Fostering Creative Design Opportunities

The other day we discussed how a designer’s creativity often happens during their downtime… but we are always on. So what do we do?  Let’s look at a recent posting on The 99% which is a daily web magazine whose purpose is to interview emerging creative professionals known for their high level of productivity and share their tips with the world. I found an article by Scott McDowell—Developing Your Creative Practice: Tips from Brian Eno which provides some excellent takeaways which I would like to apply to my profession as an instructional designer. Perhaps you can too.

The quote below is from the music producer Brian Eno (U2, Talking Heads, Roxy Music) which comes from a book entitled Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Sound of Color. The quote discusses his “creative process.”

The point about working is not to produce [creative] stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can. –Brian Eno

I fully identify with this quote because often the work I do as an instructional designer does not allow for that creative spin. This could be due to various constraints placed on the design process which I have discussed previously in other postings:

I have heard from other designers say that they fall into a rut of “assembly line instructional design” where they just become glorified copy and paste-rs … which is not instructional design. When a designer falls into this rut, how can they be sure that they are ready for a creative opportunity? Maybe they are so numb to the right click + copy that they don’t even realize the instructional potential of the content in hand. I have even seen some designers in my career who are truly in that rut and are not willing to put forth the effort when a creative opportunity comes knocking.

The following is my application of Eno’s tips to the designing of instruction:

  • Freeform Capture
    As Eno puts it, “grab from a range of sources without editorializing.” In the initial phases of designing a new instruction, I recommend that the SME write down what they would say if they were standing in front of their learners. What would they say to introduce the course or day of training?  Often I find that instructors want to get into the main content without fully crystalizing where they truly want to go in a course. I am amazed when I am able to pull out main points that they reference in their introductions that they may end up forgetting when the main content is created. I have theories for why this happens, but that is for another post.
  • Blank State
    As Eno puts it, “start with new tools, from nothing, and toy around.” Often designers are asked to move instruction from one medium to another. For example, when moving face-to-face instruction to an online medium, there is a “transition” that needs to happen. The mediums for the instruction are different and therefore call for different methods. In initial meetings with an SME I suggest to discuss this transition process and encourage the SME to think outside of the box. What have they seen online? What would be cool to have in your course?
  • Deliberate Limitations
    As Eno puts it, “before a project begins, develop specific limitations.” Often designers find SMEs that want their instruction to have anything and everything about their topic. This begs the paradox of depth vs. breath but also the desire for an SME to have a clear picture of where their instruction fits in the big picture. Don’t you think they would have that? Not always. Often the times for a proper Needs Analysis is not afforded, but do your best to help them see where their course fits. Try to recommend that their course should be set apart and unique from the surrounding instruction.
  • Opposing Forces
    As Eno puts it, “sometimes it’s best to generate a forced collision of ideas.” During those initial design meetings it is often a good idea to play “devil’s advocate” with your SME so that they can fully refine their goals and objectives.
  • Creative Prompts
    As Eno puts it, “prompts are a method of generating specifics, which most creatives respond favorably to.” During those initial phases of design it is often a good idea to show the visual SMEs examples of other completed instruction that you have developed previously. These model examples can often help the SME springboard their ideas.

So, here is one final quote from Eno:

You should stay alert for the moment when a number of things are just ready to collide with one another… Nearly all the things I do that are not of any merit at all starting off as just being good fun. –Brian Eno


About DaveHallmon

With experience in web, graphic, and instructional design, Dave maintains a balance between what is efficient and effective in every message. He always focuses on the why and how rather than "just doing it" to get the job done. By day he works at a leading university designing online courses that support 9,000 students in 64 countries. He works directly with faculty to brainstorm, design, and develop their online instruction utilizing the Adobe suite. He also teaches for the university as an adjunct faculty member in the area of web design. By night he is a devoted husband, father, freelancer, and adventurer of the outdoors. His other interests include LifeHacker, Science Fiction and Hayao Miyazaki movies, Settlers of Catan, and coffee with friends. He currently lives in St. Louis and has an M.S. in Instructional Design and aspires to pursue a professional degree in content marketing and strategy. Visit the links below for more information about his interests and design work.
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