4 min read

Explaining the creative rollercoaster

Image of a rollercoaster

Talking about design work in a story point world

This week our design team started designing a new case working interface for civil servants. Proper alpha work. We also have usability testing in a week so we have a tight deadline that we have to hit.

For those that aren’t familiar with the the GOV.UK design system, patterns for when people do things occasionally (for example, services used by the general public) are now generally stable after years of research and iteration. However, patterns for people doing actions repeatedly (for example, when they’re a civil servant and it’s their job to make decisions on cases) are still in a more exploratory phase.

As our service is for people making decisions on cases and then authorising payments, our work was part of the second, exploratory category. So, our team did a process that may be familiar to designers:

Day 1: defined the scope, did research on our own regularly sharing as we went

Day 2: continued until we decided we’d hit saturation, discussed things we wanted to continue with, then played with ideas independently

Day 3: shared our progress, discussed gaps and tensions, agreed on principles, and figured out how we could divide tasks to individually focus on key details

While this process is familiar to many in the creative fields, explaining it to others is harder. How can we explain that we don’t know what we’re going to get but we need a couple of days and will then get there?

There are some common design method models such as the Design Council’s Double Diamond model and the IDEO stages of design. However, my issue with these models is that they are too high level and give the appearance of being linear.

Then I remembered a model I’d seen years ago at design school. In 2001, design consultant Nick Udall had taken a model on creativity from psychologist Jacob Getzels.

Figure 1: Getzel's five stage model of creativity. Link going left to right: First insight, saturation, incubation, illumination, verification
The model of creativity, (Udall, 2001 version of 1996 article)

He then remapped it to show how the illumination involved a flip into the dark world of intuitive thinking.

Cyclical model - showing a circle an a box split into black and white, 1: first insight, borders black/white, then to 2: saturation, in white, to 3: incubation in dark, then 4, borders black/white, illumination, 5, verification
The initial twist into the intuitive domain (Udall, 2001 version of 1996 article)

After I dug through the papers, found the paper, and googled the person’s name, I found out that Udall had iterated on this model and turned it into a book.

The new name of his model for the creative process? The creative rollercoaster.

His book is worth a read as it has several models (including different versions of the rollercoaster) but this for me is the most useful one.

The creative rollercoaster model

Diagram from left: Onboarding - it's all in the preparation, question mark, then slowing down, flipping down into the dark, accelerating into the unknown, questing, holding creative tension, up into the light finding and following the flow, illumination ! elegant execution
My composite diagram of Nick Udall’s creative rollercoaster (2014). It combines two diagrams in his book.

I find several things useful about this model.

It captured the lived experience (and fear!) of designing

The impressionist Manet famously said that “Every new painting is like throwing myself into the water without knowing how to swim.” While it might not be so extreme for designers, that feeling of fears is there, like a rollercoaster starting to plummet.

It highlights the work done before the designing

One of my criticisms of design thinking activities is that they hide the importance of framing the design work well. The difference between good design work and bad design work is the time spent in understanding the brief, constraints, and patterns. This fuels the creative work.

It shows how momentum and stillness plays into design work

Designers can feel when it’s time to move on, or even have to move backwards and do more research! Similarly, the need to hold off long enough to understand creative tension means that the team doesn’t jump at the first idea. I find that many co-design activities don’t actively acknowledge the need to give time for ideas to percolate. (The fantastic Learning How To Learn learning series explains how the brain does neuron ‘housekeeping’ when asleep. This is why we wake up with ideas).

How I’ll be using this model

One of the struggles I find with agile and design is how to account for design work. I agree that design tasks should be visible as per any member of the development team. However, my challenge—particularly with Scrum—is allowing for the work to happen without having to do it. I believe that this model can help with teams having better discussions about pointing design stories. How much uncertainty do we need to grapple with, both from researching and from designing? Even having a model to show ‘we don’t know what we get but we know that we’ll get there’ I think is helpful.

Further reading

  • Udall, N. (2014). Riding the Creative Rollercoaster: How Leaders Evoke Creativity, Productivity and Innovation. City: Kogan Page. The book that the diagrams come from. Amazon UK link.
  • Udall, N. (1996), Creative Transformation: A Design Perspective. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 30: 39–51. doi:10.1002/j.2162–6057.1996.tb00756.x. This was the original paper that got my attention. The 2001 version that I saw from nowhere, er, nowhere to be found online but is a reprint of this version.
  • Learning How To Learn series—a free MOOC that explains a lot about the brain. tl;dr—sleep is important! Link to course on Coursera.
  • Dubberly, H. (2005) How Do You Design?. A document that blew my mind when I first saw it in 2008. It’s still interesting (though missing newer models, for example, from Nigel Cross) but generally higher level. Link to document.