Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Does the computer block creativity?

I've heard so many times that if you're a designer seeking for a great insight, you have to get far from your PC: flip a magazine, look out the window, run away from the office, etc. I don't know if this recommendation is good for everybody, but I can remember that my best ideas come while taking a shower, walking on the streets, eating a snack. Does the personal computers has an insight-inhibiting force? If true, is it from hardware or software models?

I'm tempted to say it is all the fault of the computer -- nasty, attention-seeking, little beast that it is, always tempting us with its enticements: a website here, a new email there, a new gizmo to try out, something that needs upgrading, or restructuring, or rebooting.

But in fact, psychologists who study problem-solving and creativity have long noticed this phenomenon. Basically, the route to problem-solving, especially for those complex, ill-defined problems, is to let the subconscious handle it.

Alas, the subconscious can't get to work unless you have primed it, and this can take hours, days (or even weeks) of hard work on the problem. You think about it. You wiggle it. You tweak it. And finally, you give up out of frustration.

And then, a few hours, days, or even months later, while taking a bath, getting on a bus, walking along the beach -- poof -- the solution comes to mind.

(Beware: the solution provided by the subconscious in this way is often wrong. Poincaré, the French mathematician who studied this problem, said the subconscious is incredibly creative, but it can't do arithmetic. So when you get the flash of insight, the conscious mind has to check it out, to make sure it really works.)

So, getting away from your normal environment really does help. Hell, even shutting your eyes can help. (Ever notice that when thinking, you tend to shut the eyes, or defocus them, or turn them upwards to look at nothing -- this is deliberate turning off of irrelevant stimulation.

But the PC is an especially nasty beast in this regard, because it always wants attention, it is always crying out. So yes, get away from your computer. Turn it off. Go take a walk. Even if you don't get the answer, exercise is good for you.