide to this next step can be found in the S.M.A.R.T. frameworks. Creativity is only the first step in turning inspiration into actualization!

Understanding the basics

There are many ways to increase your creativity and exercises help give your brain a boost. Just changing the way you look at a problem or design can work wonders to increase your creativity.

Various exercises and documented methods can help stimulate your creativity. Exercises like the SCAMPER method for creative thinking work by re-orienting your thought processes. Make a change and see how that helps.

Routine can help you focus in the workplace, but sometimes changing your surroundings or even going for a walk can trigger the breakthroughs to a difficult problem and stimulate truly creative thinking.

Through trial and error of various exercises, like creating a storyboard or going for a walk, creative professionals can develop a toolkit of go-to creative thinking exercises to help boost creativity when feeling uninspired or stuck in a rut.