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Crossing the Creative Abyss

Mapping Your Journey with Design Thinking

Leonardo Vieira

Leonardo Vieira

— Graphic designer

Category: Digital Experiences

Reading time 12 Minutes

Publish date: 28.02.2024

Crossing the Creative Abyss

Since the world began, creatives have struggled with the curse of the blank canvas. Seeing creative paths in this overwhelming vastness is no easy task. Imagine then having mastery over your ideas and insights, finding inspiration, motivation, and still facing all the challenges that arise when putting a project into practice. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a map that directs us to the right place?

Today, I want to show you this map and, together, we will explore the intricate paths of creativity, all its treasures and secrets.

Design Thinking: The Map of the Creative Journey

Design Thinking is a methodology used for problem-solving, but it has become very popular among creatives because it is focused on the end user, encourages creativity and iteration, and promotes critical analysis of the initial problems and the results obtained.

This methodology maps all stages of the creative process and cyclically guides creatives through each of them.

  • Empathy - where we seek to understand the needs of the user

  • Definition - where we define the problem

  • Ideation - where we generate ideas and solutions

  • Prototyping - where we prototype the solutions found

  • Testing - where we test the prototypes

In addition to our map, we will also use, at each stage of the process, some hats to help us on this journey. The six thinking hats will allow us to improve our problem-solving process and decision-making, helping us to see challenges and possibilities from different perspectives. They are:

Red hat illustration

Red Hat

For feelings and instincts

White hat illustration

White Hat

For facts and information

Blue hat illustration

Blue Hat

For organization and planning

Green hat illustration

Green Hat

For ideas and creativity

Yellow hat illustration

Yellow Hat

For benefits and values

Black hat illustration

Black Hat

For critical thinking and caution

Other techniques will also be used, but we will find them along the way.

Illustration of a scale with a snake involved, on the left side of the scale there is a heart and on the right side there is a brain.

1. Empathy - The Meeting of Reason and Emotion

In this first stage, we will dive deep into the user’s needs. Our goal here is to generate empathy with the user so that we can abandon our initial assumptions and focus on their real needs. Our red hat, for feelings and instincts, will help us decipher the emotions of this user, understanding their thoughts, pains, and hopes.

This hat will help us answer questions such as:

  • How does the user think?

  • What is he looking for?

  • How does he feel about using this product?

  • What are his initial reactions to interacting with the product?

  • What difficulties does he face when using the product?

  • What does your intuition say about the solution?

With this information, we will be able to move on to the next stage of the journey.

Illustration of a rock

2. Definition - There Was a Stone in the Middle of the Road

After understanding our user and their difficulties, we will define the problem to be solved. This definition is made by cross-referencing the information obtained in the previous stage.

  • What were the biggest difficulties encountered by users?

  • What problems arose most frequently?

  • Is there a common feeling among users about the product?

After analyzing this information, we can define the problem. This definition describes the challenge that must be overcome. As the Design Thinking process is focused on the end user, this problem definition should be made from the user’s point of view.

For example, instead of defining the problem with a focus on the business, such as “we need to increase healthy foods sales by 25% for young people”, we should think “young people are looking for alternatives for healthy, cheap, and easy-to-prepare foods.”

At this stage, it is also very important to collect information about the problem itself. Here, the white hat, for facts and information, can help us answer questions like:

  • Do I really understand the problem?

  • Do I have all the necessary information to solve the problem?

  • What do I need to do to get this information?

  • What questions should I ask to get this information?

  • Has anyone else had this same problem? How was it solved?

  • What existing ways are there to solve this problem?

The blue hat, for organization and planning, should also be used here. It helps us with decision-making and structuring the next steps. With it, we can address issues like:

  • What needs to be solved?

  • How can we define the problem?

  • What are our goals?

  • What is the expected outcome?

  • How should we proceed with the project?

Once we understand the problem and define an action plan, we can continue our journey.

Ilustração de uma floresta

3. Ideation - The Forest of Ideas

This is where many creatives get lost. They run from side to side following ideas that seem more attractive, cooler, or easier to implement. Before they realize it, they are stuck in a dark, foggy forest, desperate, not knowing what to do or where to go.

This happens because they start the creative journey right here, without first understanding the needs of the user and the challenges that need to be solved. It is also very easy to have the same ideas here, without any differentiation, novelty, or impact. Imagine a forest where all the trees are identical, all the leaves are the same, with the same shape, color, and size. Boring, right?

The cool and different ideas are hidden in the forest; you need to know where to look, how to look. You can spend hours, sometimes days here, and find nothing.

Many also rely on the Inspiring Muse to have an idea. The problem is that she doesn’t always show up, and when she does, she brings ideas that have nothing to do with the problem at hand. That’s why studies and creative exercises are so important.

Creativity is a skill, and like all skills, it can be acquired and must be exercised.

When it comes to creation, the green hat, for ideas and creativity, becomes the most useful. With it, we can think outside the box, in a fluid and judgment-free manner. It helps us with questions like:

  • Is it possible to explore new ideas and possibilities?

  • What other options do I have to solve this problem?

  • What other scenarios can I consider to have new ideas?

  • What kind of risks are we willing to take with our idea?

There are also some techniques that stimulate creativity. They can be applied when we are stuck and cannot proceed with the development of new ideas. We can use lateral thinking to generate new insights and help us see solutions from different perspectives. Some techniques we can use to stimulate lateral thinking are:

3.1. Provocation: Igniting the Flame of Innovation

Provocations stimulate unusual thoughts, challenge the status quo, and feed different ideas. The results obtained will not always be innovative and impactful. The main idea of a provocation is to generate a different line of thinking to help stimulate idea generation.

Like brainstorming, provocation also involves generating ideas without prior judgment. The difference between provocation and brainstorming is that brainstorming is focused on generating ideas without prior judgment but still plausible and realistic. Provocation, on the other hand, deliberately seeks to generate absurd ideas that challenge reality.

We can use as an example a car that runs out of gas after only 20 kilometers. A provocation would be “what if there was a car that dragged a gas station behind it?” This idea is practically impossible to implement and apparently leads us nowhere.

The challenge here is to use the concept of principles to transform this provocation into a usable idea. What would be the principle of dragging a gas station behind the car? The principle would be that by dragging a gas station behind the car, it would have more fuel available to it. How can we realistically make the car have more fuel available to it? We can increase the capacity of the car’s fuel tank.

Provocation, combined with the concept of principles, can help us solve complex problems through an unusual point of view. Sometimes, simply thinking in an unusual way can be the difference between solving a creative problem or not.

3.2. Random Word List: The Cauldron of Imagination

The main idea behind the random word list is to aid in idea generation through the relationship between words and concepts.

In a mind map or a traditional word list, we use words that relate to the problem to be solved. The goal is to generate connections with related themes and, thus, find a solution through concepts that combine with each other.

With the random word list, we use, believe it or not, random words. This list aims to force us to create relationships between the words related to the problem and the random words. When we make these unconventional connections, we have a different view from the traditional one, and thus, we are exposed to different ideas.

3.3. Analogies: The Bridge Between Ideas

Analogies are abstract parallels between two different things. They are relationships, invented by us, that link two ideas, things, or concepts. This can help us find other relationships, and this set of relationships, in turn, can help us find a creative solution.

We can have a problem, for example: I need a title for a section of a blog post that talks about analogies. What is an analogy? As already explained, an analogy is an abstract parallel that links one thing to another. What else links one thing to another? A telephone connects one person to another. But if we are to follow the theme of the text, which is being written using the idea of a journey, paths, and adventure, a telephone seems somewhat disconnected. What can we find in a journey that links one thing to another? A bridge. It connects one place to another. And so we can use analogies to come up with an idea that is out of the ordinary.

3.4. Pattern disruption: Breaking with Reality

Pattern-breaking can be used to generate impactful and innovative ideas. But to break the pattern, we must first know the pattern.

In the case of a graphic designer, there are many basic concepts for creative activity that need to be known before creating something. Concepts such as color theory, composition, typography, and Gestalt are just a few of them. After acquiring and mastering these skills, the designer can ignore some of them or even subvert them, doing the opposite of what is recommended.

Depending on the situation, just having a different, intriguing, or surprising idea may be enough to solve the problem. After generating and developing the ideas, we need to test them. Testing is necessary to ensure that the ideas are appropriate and that the solutions found can actually solve the problem we are facing. And this leads us to the next stage.

Illustration of an anvil with a sword

4. Prototyping - The Master Craftsman’s Workshop

In this stage, we must create prototypes to test our ideas. These prototypes can vary radically, depending on the type of problem we are trying to solve.

For a product designer, prototyping can be the creation of digital mockups or 3D models, showing the product from various angles. It can also be the production of a physical mockup of the product, to verify if its dimensions and materials are suitable for the function it should fulfill and if it is easy to use. In the case of software or system development, prototyping can be a wireframe, with the main functionalities of the application.

During this stage, we can use the black hat, for critical thinking and caution, to ensure that our solution is adequate for solving the problem and that it will lead us to the expected result. This hat helps us analyze our solution critically, in order to avoid future problems and predict risks associated with our initial idea. With it, we can answer questions like:

  • What are the possible failure scenarios?

  • How can we identify the flaws in our solution?

  • What are the risks imposed by our solution?

  • Is there any reason not to proceed with the idea?

  • What could be the next challenges for solving the problem?

After using the black hat, we may find that, unfortunately, our ideas and solutions are terrible, unfeasible, and mediocre. In this case, we can always go back to the ideation phase to try to create new solutions.

The yellow hat, for benefits and values, becomes very useful at this point. With it, we can analyze new ideas with optimism and deepen the insights obtained in the ideation phase, trying to ensure the benefits brought by the new solution and focusing on the value of the ideas achieved. With it, we can answer questions like:

  • Is there any opportunity that I can explore in ideation that may be better to achieve my goals?

  • How can we define the factors that make this idea beneficial or successful?

  • How can we define success?

  • How does this idea make our process better?

  • What are the short and long-term benefits of this idea?

Once we find a satisfactory idea, we can move on to the final stage of the process.

Illustration of a ruby stone

5. Testing - Refining the Rough Stone

The testing stage seeks to refine the idea. After producing the prototype, we must test it to make sure that our idea is good.

These tests can vary according to the solution found. Returning to the example of the product designer, this would be the stage where real users would test the prototype and provide feedback based on their experiences.

Several techniques can be used for feedback collection, with some being more efficient depending on the problem to be solved. Some of them are interviews, focus groups, usability tests, A/B testing, concept testing, and many others. Each technique has its own methodology and serves to collect specific data about the solutions found.

At this stage, the white and red hats can be used again. The white hat for collecting solid and feasible data about the solutions, and the red hat to understand the user’s perspective during testing.

Having the data and user feedback, we can iterate and refine the solutions obtained. For this, we can redo the entire Design Thinking cycle, but this time seeking to improve the original idea. We are unlikely to reach a final solution by going through this cycle only once, so its cyclical nature helps us in the iteration and development of solutions and ideas.

Illustration of a sunset overlooking the sea

And so, our journey ends to begin again. The more we use these techniques and tools, the better we will become at applying them to the point that, eventually, some of these processes will become almost instinctive. With this methodology, we have a treasure map, and with it, we can find the magic that is missing to bring our ideas to life.

Leonardo Vieira

Leonardo Vieira

— Graphic designer

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