Practical UX Design

August 8, 2016

This is a sample chapter from the book Practical UX Design, by Scott Faranello, which was published by Packt Publishing Ltd. in April 2016. UXmatters is publishing this chapter with Scott Faranello’s permission. Copyright © 2016 Packt Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved.

Chapter 2: Creative UX

Practical UX Design CoverLet’s go a little deeper now and talk about another important area of focus for the practical UX practitioner: creativity. Developing a UX mindset is essential to better design work because it allows you to see things differently, which in turn will allow you to design differently, leading to more creative solutions on a consistent basis. Of course, we all want to be our most creative selves most of the time, but in the working world, we also have to deal with deadlines, meetings, office politics, and other distractions that can make creativity a major challenge and negatively affect your solutions and subsequent designs. The key, therefore, is to find a balance between creativity and decisiveness, two mindsets or modes that can often be at odds. By following some steps, inspired by someone who knows, you will be able to switch between these two modes more easily and more effectively.

In this chapter, we will look at:

  • The essential mindset for creativity
  • The six conditions needed for creativity
  • Applying creativity to UX design
Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

Essential Mindset for Creativity

”Telling people how to be creative is easy; it’s only being it that’s difficult.”—John Cleese

In 1991, comedian and actor John Cleese presented a talk on creativity, providing insight into the creative process along with a recipe for achieving it. Citing research and his own experience as an entertainer, Cleese humorously presented creativity in a very compelling and entertaining way, interspersing his talk with numerous jokes and anecdotes that kept the audience both engaged and thoroughly amused.

During his talk, Cleese emphasized that creativity is not a skill, but rather a “way of operating,” and a way of allowing ourselves to be aware and awake to opportunities in any setting and at any moment. Like the UX mindset, creativity is also a way of operating, allowing ideas and solutions to come forth that we might have otherwise missed or misunderstood. This can easily happen in a work setting where we are more often focused on messing up than being messy, which creativity often requires. To better explain this way of thinking [and] operating, Cleese described creativity, or lack thereof, as a pull between two modes of thought: open and closed. Each absolutely necessary, as long as we use them appropriately and at the right time.

Closed Mode

You are probably already familiar with closed mode. It is the mode we often find ourselves in at work when we’re thinking about the tasks at hand, the work still to be done, looming deadlines, and the need to get our work completed as quickly and as mistake-free as possible. Closed mode does not allow for creativity, because in the closed mode we have specific goals to accomplish. We have objectives and decisions to make, and we are very focused on the end result. That’s not to say creativity isn’t happening at some level in closed mode. It is in terms of the work we are doing and what we want the end result to look like, but we often spend far less time being creative and far more time getting to done.

As Cleese described it in his talk:

“[In closed mode,] we have inside us a feeling that there’s lots to be done, and we have to get on with it if we’re going to get through it all. It’s an active—probably slightly anxious—mode, although the anxiety can be exiting and pleasurable. It’s a mode, [in] which we’re probably a little impatient, if only with ourselves. It has a little tension in it, not much humor. It’s a mode in which we’re very purposeful, and it’s a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic, but not creative.”—John Cleese

Open Mode

Open mode, by contrast, is much more relaxed, expansive, and less purposeful. In open mode, we are free of deadlines and the stress that comes with finishing and deciding. In open mode, we are in a state of play and have a greater ability to see things from more angles and multiple perspectives. We are also open to anything new that comes our way. In open mode, ideas have less form and more abstract shapes. We are thinking more than doing, and we are more capable of imagining solutions more so than committing them to paper. In open mode, ideas and solutions can appear out of nowhere and when we least expect them. In open mode, we are not looking for answers.

We are simply available to receive whatever comes and to decipher that in a more relaxed way. You could say that the UX mindset is very much in the open mode because this is where we need to be for the best solutions to emanate.

“[In open mode,] we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor—which always accompanies a wider perspective—and consequently, more playful. It’s a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.”—John Cleese

Open and Closed Modes in Action

To give you an example of open and closed modes in action, here is a short story that explains it quite nicely. The year was 1943, and a naval mechanical engineer named Richard James was developing a tension spring that would be used to keep sensitive and delicate shipboard equipment steady, upright, and balanced during rough seas. One day, James accidentally knocked one of the tension springs to the floor. Upon falling, a curious thing happened, as the naval mechanical engineer later recollected.

The falling spring, he explained, “stepped in a series of arcs to a stack of books, to a tabletop, and to the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright.” James’ discovery would become the Slinky and would go on to become one of the most successful toys in history.—“Slinky,” from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

It could have also gone a very different way. Dropping a spring meant for shipboard equipment and seeing what would become a Slinky is a remarkable example of someone most definitely in the open mode, at the precise moment, when it mattered most. However, what would have happened if James had been in closed mode instead? Remember that Richard James was not a toy designer. He was an engineer focused on ship instruments and how to improve their stability in rough seas—not exactly something toy designers spend much time thinking about, at least to the best of my knowledge. Perhaps, rather than seeing an idea for a toy, James had been under pressure to get his work completed. Perhaps, a deadline was looming, and the project was behind or over budget, or a competitor was hard at work, racing to get their version to market first. In that case, dropping a tension spring could have been nothing more than an annoyance. Perhaps, James was feeling impatient and frustrated about a design that just wasn’t working as expected. Maybe he was feeling a bit distracted and thinking about other more pressing things that had to get done. Does this sound familiar? It is a state of mind many of us are in while we are attempting to solve hard problems.

It is also an example of the closed mode where we spend much of our brain time at work. In closed mode, James could have simply picked up the spring and continued working, never once stopping to think about what just occurred. How many times have you stopped to contemplate your choices or alternatives to the task at hand? How many opportunities have you missed as a result?

Now, let’s contrast this with open mode. In open mode, James is thinking very differently. In open mode, he is feeling open to anything, not encumbered by deadlines and feeling very present. Perhaps, he was so familiar with the work he was doing that he was able to let his mind wander. Perhaps, when the spring dropped, James was in
a frame of mind to notice something different, something other than the goal of his work. In closed mode, a tension spring is a tool. In open mode, it’s a toy!

Cleese used another story to describe closed and open modes with similar results:

“When Alexander Fleming had the thought that led to the discovery of penicillin, he must have been in the open mode. The previous day, he’d arranged a number of dishes so that culture would grow upon them. On the day in question, he glanced at the dishes, and he discovered that on one of them no culture had appeared. Now, if he’d been in the closed mode he would have been so focused upon his need for “dishes with cultures grown upon them” that when he saw that one dish was of
no use to him for that purpose he would quite simply have thrown it away. Thank goodness, he was in the open mode so he became curious about why the culture had not grown on this particular dish. And that curiosity, as the world knows, led him to…penicillin.”—John Cleese

To paraphrase Cleese, in the closed mode, an idea or an opportunity can be easily missed because it is irrelevant to what we expected to see. In the open mode, it’s a clue! The open mode is where we, as UX practitioners, want to spend most of our time. Open mode is where ideas are formed. It allows us to see the world in a different way. It is arguably where people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Paul MaCready, and Bucky Fuller lived a lot of their time in order to see solutions that nobody else could see. To put it another way, closed mode gave us “faster horses,” thinking while open mode gave us the assembly line, affordable automobiles, the iPhone, and the Slinky. Say what you will about these inventions and innovations, but it is hard to make a compelling argument that creativity comes from any other place except our willingness to be open to all ideas and solutions without fear and judgment. In open mode, nothing is out of bounds, and anything is possible, until closed mode brings us back down to earth.

Using Open and Closed Modes Together

If open mode is the creative mode, then what good is closed mode and how can we use both to deliver our best work? Cleese explained this very well:

“We need to be in the open mode when we’re pondering a problem, but once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness…. Once we’ve taken a decision we should narrow our focus while we’re implementing it, and then after it’s been carried out we should once again switch back to the open mode to review the feedback rising from our action, in order to decide whether the course that we have taken is successful, or whether we should continue with the next stage of our plan. Whether we should create an alternative plan to correct any error we perceive. And then back into the closed mode to implement that next stage, and so on.”—John Cleese

Switching between the two modes is something we already do naturally. However, it is not something we are often aware of. If we were, we would be able to switch between open and closed modes more easily. To be in such control would allow us tremendous freedom to engage our creative selves more readily. It would also allow us to carve out more time in the day specifically for it. The problem is that we need to remind ourselves to switch modes and sometimes force ourselves to; otherwise, we can become stuck in one for too long. The trick is to know when and how to switch and why to do so.

Stuck in a Mode

In a fast-paced work environment where many UX practitioners design, teams can easily find themselves challenged with problems, where speed to market, siloed team priorities, looming deadlines, and tight budgets [are] the highest [priorities]. This can bring about some significant challenges and problems that leave us stuck in one mode for too long. For example, consider this project scenario:

  • Setup: A development team is overseeing a suite of applications and is asked to include a member of the UX team in their next design meeting. This particular project requires an improved interface for an application that helps various clients analyze data related to customer usage and their online business health. The team informs UX that users have been complaining about the readability of the information presented on screen and also have been asking that content be better organized and more easily located. Another feature of the interface is a dashboard where users can see data in an aggregated format more quickly. The problem is that the dashboard graphics are not immediately understandable, and users are not sure what they are looking at or how to decipher the information presented. As a result, customers [or] users are spending a lot of time on the phone with customer support. The problem has gotten so bad that the development team and the product sponsor are considering removing the dashboard functionality altogether.
    • Next step: The UX designer listens carefully to the problems presented and schedules a follow-up meeting pending their review of the current application and requesting interviews with a variety of end users to uncover any non-obvious issues or unforeseen opportunities. Additional meetings are also scheduled with stakeholders to understand business goals, and to ask the hard questions as seen in Chapter 1, The User Experience Mindset to identify how to measure and prove our success. Meetings are also scheduled with the development team to understand some of the back end challenges and possible limitations to our potential design solution. The developers decline the meeting citing more pressing deadlines. The stakeholder requests a half-hour meeting instead of an hour. Frustrated and somewhat dispirited, the UX designer agrees in order to keep the project moving forward.
  • The Meeting: With only a half hour to discuss the issues, metrics and potential obstacles, there is little hope that all of that will get accomplished. The UX designer begins asking questions around key performance indicators (KPIs) and business goals, but nobody has the necessary data to provide answers. The meeting ends with little being accomplished. The UX designer is asked to just look at the requirements and design something that the development team can review and begin coding because, of course, this has to be rolled out in the very near future.
    • Next steps: With little time to think about the problems and their root causes and even less time to fully understand the business goals of the project, the UX designer retreats to their desk and spends the next two days sketching possible solutions as options for the team to consider. With deadlines looming, the UX designer wants to be as creative as possible. They schedule a meeting room to work in, away from distractions such as ringing phones, e-mails, and work requests from other colleagues. With time running out and worry setting in, the UX designer delivers what they feel is their best work given the time, but they really know it is average at best. They hope that the project team doesn’t notice.

Have you ever been in a situation like this? In reality, this is a very common scenario where UX is provided very little information, less data, and if we are lucky, minimal cooperation or time from the people we need to be most involved and engaged. In situations like this, it is easy to get stuck in closed mode rather than trying to be truly creative. There simply isn’t enough information or time to do anything else. You may think you are being creative with what you have and you may be.

However, in reality, our truly best work can only come when we are not in delivery mode. Open mode requires a relaxed environment where stress and the need to make quick decisions are avoided.

In closed mode, Cleese noted that we have no other choice but to “narrow our focus while we’re implementing it.” Only after the crisis has been averted can we even begin to be in open mode where we can “review the feedback rising from our action, in order to decide whether the course that we have taken is successful or whether we should continue with the next stage of our plan … or create an alternative plan to correct any error we perceive.”

Closed mode allows us to think on our feet in a very practical way in order to avoid any danger. When we are under pressure, we tend to narrow our options and maintain tunnel vision at the time when we should be taking a step back to contemplate the problem from a much wider view.

Consider those with whom you work. Does your manager seem to be in a constant state of panic, always reacting and putting out res? Not only are they stuck in closed mode, but they expect everyone around them to be too. Being stuck in open mode can be a problem too. Too much thinking and not enough doing, when everyone around you is in closed mode, risks the appearance of being disengaged and not displaying a sense of urgency needed to get things done. As much as you want to be highly creative, at some point, decisions have to be made.

Becoming unstuck in either mode requires certain conditions to be met, conditions that are necessary for closed and open modes to work together. It is important to note too that being in open mode does not guarantee creativity. It simply guarantees that if you create the proper conditions you would, at the very least, have created the best opportunity for your most creative self to flourish.

The Six Conditions for Creativity

What follows are six conditions necessary to obtain optimal creativity and getting to the open mode when you need it the most. As you will see, although they were not intended for a UX designer, they transfer nicely. Also note that, while Cleese introduced five conditions during his talk, a sixth one has been added—agreement—because in a work-oriented project setting, if you do not have an agreement about what the business and customer [or] user goals and objectives are, the other conditions are irrelevant. I will explain more about this in a moment.

The six conditions for optimal creativity and getting to open mode are as follows:

  1. Space: Finding the physical space to be creative
  2. Time: Putting aside time for creativity to occur
  3. Time: Allowing yourself enough time to be creative
  4. Confidence: Knowing when to switch between open and closed modes
  5. Humor: Allowing and embracing failure
  6. Agreement: Gaining an agreement that your approach is sound


If we search Google to look for images using the keyword creativity, it returns images of the brain, denoting internal and cerebral thoughts, deep contemplation, and concentration. There are also images of a single light bulb, depicting the moment when a brilliant idea occurs. Other images depict people with their eyes closed or just a multitude of brilliant colors. Replicating this experience in real life can mean finding a quiet place to reflect in order for deep thoughts to occur. It is also a place where we are most free to let out imaginations run wild. We even call them spaces.

Musicians have rehearsal space, painters have an art-studio space, chefs have spacious kitchens, and so on. What does a UX designer have? Where is our physical space where distractions are at a minimum and where we can be at our most creative? In a work environment, we often have to make our own. No matter, the requirements are the same:

  • No phones.
  • No email.
  • No computers, unless for presenting and taking notes.
  • No clock watching.
  • No judgment! We are not our ideas. We are simply allowing ideas to come to us and through us. Failure is encouraged, so long as we are trying!

These rules are very simple and you might be thinking this is obvious, but how often are you really allowing creativity?

“It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking…. It’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we‘re not so sure about.”—John Cleese

One other thing to ask yourself, how open are you and your team to working on a problem until it is truly solved, rather than feeling the urge to just get it done and move on? As we will see next, time is key. Now only making time to be creative, but also allowing for the time to do it. You may never have noticed, but the next time you are being creative and feeling like you are in open mode, think about how you feel when good ideas are not coming fast enough. Being in open mode can actually make you feel physically ill, forcing you to want to finish in order to feel better. Don’t be tricked. Time is a requirement.


Think about the last time you were in a creative open mindset. Did time seem to
fly by? Did hours seem like minutes? Juxtapose this with how it feels when you are rushing through a project with deadlines looming. Time goes by, too, but much more slowly. In closed mode, you are thinking a lot about time and perhaps even looking at the clock as you sweat it out to get finished. The result of this experience is often substandard work that can leave you feeling mildly depressed and thinking, if you only you had a little more time, how much better your work could have been. Of course, oftentimes, making time at work is a luxury. As Cleese pointed out:

“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time. You have to know that your space will last until exactly, say, 3:30, and that, at that moment, your normal life will start again.”—John Cleese

Just be sure to book time when deadlines aren’t looming. An hour in open mode is far better than none at all. Of course, booking time for creativity can be a challenge too. However, it is amazing how you can magically find time when doing something very enjoyable like creating, designing, and solving problems.


The next condition is also time, but rather than finding time to be creative, this time means taking your time to be creative. You may be wondering, how to do this? We’re all busy during the day! How long is this going to take? It’s a great question and the answer depends on you and the problems at hand. Some people need an hour, while others need a whole day or more. Sometimes, you can spend a week and nothing will come, while some days, you accidentally drop a tension spring and a Slinky appears. How long creativity takes is different for everyone. However, without making time on a regular basis and exercising your open-mode muscle, you can be sure that it will never come. To put it in the simplest terms, make enough time for “your mind to quiet down,” without distractions and without the need to suddenly switch back to closed mode.

If, in that time, nothing comes, don’t worry. There’s always next time, as long as you continue to make time for a next time. Also, if you are working with a team, it could be far more productive to break up creative sessions into multiple ones over multiple days rather than trying to cram creativity into a single marathon session. You may also find that leaving your ideas in the room and returning to them later—be it hours, days, or even weeks—can provide fresh insight and greater opportunity to move forward more productively when you return. The worst thing to do in these situations is to rush to conclusions just to get it over with. Don’t ruin the opportunity for great ideas to come simply because you want to move on.

“The people I find it hardest to be creative with are people who need all the time to project an image of themselves as decisive and who feel that to create this image they need to decide everything very quickly and with a great show of confidence. Well, this behavior I suggest sincerely, is the most effective way of strangling creativity at birth.”—John Cleese

Another tendency people have is to become impatient with others who are taking longer to get to a solution, creating a feeling of “internal agitation, tension, or an uncertainty that makes us just plain uncomfortable.” When this happens and to avoid this feeling, we quickly jump to conclusions and make decisions. If you see this happening to you or someone around you, stop! Don’t be a decider in the open mode. Instead, trust that a solution will come so long as you allow it to.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

To give you a better grasp of time and what could be needed for creativity, I will share a personal story of life in the open mode. I am a drummer and have been for most of my life. [In Figure 1], this is me, in a moment of creativity and pure joy.

Figure 1—Scott plays the drums
Scott plays the drums

Playing an instrument at a level where it can be done in the company of others and sound good is not only thoroughly satisfying and highly recommended, but it is also a major accomplishment that began years earlier. Going back to my earliest days as a drummer, I can remember blisters and callousness on my hands and fingers, hearing complaints by my parents about how loud the noise was, and being rejected many times at auditions, for one reason or another. Was it hurtful? Yes. Did it discourage me? Sometimes. Did I quit? Never! Why? Because the act of learning, practicing, playing and working through problems were small, compared to performing and seeing myself become a better musician as a result.

Playing an instrument may look easy, but it actually requires years of dedicated practice. A famous quote by Pablo Casals, one of the world’s greatest cellists, continued to practice his instrument into his 90’s. When asked why, he said: “Because I think I am making some progress.” Of course, getting to a mastery level can take a lifetime, and even then, there is no guarantee. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, wrote that “the magic number” to acquire greatness in anything is 10,000 hours. Now, to be clear, Gladwell was not suggesting that this number makes someone a champion or famous or even the best, for that matter.

The point Gladwell was making, as he stated in an interview, was that “natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”—from “Malcolm Gladwell Explains What Everyone Gets Wrong About His Famous ‘10,000-Hour Rule,’, June, 2014.

For musicians and athletes and UX designers, becoming highly proficient and highly creative takes time and often a good deal of discomfort. You will find, however, that the most creative people would not trade it for anything in the world, because once they arrive, any discomfort they may have experienced pales in comparison to the payoff.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”—Bruce Lee

By jumping to conclusions and making quick decisions, we are essentially trying to get around the “ten thousand-hour rule” and trying to get lucky, much the same way lottery players spend time scratching a card instead of focusing on a tangible goal that can have a much more rewarding payoff—perhaps not monetarily speaking, but in a more substantial and longer lasting way. This is precisely what we could accomplish for our customers [or] users if we truly take the time to design and deliver highly creative solutions that solve the right problems. Now, this is not to suggest that we need 10,000 hours to do it, but unless we are willing to put in at least enough time to experience some discomfort and then move beyond it, we will never truly know what possibilities exist on the other side.


“When you are in your space/time oasis, getting into the open mode, nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”—John Cleese

This next condition is an interesting one because with discomfort often comes the fear that no matter how hard we try, we still feel like we are failing. For example, many of us know that public speaking can be one of the scariest experiences. In fact, it usually rates higher than our fear of dying in terms of things we are most afraid of. In other words, we would rather die than get up in front of a room full of people and say something stupid, look silly, freeze or perhaps not even be able to utter a word. How horrifying! We also fear being judged. It is as if everyone is watching us from a safe distance and as a result they seem superior or smarter because they are not currently risking it all by getting up on stage. In these situations, we even feel that those watching actually want us to fail!

Interestingly, though, the exact opposite is true. Think about this the next time someone gets up to speak in front of you. Do you want them to fail? Chances are you want them to succeed because you want to be informed and not bored to tears with another PowerPoint presentation and told things you already know or don’t really care about. You want the person speaking to be knowledgeable, interesting, engaging and creative, because this is far more entertaining. If only the audience would convey this, perhaps public speaking would be something more people wanted to do.

Fear can stop creativity in its tracks. On the other hand, fear is also a great motivator that builds confidence when we realize there was nothing to be afraid of. Trying to be creative in a team setting can be fear inducing as well. Is your idea dumb? Will people ignore it or counter with something they feel is better? No matter. To be in the open mode requires fearlessness. Anyone who is judging or seeming impatient is a decider who should not be in the room at all or told to get out of the closed mode so we can actually find the right solution. Confidence is not being afraid of failing and then getting back up when you do. This is also the best time to fail because once you are out on that stage, it is too late.

In a study performed by a team of scientists at Johns Hopkins University, six jazz piano players were asked to improvise some music while hooked up to an MRI. The aim of the study was to understand how the brain works as we create. The study found that:

“The parts of the frontal lobe associated with judgment went quiet. This shows that while self-monitoring is often useful—you don’t want to say everything that passes through your mind—it can get in the way of new ideas.”—Drake Baer, [in] “Why Humor Makes You More Creative,”


Not surprisingly, creative people can turn off the part of the brain that passes judgment in order to allow more ideas to pass through. There is also a correlation between play—be it on an instrument, in a schoolyard, or on a project team—and creativity. In another study, participants, ranging from students to professional designers to improvisational comedians, were given a “cartoon caption-humor test.” The study found that the comedians “generated 20 percent more ideas than professional product designers … and the comedians generated ideas that were also rated 25 percent more creative.”—from “The Power of Humor in Ideation and Creativity,”

Consider the products, Web sites and mobile apps you have designed. Were they successful? How do you know? What criteria did you use to find out? More importantly, based on the level of success, how much fun did you have creating them? Once again, science shows a direct correlation:

“Research by Mark Beeman and John Kounios … found that participants who watched clips of Robin Williams doing standup experienced more epiphanies than participants who watched scary movies or boring videos. Moreover, a study published in 2010 by researchers at the University of Western Ontario found that participants who watched a video of a laughing baby and listened to Mozart were better at recognizing a pattern.”—from “How Your Mood Affects Your Creativity,”

Remember that creativity is serious business. The least you can do is enjoy it!


Now that you have met all the conditions for creativity to occur in the open mode, the final step is agreement:

  • Agreement from the entire project team to work together for as long as it takes to find the right solution
  • greement on a solution
  • Agreement from our stakeholders that we are focusing on the right metrics and measurements and agreement on how we will track our success
  • Agreement from our customers [or] users that we are focusing on the right problems and that our solution is to their satisfaction

If we do not have agreement in these areas, then anything we create or try to create will be insufficient at best. Creativity only works when we remove the silos and come together with a singular purpose to design solutions that are best for everyone involved.

Applying Creativity to UX Design

Now that we’ve looked at creativity and the conditions necessary to manifest it, let’s see how they hold up in real-world work environments where speed, efficiency, and decision making are the highest priority, sometimes higher than the concern for customer [or] user satisfaction. In other words, how do we create the open mode in an environment designed for closed-mode thinking most of the time?

To visualize this, [Figures 2 and 3 show] two images that come to mind with [regard] to closed and open modes. …

Figure 2—Closed mode
Closed mode
Figure 3—Open mode
Open mode

In [Figure 2], development teams are focused on efficiency, production, and deadlines more so than on customer [or] user needs. … [In Figure 3,] we see creativity personified, where the conditions for being in the open mode seem to come to life all at once. In this image there appears to be a playful, cohesive team in a dedicated space where play and improvisation abounds. There also appears to be total freedom to try, test, imagine, and innovate with, one would assume, plenty of confidence and little judgment.

Nevertheless, the reality is that despite the two extremes depicted in these images, both require the open and closed modes to co-exist—otherwise, in the first image, innovation cannot take place and, in the second image, nothing concrete and decisive will ever get done. It is a delicate balance between them and one that requires constant awareness and attention to make sure both can co-exist in order for the most mature teams to produce and deliver the highest-quality products.

The Space Between

If you find yourself in an environment where open- and closed-mode thinking are at odds to the detriment of your deliverables, here are some important points to remember:

  • Share your approach to problem solving with your team and walk them through the conditions, presented here, that are necessary for creativity to take place. Try this approach on a small scale at first then learn and build from there.
  • Learn as much as you can about what your team is working on and the problems they face before you get together to work through it. Do your homework and come prepared. Meet with stakeholders to understand their business goals and vision. Help them determine the best metrics for success. Being knowledgeable in their space will go a long way to building the trust necessary to allow the freedom for the open mode to exist.
  • Create a space for creativity, even if it is not a dedicated one. Book a room for 90 minutes and invite members of your project team to talk about the problems at hand. Be a facilitator and a leader in the space. Challenge your team to think outside of their comfort zone. When the pain and discomfort comes, help them through it and remind them that the feeling will pass. Don’t give in to it. Push on ahead!
  • Provide an agenda for the creative sessions prior to the meeting, if need be, and time box it. Then, follow up afterwards with the notes captured, recapping what was discussed, what was learned, progress made, and the next steps.
  • Create teams of like-minded people who understand what you are all trying to accomplish. Avoid deciders at all costs!

  • Replace negativity with positivity when interacting in the open-mode space. Use phrases such as “Yes!” “I like that, but…,” “Let’s imagine…,” “It might be fun to try…,” and so on.
  • Most importantly, have fun!


“Anything looked at closely becomes wonderful.”—A. R. Ammons

In this chapter, we looked at the essential mindset for creativity, the six conditions needed for creativity and applying creativity to UX design. Facilitating creativity in a work [or] team-oriented environment more often steeped in efficiency, production, and deadlines than on customer [or] user needs can be a real problem. Inspired by a talk on creativity by actor [and] comedian John Cleese, we looked at two modes of thinking, open and closed, and how to switch between them in order to be both creative and productive. We looked to at how getting stuck in either of these modes risks missed opportunities and less than superior results. Creativity and decision making is a balancing act that is important to understand and be aware of in our professional lives. Making time and space for creativity is key and can be easily accomplished by following the conditions introduced by Mr. Cleese, which transfer nicely to UX design. Finally, we looked at how to incorporate open- and closed-mode thinking into our everyday work experience and company culture and how to make space for serious decision making in a space conducive for UX to play within.

Creativity is a process through which our imagination can travel. It is where experimentation and ideas either succeed or fail, safely and without judgment.
It is also a place where teams unfamiliar with the open mode can be drawn in and where they too can stretch, think, and play, and ultimately agree on the best path forward. Make space, make time, be confident, gain agreement, but above all, enjoy the journey! 

Director of Digital Experience and Engagement at Save the Children US

West Hartford, Connecticut, USA

Scott FaranelloScott has been a dedicated, passionate UX professional for more than a decade, working with companies in very diverse organizational cultures and industries. His experience includes intensive customer-, user-, and business-focused research, conceptual wireframes, information architecture, usability testing, measuring the return on investment (ROI) of usability, and creating visual designs. He always endeavors to stay abreast of current UX technology trends. Scott is the author of Balsamiq Wireframes Quickstart Guide (2012) and Practical UX Design (2016).  Read More

Other Articles on Design Thinking

New on UXmatters