Get out of a creative rut with this simple technique.
With any creative work, it’s important to shake up your process now and then. When we initially start work on a project, we do a lot of white-boarding, sketching, etc. as generative exercises. But as time goes by and the work becomes more defined, we often find ourselves doing more pixel-pushing alone in front of a screen. To get out of our own heads and stay innovative, as well as to attack more specific design problems, we’ve adopted a 4-step process we call “Design Teardowns.”
When to use this
After the early definition work, once initial concepts have been created and you are trying to refine or redesign a specific screen or workflow.
Step 1: Frame the Challenge (~5-10 mins)
Using “How might we…”? language, we craft a set of questions that frame what this particular screen or experience is trying to accomplish.
Then we state any goals, constraints, and/or relevant design principles for the situation. Depending on the project, these can be either high-level or very tactical.
Step 2: Design Teardown (~15–20 minutes, plus prep time)
We go to sites that showcase design work* (dribbble, pttrns.com, ui-patterns, etc.) and pull off examples of inspirational designs that address similar challenges. We print out ~5–8 good examples, grab some pencils, and audit them — what works? what doesn’t?
It’s always easier to be a critic than a creator. Using polished pieces from other designers is a easy way to talk over successful and unsuccessful approaches, “warm up” our design brains, and occasionally to give in to our inner Gordon Ramsey without hurting any feelings.
*Ideally, it’s best to pull and print these examples the day before the teardown session so that the team doesn’t lose momentum.
Step 3: Generate Concepts (~30–60 mins)
We’ll narrow down to the 1–2 exemplars that we think are best and make some sketches for how we might adapt our designs to accommodate new ideas.
Sketches in hand, we’ll go to our computers and each mock up one or two concepts in higher fidelity. We always try to take divergent approaches, as this is an opportunity to dig in and take some creative risks.
Step 4: Convergence (~15-20 mins)
This is a repeat of Step 2, but instead of using “inspirational” examples pulled from the internet, we do it with our own concepts. With a shared understanding built on the framing and teardown exercises, we can usually identify the strengths and weaknesses of each concept and converge rapidly on the best design. Having done the work under a time limit, it’s easier to have critical conversations about direction and execution.
Then, marked-up concepts in hand, one of us takes it up to production-fidelity and integrates it with the rest of the project.
What we’ve seen since adopting this process
Our visual aesthetic has improved (thanks, folks on dribbble!). Our ability to articulate design critiques has improved. Our ability to hear and respond to critique has improved. And most importantly, our design work has improved.
If you’re on a team with multiple designers and you are looking for a way to keep up your professional practice, improve your collaboration/communication, and cycle quickly through a lot of concepts, I highly recommend setting aside two hours and trying this practice out at least once a week. Let me know how it works for you!
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