Sometimes, your first idea is not your best one. But you might fixate on it, especially if the idea has worked for you before. In academic terms, this phenomenon is called design fixation. In layman's terms, we might call it getting set in your ways, experiencing tunnel vision, regurgitating old ideas, or being blinded to alternatives.
As part of research published in the journal Design Studies, Nathan Crilly (who teaches engineering design at the University of Cambridge) anonymously asked 13 professional designers who work in U.K. consultancies how they deal with design fixation. These designers had an average of 21 years of experience in the field, and had plenty of ideas for getting around this common affliction. Their various approaches suggest that the tendency to get stuck on one idea, while prevalent among designers, isn't an unfixable trait.
First, here are a few things that make this fixation worse, according to these designers.
If solutions to the problem the designers were trying to tackle already existed in the market, they found it difficult to walk the line between researching these precedents and copying older old ideas. "You’ve got the advantage of seeing what people have already done so that you know that these are potentially robust solutions," one interviewee said. "But then you’ve got the risk that you actually may have cut off some other ideas you might have come up with."
"I think there quite often is a feeling that people have that they actually know the best combination of solutions pretty early on," an interviewee argued. "And most of their effort will be going to prove that that works, rather than exploring the full range of options."
Thorough exploration comes at a price. Designs that take a lot of research and iterations to perfect are more expensive than firing off the first prototype you come up with, whether that comes from billing the client for extra hours or incurring the cost of delaying the product's launch. As one designer describes it:
You think of an idea. A week later you think of a better way of doing it, so you scrap the original idea. You never get anywhere. It often takes you three or four times longer to [get to] market. And the cost involved in bringing that product to market at a later date can sometimes be horrific. I don’t think there is any product [of mine] where there wasn’t a better way of doing it.
At some design firms, mistakes are a welcome part of the process. When they're not, designers can be afraid to pitch out-of-the-box ideas. "If you’re allowed to make mistakes, you’ll be very creative, you’ll be prepared to take risks," as one designer puts it. "And if you don’t have that, if there’s fear there that you’re going to get blamed, you won’t take those risks, you won’t be creative, you won’t be innovative, or you’ll be limited, you’ll be self-limiting."
Sometimes, the clients just want what they want. It might be a concept they come up with or a sketch that the design team pitches in an early meeting. Either way, clients who fixate on a single idea place limitations on more-creative solutions.
"[Sometimes] the industrial designer shows something [to the client], and if they love that, then [the client says], 'That’s what we need, that’s what needs to be made.' And they’re driven by that emotional feeling that that sketch or that concept produced. Usually it’s because the guy that made that sketch or that concept is very good; he’s also verbally [good at] presenting it," a designer observes. "And whatever you put down later, it’s difficult to get them distracted from [that first idea]."
So how do you avoid getting stuck in the mud of bad first ideas?
An isolated designer only has her own perspective to draw upon, while working in a team can bring in more outside experience. "We do peer reviews, technical peer reviews where you bring in somebody who’s not related to the project to challenge you as a project leader," an interviewee explains. These outside observers can say, "'Oh, why have you done it like that?' Or: 'Show me your rationale for how you’ve done it.' They’re acting a bit like the client, really. . . . They capture anything or they could stop [the project] before it reaches the client."
Morphological charts, a design tool used to generate and organize potential solutions, were the preferred method of systematically reducing the effect of fixation. "[You] build a matrix that forces you to consider all of the various different options, forces you to fill out alternative approaches," one designer describes it. "So you had to break out of that particular column you may have got stuck in."
One designer who has experience managing other employees advised taking note of a particular designer's fixation on one solution, but not letting the conversation dwell on it. "Some people will fight for their idea almost aggressively, not aggressively but quite passionately. What you have to do is usually just give it a minute, sometimes you can actually just let them have their say and move on, and just carry on going and then come back to it, just a few minutes later even, and present an alternative," that designer says. "I think it lifts up the tunnel-vision thing." Others observed that experiencing tunnel vision in a previous project helps them combat that bias in the future.
Sometimes, you don't know how misguided your idea was until you see it in real life, and something just doesn't work, advises one interviewee: "Typically, in a brainstorm, people fire off the immediate ideas in their head. I can imagine they would be biased by things they have seen recently or whatever, but I think when you actually come to build things, then the physics of the world kicks in, and you can’t really cheat that stuff."
However, fixation wasn't always seen as a bad thing, Crilly writes:
Although a blind and unreflective adherence to a limited way of thinking was generally acknowledged as problematic, the designers also considered some aspects of fixation-related behavior to be essential to their work. This centered on recognizing an inherent contradiction: Designers must remain open to the possibility that their ideas are limited or misdirected whilst also being persistent in developing their nascent ideas in the face of negative feedback. This persistence is critical because new concepts always have problems, and some commitment to them is required unless they are to be prematurely abandoned for other concepts that will in turn prove to also have problems.
Your first few solutions may not be the best, but at some point, you do have to stop brainstorming and start building. Just don't be afraid to make a few things that suck, first.