Before the pandemic, most creative projects at Dropbox and other companies followed the same pattern. A kickoff was usually followed by a team meeting and then a brainstorming session in a smaller group. Then everyone went back to their desks/cubicles to be creative. Conversations occurred between people sitting near each other. There was a certain chemistry about the proximity that sparked more ideas, and anyone working remotely felt somewhat excluded.
Under the company’s Virtual First policy, so many Dropboxers (and designers in general) have been working from home for over two years. The kitchen table is now my cubicle/studio. My wife will go back to her office full-time and my kids will return to school, but this will be my solitary creative setup for the next few years—maybe the rest of my design career. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably in a similar situation. Interactions with coworkers now come mostly via Zoom meetings. Everything seems focused on tasks rather than on creativity and communication. For coping with all of this, the following post will look at how to stay creative and find inspiration while being physically remote.
Do a solo deep dive
Brainstorming used to be gathering everyone together in a room to come up with ideas. Now it’s believed that this tends to build consensus rather than generate unique ideas.* Instead, everyone should be doing a solo deep dive before coming together as a group. And it’s probably just as well, since we’re all working remotely for the foreseeable future.
Besides more-linear thinking, you can add other things to the mental stew already simmering in your head. This may be a no-brainer, but conduct research on what other people have done to solve similar problems. Specifically, check out your competitors. This is not to suggest copying them; rather, it should jump-start your own creative process by firing up your synapses. I usually look up similar topics or keywords on Pinterest and Google Images. Both have great suggestion algorithms, so you can quickly find a lot of different nodes of inspiration. For designers, there are sites like Dribbble, Behance, and LogoLounge.
The solution is in the problem
Designers and writers tend to fear a blank page. One thing I’ve found helpful throughout my design career is to embrace narrow creative briefs. When the parameters are more clearly defined, it’s easier to come up with a better fitting solution to the problem. Think of finding that round peg to fit the round hole.
To make things easier start by reducing your task down into the what, who, and how of the problem will make it less daunting and provide sources of inspiration. For the “what” part, write up the specific intent of the project in one sentence. Keep it as simple and short as possible. “Create a moment of delight.” “Add fun to the onboarding process.” “Make the ad more clickable.” This will remove a lot of details that get in the way of seeing a problem clearly. There’s plenty of time to consider those details later. If it seems simple that’s because it is.
Ask yourself questions
Next is the “who” part. You may have been given a body of research, user journeys, and customer profiles that discuss the intended audience. However nothing beats actually using the product or process yourself in order to get a visceral sense of who it is intended for. Set up your own account in the product or buy/borrow it from someone if it’s a physical object. Note what’s going through your mind at each stage of using it. Is something frustrating? Is it simpler than you thought? Explore it while imagining yourself as the typical end user. Would they be as patient with it? Play with different ways of looking at or using it. Jot down the unexpected thoughts that come to you. Where can you add value? Ask somebody else to do the same thing. Did they have thoughts similar to yours?
The “how” part is where you begin solving the problem you just uncovered. By now you have the main purpose of the project clearly articulated. You also know the mindset of the intended audience. Now you need to figure out how to motivate the end user to act in a certain way. Do you need to be heavy-handed, or lure them in with fun or mystery? Maybe by developing separate concepts that do both, and a third could emerge that solves the problem better.
All of these steps help prime your mind before you begin any conceptual work.
Micro-sketching for more concepts
By this stage, you’ve defined the problem clearly in your head and built up a lot of mental material. Next comes the hard part of actually creating solutions. I sketch out many solutions with a pencil and a single sheet of paper. This process helps me make bigger creative jumps quickly without getting bogged down in details. Use whatever method works for you. The key is to let the ideas flow. There’ll be plenty of time later for details.
I save all of my old sketches and sometimes review them later for ideas for other projects. Your archive might include sketches, digital files, or Pinterest boards. These may not have been right for a previous problem, but with some quick mental reframing they might solve the current problem. You shouldn’t feel bad about not coming up with an entirely new solution every time you’re concepting. Remember: The key is to solve the user’s problem, not prove how uniquely creative you are.
Talk it through with somebody
Apart from scheduled Zoom meetings, there just aren’t as many accidental or less-formal interactions now as there were in a physical/office space. Proximity with coworkers used to create more chemistry and, hence, more generation of fresh ideas. We try to use Zoom for replicating this process, but often it makes us task-focused rather than creativity-focused.
Find time to talk through creative projects or problems with a friend, even if it’s just a casual mention during a relaxed conversation. The friend can work at the same company, or not. Since they aren’t tied to the outcome as you are, it might free up their thinking and provide more insight into the problem. Just as with therapy, a problem shared is a problem halved. Maybe schedule a time and date to show your ideas to the friend, putting a little pressure on yourself to come up with ideas in a timely fashion.
Even if you think you’ve finished, it’s actually time now to put your subconscious to work. Take a shower or do some other activity totally unrelated to work. This is commonly known as the “shower effect.” It tricks the subconscious into bubbling up ideas that can’t be reached by knocking on the mind’s front door. This process has become so well-known that there’s an episode of 30 Rock devoted to it (The Shower Principle). Check out this blog post to learn more.
You can just as easily do something else besides shower, such as cooking, playing guitar, working on a craft, or exercising. For one designer I used to work with, it was going to the bathroom. Yep, he always had his best ideas in there. Sleep can do it, too, but the problem is that you might have a brilliant idea at 3:00 am and then forget it as you drift back to sleep. At least you’ll be fully conscious in the shower.
For your process, try different ways of looking at a problem in order to be more creative. I’ve condensed all of this into five simple steps that work for me:
• Do a solo deep dive
• Look for the solution in the problem
• Talk it through with somebody
• Micro-sketch to help form something tangible
• Make time for the shower effect
This process can also be used to counter the effects of creative freezing—the design equivalent of writer’s block. It often occurs when designers have too much work piling up. Consider using this process to deal with tight deadlines, role burnout, long hours, overly high expectations, or simply spending too long on the same product/brand. Hopefully it will unblock you, but if the results aren’t immediate, have fun and take a shower. You might be surprised what comes to mind.
*Stroebe W, Diehl M, and Abakoumkin G. The illusion of group effectivity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 1992;18(5):643–650.
Rick Byrne creates brand narratives for the tech industry. He loves to design logos, often for non profits or unfunded start-ups, boiling down complexity into quintessential forms.
Mia Lagos is a designer, illustrator, and partner at Cocomilk Studio—a design studio in Manila, Philippines. Her vibrant and whimsical artwork explores themes of nostalgia, nature & fantasy.