overcoming stuckness

when coming up with ideas, what happens if your best idea doesn’t feel strong or exciting enough? when stuck like this, designers usually lose time “thinking”, indulge in needless “brainstorming”, regularly jump to other ideas (and experience stuckness there again), and eventually use cheap tricks to try and embellish tepid concepts. (books on design methods1 do enrich a designer’s vocabulary2 and repertoire, but typically stop short from advising on ways to objectively hack fledgeling ideas.)

i function as a tutor with jignesh khakhar’s new media design programme (graduate studies) at the national institute of design in india ; and this is a collection of approaches/techniques i’ve employed to help students overcome stuckness during their problem-solving3 projects.

write, and rewrite (the project brief), phrasing it differently each time. (if used well, metaphors and—terse, poetic—concept-statements can be very powerful. small changes in a written statement can effectively jettison a project onto a different mode, medium or track.4)

work on your subject:

ideas are only starting points (i.e., “anchors” within our “areas of enquiry”) ; designers have to be given the courage\tools to wander (smartly, of-course).

play with time:

similarly, play with space (and context):

pay attention to users people:

make (to think); early and often:


sometimes, it helps to flip things over: thinking about how to make the problem worse (akin to reverse brainstorming), or adapting the idea for a completely different combination of time/space/people.

we use these methods (listed above) to open up new perspectives.

depending on the stage of the project, the proximity to a deadline, and the capacity of persons to handle things, i take “stances” when reviewing progress or giving feedback on a project. i may ask for things to be blown open with full optimism (“think freely!”), or be quite critical (“let’s narrow things down a bit, shall we?”), or encourage more practical thinking (“how will this get made?”)10; or even put on some other hat11. at the end of a session, though, i do ask, “so, what shall we do next?”, so that there’s a plan forward (to try and snuff the stuckness out).

as we move further along a project, it helps to keep these triads in mind:


  1. i’ve glanced at these two: vijay kumar’s “101 Design Methods” (2018), and the “Delft Design Guide” (BIS publishers, 2013)

  2. flashing words like “card sorting” and “heuristic analysis” helps designers sound intelligent during conversations. (up to a point.) 

  3. most projects (whether in university or the industry) tend to be a combination of three flavours: staging affective experiences, solving problems, and speculating on the future. and: designers experience stuckness at every stage of any flavour of project they work on. this is probably why the new-media-design programme at nid is structured so: three core modules/projects on solving, staging and speculating, accompanied by minor workshops/projects on ethnography (research), kinetics (making), and video-documentation (communication). 

  4. (my examples for this are from staging projects.) when trying to present data about war-time civilian deaths, i wrote two metaphors: “every life lost is a light going out from the world” (which led to a spatial experience), and, “a flowing stream of blood” (which led to an on-screen data-visualisation). 

  5. i like to dissect an experience into its composition and choreography. composition concerns itself with a space, objects within it, their arrangement/placement, and their attributes. the choreography comprises several events (including the entry and closure). for each event, we can play with parameters like duration, sequence, intensity, etc. (moreover: we remain mindful of the participant’s past experiences (memory) and cultural context while designing the composition and choreography for an experience.)  2 3

  6. in solving projects, we encounter the term “interaction” very often : “choreography” is a term used more often while staging experiences. however, i encourage people to think of their interaction designs as being part of a larger choreographed experience (whether for a product, service, or something else). 

  7. scamper techniques might be worth taking note of. in scamper, you take up parts of an idea (service, product, or whatever else), and apply methods like so to them: substitute, combine, adapt, modify/magnify/minify, put to another use, eliminate/elaborate, and, reverse. 

  8. [the way i see it] resolution involves details in an object’s appearance, placement, behaviour and interaction. fidelity involves closeness to the final material and form (and scale). an early prototype for a radio would likely be a oversized cardboard shoe-box or paper-sketch (low fidelity) with marker-pen drawings of only large buttons or shapes (low resolution).  2

  9. answers to such questions will (at best) massage or deflate your ego, and seldom be useful for objectively tweaking things for your next prototype. 

  10. while i tend to adopt a single stance (dreamer, realist or critic) during one feedback session, disney’s creative strategy applies all three stances, in a strict sequence, within a single feedback-session. whoosh! 

  11. perhaps similar to “de bono’s six thinking hats”. 

  12. “students are encouraged to recognise that they’re prototyping experiences : not merely prototyping artefacts.” so, when making a representation, they must think not only about an object or arrangement (spatially), but also think temporally (in terms of time) ; they’re engaging in scenography and choreography.