Use daydreaming to improve your design thinking

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Imagine a place where you could design without constraints, and try any idea. “In your dreams”, you’d say. And you’d be right.

The average person can spend 47% of their time thinking about things other than what they’re doing, according to a Harvard study. At the same time, it’s possible to guide the way you daydream towards positive outcomes.

So why not use this time to polish your design thinking skills?

Working in domains that you have little knowledge in

I am not a game designer, but I like games. I like them so much that I daydreamed a complete first iteration of a mobile game prototype (and wrote it down).

This includes not only character classes and interactions, but game mechanics, technical specifications, and how dungeons and the story would be designed.

I would never try to publish it, because I know next to nothing about the mobile game market or anything. It’s just a silly little daydream, but one I ran through my design thinking process.

What was important in this process was 2 things:

  1. Asking “How” for each step and not caring about feasibility.

Wildly divergent thinking

This is just my opinion, but in my experience I don’t think that people spend enough time doing divergent thinking. This is usually because of constraints (like time, money, branding, standards, etc.), but that’s the cool part about daydreaming: you’re free to go as wild as you want.

To go back to my gaming example, one of the characters I designed had the ability to ‘taunt’. It’s a game mechanic to get the enemies to focus on the character rather than weaker members of the party. I ran through several ideas in my head, and the one I settled on was that of a foul-mouthed heavyset guy. He was a holy knight but got kicked out of the order because he swore too much. He would learn monster languages just so that he would know how to swear at them. It would likely never pass in a project setting, but it works for me.

Want to design an app to turn all text into the style of e.e. cummings? Cool.

Just think about “How you would do that?”

It’s a creative process

The temptation with daydreaming is to think of the outcome, rather than the process: you might imagine what it’s like to have a million dollars, or be wildly successful. In addition, our brains may be biased against our own creativity, which doesn’t help.

But the process doesn’t have to be painful: instead, I like to think of it as a training montage. Just like with the divergent thinking, it doesn’t have to be based entirely in reality. 100 hours of crunch time and painful coding errors might just become a single scene before you get to success, leading you to think about what the next step would be and how it would be implemented.

It’ll also probably help your whiteboard design challenges

If the other reasons didn’t convince, maybe this one will. If you look at any tools for whiteboard design challenges, it’s structured around a similar experience: here’s a specific page for a specific app, designed for users and with a time limit. That’s great for a focused method of learning and making sure you’re able to address all of the relevant issues in a crunch.

Daydreaming, on the other hand, can be the diffuse version of the same approach. This is an opportunity to test out connections that you wouldn’t normally make, and see if you can come up with solutions to these problems that are out of the ordinary.

So the next time you find your mind wandering, try to give it a shot. Take whatever idea you’re thinking about, ask how at each step, and see where it leads.

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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