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Fixation vs Inspiration: How do examples affect our ideation process?

Breaking down research papers: What is Idea Fixation

· Ideation

As creators, our creative flow is often limited by various factors — one of which includes idea fixation.

Like artists, and designers alike, most of us have developed a certain style and approach on how we display our ideas or solutions:

art styles

Potato Pirates art style (left) & Rolljak art style (right)

While this allows for us to be distinguished by our craft, it can perhaps narrow down our exploration into different styles and approaches in design, putting a break at our creative growth. Having a strict approach in design might lead to idea fixation.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down the highlights of a research journal: Design Fixation From Initial Examples: Provided Versus Self-Generated Ideas by Keelin Leahy, Shanna R. Daly, Seda McKilligan & Colleen M. Seifert. You can refer to the complete journal here.

Key Points:

  •  In the study, 185 engineering students were proposed with design problems in which they are meant to individually sketch out their ideas and solutions.
  • There were two different design problems: 1) No-spill cup problem 2)Bike Rack Problem, students were split into two groups and had to do either one of the problems.
  • For each design problem group, half was provided with an example concept sketches, while the other half was not.
  • The study was done in two phases: one being an independent ideation session(with the above conditions), while the second round was done with the addition of Design Heuristics.

The 77 design heuristics card titles used in the second ideation phase

What is Idea Fixation?
design fixation from initial examples

As shown in the infographic, fixation to ideas occurs with and without the provision of examples. Below is an extract from the research journal that sums up the results of the studies:

“Seeing a provided example solution led to less fixation than observed when students generated their own initial example. The students who self-generated examples produced more concepts than those provided with an example; however, more of the self-generated concepts were similar to the initial example, an index of greater fixation. Those provided with an example along with the problem were actually less fixated on it compared with the fixation observed in the control group. This pattern of results was robust, observed across two idea generation methods (individual brainstorming and design heuristics) and two problem contexts (no-spill cup and bike rack problems).”

Pros & Cons of Idea Fixation
The main problem with idea fixation is that it can inhibit creativity and further exploration of ideas that can potentially be better than the ones we’re fixated to. As we become fixated to our initial ideas or concepts, we tend to create a false sense of limitations. We view this initial concept as the foundation to develop more ideas, isolating our ideation process from the prompt itself; instead of our solution being based on the prompt or problem, it may end up being based on the idea we are fixated on. Providing examples not only creates this negative fixation but may also increase the perceived value of example solutions, especially for students. As students tend to be inexperienced in generating ideas and concepts, they may look at examples as the best solution, even when it may be the most generic and straightforward one.

However, fixation may not always be negative for creativity. The provision of examples may inspire new ideas that would’ve been unlikely to emerge independently. Additionally, as creators narrow their approaches (as seen in fixation), they are immersed in a deeper search and exploration in a niche direction, allowing them to have higher quality developments. For example, an interior designer who focuses on a Scandinavian style will be more aware of providing minimalistic and functional features within their designs — they are experts of it and will be able to be more efficient in curating new designs.

Solving Idea Fixation

1. Constantly Ideate To Expand Your Repertoire Of Design Ideas

Especially for students and novices, fixation to examples tend to occur due to our lack of exposure to a wide range of design ideas — simply put, we’re inexperienced. Like the saying goes ‘practice makes perfect’, and the most straightforward solution to this is to engage in constant ideation. As we do this, we’ll gain experience and expand our repertoire of ideas, reducing the likelihood of fixation to examples.

A way to do this can be through simple design challenges — ranging from monthly-long challenges such as Inktober, or challenges that are induced from given prompts.

potato pirates inktober 2019

Potato Pirates in Inktober

You can visit our Instagram for new design & ideation challenges every week!

2. Setting Explicit Goals During Brainstorming

The biggest mistake with unguided brainstorming is the absolute freedom that nobody takes advantage of. Brainstorming sessions should be the broad exploration of different possible ideas, yet during the brainstorming phase, most of us are already focused and fixated on a certain direction. A way to combat this would be to set out a target quantity to force us to explore numerous ideas.

Group-based ideation may also allow for the exploration in various directions as everyone may have different approaches. Discussing these approaches may lead to a wider variety of unique ideas. A method that might be useful in group ideation is C-sketch: this involves drawing an idea and passing it on to the next person for them to further add on to it. Here’s an article describing it in further detail.

3. Using Examples Only Mid-way Through Brainstorming

concept sketches

Examples of concepts sketches used in the study

While the use of examples before ideation has been shown to increase the rate of fixation, there’s still an importance in it. As creators tend to experience a creative block mid-way the design process, using examples during these times have been deemed to be more effective. Creators can draw inspiration from example ideas after they have already ideated independently — inspiration can be used for concept development, not as the basis of it.

4. Using Ideation Tools

As mentioned in the infographic, the research journal has proven that design heuristics (a form of ideation tool) has been proven to decrease the rate of idea fixation from 72% to 28%.

design heuristic cards

Example of Design Heuristic Cards

Our platform, Rolljak, was designed to be a gamified rapid ideation platform — one that can act as a creativity tool to reduce idea fixation. With the various game modes and prompts, our platform engages our users to delve in constant ideation and guides them throughout the design thinking process. You can try out Rolljak for free here!

rolljak - gamified rapid ideation and brainstorming platform
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