Unlock Your Childlike Ability to Design With Confidence

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

“It looks like a Fisher-Price toy” said the company owner, looking at a design I had just created. It hurt (but it’s ok because I would later learn he was the most disrespectful boss I’ve ever had). I wasn’t deliberately thinking like a child but it turns out it’s a beneficial way to think in order to be more creative.

Playful curiosity tends to get lost when we grow up, which can be an incredibly useful mindset for creativity. The most creative time of many people’s lives is when they’re a child. Countless number of terrible paintings and drawings are brought home from school and hung up on their parents’ fridge but children don’t care. They had fun creating them and their parents shower them with praise and love no matter how bad their creations are.

Our creativity is encouraged when we’re little, yet when we get older, the same parents want us to have “safe” jobs and do sensible things, actively discouraging us from being creative and original. This innate creativity departs as we grow up and we have to start treating it as a muscle that weakens if we don’t exercise it.

The Child’s Mind

Ramit Sethi shared a video of himself bowling a perfect shot but also let us in on the world of failing by showing one of him falling flat on the floor, to illustrate what he calls the “child’s mind”:

“Just like my bowling video, nobody likes to share their failures. We all live perfectly successful lives…on the surface. But inside, they eat at us. And over time, we get so burned by failing that we decide to give up the “child’s mind” where we used to try all kinds of new things. Now it’s just easier to not try anything new at all. Learn a new language? No, that’s too hard. Try that new workout? Ugh, what’ll happen if I’m the worst in the class?”

The fear of failing is an insurmountable hurdle for some, preventing them from trying anything or really pushing themselves to be better. Children don’t have this fear of failure.

The Lizard Brain

Seth Godin calls this fear, “the lizard brain”:

“When someone shows up and acts without contradiction, we’re amazed. When an athlete just does the sport, or when a writer just writes the words, we can’t help but watch, astonished at the purity of their actions. Why is it so difficult to do what we say we’re going to do?

“The lizard brain.”

“The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive.”

Although he doesn’t link it to childlike play, the principle is the same because children don’t have any fears when creating, they just create. The lizard brain develops as we get older and returning to the creativity of our child years will help silence it.

Failure is a Part of Success

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

– Michael Jordan

Valuable words from the most successful player in the history of basketball. Michael Jordan is so successful, he’s even a household name amongst people with no interest in basketball whatsoever, myself included.

If you don’t try, you won’t fail but you also won’t be great. No-one wants mediocrity. Everyone remembers Jordan for his achievements but his failures are rarely discussed, yet they are an important part in his story of greatness.

This is similar to the technique I teach on experimenting. You can’t possibly create something great every single time you sit down to design, so you’re going to have to try multiple approaches for almost every project. Tapping into the child’s mind will make experimenting much natural.

Childlike Play Activates Our Unconscious

Legendary creative comedian John Cleese spoke of a study of architects, carried out by a psychology professor at Sussex University:

“He did a very simple test. He asked various architects to name who, in their opinion, were the most creative architects in the field. He then asked those creative architects to tell him what they do from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. He then went to the uncreative architects—without perhaps explaining that’s why he was talking to them—and asked them the same thing. Then he compared the two. He discovered two differences, and neither was to do with intelligence.

“The first thing he discovered is that the creative architects knew how to play. They could get immersed in a problem. It was almost childlike, like when a child gets utterly absorbed in a problem. The second thing was that they deferred making decisions as long as they could. This is surprising.

“If you have a decision to make, what is the single most important question to ask yourself? I believe it’s ‘when does this decision have to be made’? When most of us have a problem that’s a little bit unresolved, we’re a little bit uncomfortable. We want to resolve it. The creative architects had this tolerance for this discomfort we all feel when we leave things unresolved.

“Why would those two things be of importance? The playfulness is because in that moment of childlike play, you’re much more in touch with your unconscious. The second is that when you defer decisions as long as possible, it’s giving your unconscious the maximum amount of time to come up with something.”

Truly fascinating thoughts about how creativity and our unconscious work together which makes total sense to me. This is exactly what makes the overnight design test work so well for myself and other designers.

The overnight design test requires you to step away from your work for a period of time (optimally overnight, as the name suggests but shorter times work too), for you to come back and view your creation with fresher eyes, allowing you to conduct clearer judgement on the quality of your design.

When you’re fully immersed in your design work, the confinement can cloud your vision, but when you step away from your work, you allow your unconscious to assess the quality. Often, when you return, you are able to evaluate a design’s effectiveness within minutes or even seconds. This is your unconscious at work.

Think Like a Child to be More Creative

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

– Pablo Picasso

When North Dakota State University psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson conducted a study on the affect thinking like a child can have on creativity, they concluded it “facilitated creative originality”.

Two groups of undergraduates were asked the same questions, with one difference. The “control” group was asked:

“School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?”

The second group, or the “experimental condition”, was asked the following:

You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?”

As you can see, the only difference between the two is the “You are 7 years old” added prior to the questions of the second group. This is known as priming and it is being used in this study to see if it has an effect on the way people behave.

It certainly does change the way they behave, for the better in terms of creativity:

“Participants in the control (adult) condition often wrote about sleeping extra hours and catching up on homework or studying. The written responses from the experimental condition were very different. They typically focused on desires rather than obligations and often involved playing with friends or seeking rewards from the environment (e.g., candy). Thus, the manipulation appeared highly successful in encouraging spontaneous and playful thinking in the childlike mindset condition.”

You Are 7 Years Old

When you are struggling with creative block, pretend you are 7 years old, or at least have that “child’s mind”, so you can free yourself of the worries of adult life and be more creative than ever before.

Boost Your Design Confidence by Overcoming Creative Block

One of the things I've been quietly working on lately is helping people get past the struggle of creative block. I'm not quite ready yet but you'll be the first to get free updates on how you too can overcome creative block, so you can have the confidence to come up with great ideas and do your best work.

Free. No spam. Unsubscribe any time.

by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with over 7 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.