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The charismatic trap of solutions and how to avoid it

Design Thinking

September 25, 2015

The charismatic trap of solutions and how to avoid it

We still start with pencil and paper for projects that have loads of complexity. Something special happens when we sketch stuff out. In our office, drawing very quickly takes over from text but the two are there, hand in hand. Patterns emerge in sketches, hidden traps are uncovered, conclusions are pushed away.

Rarely can we have a conversation about a job in our office without someone reaching for a blank sheet of paper and a pencil to make a picture of what they are trying to understand or to sketch out their suggestions.

But there is more to writing and drawing than just jotting down your thoughts. Writing notes while listening to an explanation causes the brain to record the information in two places, strenthening your ability to understand and recall. Repeated writing out of the same information or the same diagram over and over will create muscle memory that is useful in helping to recreate it on demand.

I used the muscle memory technique back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was studying chemistry at high school. Our tools were books, paper and pencils so I copied out diagrams of chemical compounds over and over and over and over until I could draw them without thinking about them. Muscle memory enabled me to bring forth the information I needed to answer exam questions. This is the same muscle memory used by dancers to store and recall their dance routines. This is the only time in my life I will compare myself to a dancer!

I have posted before about how drawing and fluid intelligence go hand in hand – and was reminded recently of the power of drawing while planning a new project. We have an app with a lot of complex content to develop. As designers we know that the more complex the content, the cleaner and more simple the navigation design needs to be.

But we also know that 'simple' is a magnet for a bunch of 'obvious' solutions which are usually peppered with traps. Because we wanted to avoid the seductive trap of the obvious solution we concentrated our efforts on planning.

The planning part of the app design saw us standing in front of the biggest white board we could get, each of us with different coloured markers arguing about how to proceed. Once we reached agreement, out came pencils and paper to sketch out the path through the content. And then the trap revealed itself. Once the content and navigation was drawn out, in pencil, on a long stretch of paper, we could see the problem. No amount of talking would have revealed it.

What we ended up with was a new process for tackling these sorts of projects as well as the outcome of finding the traps in that particular job. The trigger for digging a bit deeper was twofold: mistrust of the obvious solution and a colleague who didn't think there was any value in sketching out the content and navigation.

Experience has taught me that we have to trust our gut instinct. More interestingly for me though, was the colleague who didn't think there was any value in sketching out the whole picture. When creative people and visual thinkers don't want to make a picture it is usually because they have a solution in mind and have become problem blind. Solutions are very charismatic but they a like conclusions: best not jumped to.