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Microsoft’s Albert Shum on unlocking creativity

Today’s world of creative work is a paradox. As designers, we have more tools and intelligence at our hands than ever, yet we feel increasingly bogged down, unfocused, and stifled. We’re distracted and disrupted. Technology is evolving and placing new expectations on the role of designer, seemingly at the cost of creativity.

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

Innovation has become synonymous with removing complexity – complexity of scaling experiences, complexity of the way we create. Gone is the flash of creative genius from the lone visionary. Now we work together as a collective of diverse disciplines to iterate, experiment, learn, repeat. That means designers are no longer just designers – they’re problem solvers for complex systems. Visual design embodies experiential design; the ability to understand user journeys and create compelling moments across a range of experiences. The work has intensified. The designer is a critical partner for success. In this evolution, even though it’s a positive one, designers can feel burnt out. Something about our creative nature may feel lost.

In this paradox, it can take a lot of energy for designers to bring creativity to their everyday work. So how do we get that spark back? How do we reach creative insight? Here are a few ways to rethink your day-to-day and unlock your creativity.

Create in the morning.

The world is quiet, the emails haven’t started rolling in yet, the coffee tastes better. Even if you spend 20 minutes in the early hours sketching, writing, doodling – you’ll feel ahead of the game and your brain will relax and make way for creative breakthroughs.

Leave open spaces.

You don’t owe the world all of your time. Block an hour or two every day to let your mind wander through your work, because giving yourself space for a design problem helps you roam through all the possible solutions.

Talk to people.

Sharing your ideas with people gives you more connections, more feedback, more creative input. Go on a walk. Get a coffee. Be in the open. Make human connections that challenge your way of thinking, and welcome divergent conversations.

Frame things positively.

It’s human nature to complain, to vent, to blame others or lash out. The next time your blood is boiling about whatever-just-happened, take a breath and come at it from the other side. What’s the silver lining? Your creative brain craves light. Don’t hide in the dark.

Find happy distractions.

It’s okay to walk away from your desk and go talk to a friend, make a cup of tea, flip through a magazine, finger paint, climb a tree; anything that makes you happy and takes you away from the problem at hand. By leaving it alone, you’re actually working it out at a subconscious level. Creativity lives everywhere.

Make something.

Particularly for digital designers, it’s hard to feel like you’re creating something tangible. Find your inner maker and get messy. Kinesthetic learning – getting away from the screen and building with raw materials – gets you thinking in new ways and frees your creativity.

Get uncomfortable.

Inspiration doesn’t come easily within routines. Shake things up and find new ways to observe the world around you. If you can’t travel, do something new in your city. Join a Meetup group, learn a language, start writing, volunteer with an organization that interests you. Throwing yourself into the unknown is the best way to get perspective.


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These are things I’ve learned from my own experience as a designer and design lead; I’d love to learn what works for you. I’ve found that design, and being a designer, is all about seeking out the things that make us human – our curiosity, our tics, our peculiarities and differences – and turning those into inspiration and breakthroughs. Creating for everyone, not just ourselves, by getting out into the world and making connections and discoveries.

This post was written by our partners over at Microsoft Design. Find Albert Shum on Twitter, Medium and LinkedIn. And while you’re at it check out Microsoft on Dribbble too!

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