By Levi van Veluw

By Levi van Veluw

Sometimes your very first idea is the one. The first business name that sprung serendipitously to mind, the first illustration presented to a new client, the first object prototype, or the first concept for a new online course are often framed as sparks of genius. More often though, first is worst. Creative projects, no matter the medium, most often require iteration, development, research, and evolution.

In the effort to ship fast, we often experience tunnel vision surrounding our first solid idea. Academics call that “design fixation.” We experience a creative sparkle with our first idea and so, subconsciously or not, get mired in proving it works rather than exploring alternatives. Sometimes the fixation is fueled by a mental bias towards our first concept, but it can also be exacerbated by an inside-the-box culture (risks = bad) or a limitation on resources (first idea = cheaper and faster). Regardless, it can be difficult to tell whether or not that first idea is a keeper, which is dangerous. In theory, becoming fixated on your first idea would be fine if it turned out to be a one-in-a-million revelation, but much of the time first passes are just the start of a contemplative creative process.

Luckily, there are ways to overcome the fixation and remove the first idea blinders. In an analysis of a study of how 13 U.K. designers deal with design fixation, FastCoDesign shares a few suggestions for how to overcome the mental block of the bad first idea:

PEER REVIEW: An isolated designer only has her own perspective to draw upon, while working in a team can bring in more outside experience. “We do… technical peer reviews where you bring in somebody who’s not related to the project to challenge you as a project leader,” an interviewee explains. These outside observers can say, “‘Oh, why have you done it like that?’ Or: ‘Show me your rationale for how you’ve done it.'”

USE MORPHOLOGICAL CHARTS: Morphological charts, a design tool used to generate and organize potential solutions, were the preferred method of systematically reducing the effect of fixation. “[You] build a matrix that forces you to consider all of the various different options, forces you to fill out alternative approaches,” one designer describes it.

MAKE A MODEL: Sometimes, you don’t know how misguided your idea was until you see it in real life, and something just doesn’t work, advises one interviewee: “Typically, in a brainstorm, people fire off the immediate ideas in their head. I can imagine they would be biased by things they have seen recently or whatever, but I think when you actually come to build things, then the physics of the world kicks in, and you can’t really cheat that stuff.”

These tactics are great safeguards for ensuring you don’t get stuck regurgitating old ideas or being blind to creative alternatives. The ironic beauty of these approaches is that they may actually turn out not to elucidate key iterations, but rather to solidify a first idea, strengthening the sense that the initial concept was indeed the best bet. You’ll never know until you embark on the process.

The early bird often gets the worm; but slow and steady wins the race.


  • Soramimi

    Reminds me of the quote from Émile-Auguste Chartier related in Do More Great Work: Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it’s the only one you’ve got.

  • Adam Thomas

    Wow. I really like the idea of bringing someone from the outside to a project.

    The key there is to foster a place where they are empowered.

    When it is done right,It would force the more technical people to explain. That slows them down a bit, but documentation is easier, translation is easier, and all the things that surround the project become easier. It also will let people know of the gaps they didn’t know they had through the “obvious” trap



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