The success of a design project relies on a team’s creativity and ingenuity in developing solutions to real-life customer problems. Contextual Design helps us to really understand our users, and offers a balanced design approach that moves between analysis and creativity, and back again. While comfortable with problem solving and analysis, many of us have difficulty switching into visioning, brainstorming, or creative mode. Here are some simple ways to help you quickly engage your creativity when you need it.

Most of us have had the answer to a problem magically come to us when we’re drifting off to sleep at night or taking a shower. We’re relaxed and our minds are free to imagine and make interesting new connections. The famous chemist, Friedrich Kekule, discovered the structure of the benzene ring while having a “waking dream” in which he saw a snake biting its own tail. Albert Einstein jump started his creativity by taking a break from his work to play the violin. When he returned, a solution would often come to mind.

It may not be practical for members of a design team to take a nap or nature walk before beginning a visioning session, but here are some other exercises that you can do on your own or as a team to free up your creativity.

Relax and synchronize the left/right sides of your brain

I recently met an optometrist, who is also a retired Army colonel. He spent most of his career training fighter pilots and Special Forces soldiers. These men need to be able to quickly enter into the “zone” where they are relaxed, able to take in enormous amounts of information, and instantaneously see the big picture. Both sides of their brain need to be working together, i.e., the left side (analytical, sequential, verbal) in synchrony with the right side (intuitive, spatial, visual). The colonel taught his students to use the following “elephant swing” exercise to induce a state of coordinated, active relaxation. It also works for the rest of us.


Place your feet about eighteen inches apart and drop your hands loosely to the sides. Turn your body at the waist as far to one side as it will go and then slowly back to the other side as far as it will go. Allow your arms to swing freely during this rotation. Initiate the turn from your belly button, rather than from your head or shoulders. Begin with your eyes shut, and then gradually open them as the exercise progresses. During the swing, relax your eyes and facial muscle without attempting to see any object. Swing for several minutes until your body is relaxed and mind is clear.

Get comfortable with fuzziness

Several years ago, stereograms appeared in coffee table books and you might have had fun at a party trying to see the 3-dimensional image embedded in the picture. Or you may have been frustrated like me because you couldn’t see what everyone else was “oohing” and “aahing” about. (If you’ve never seen one, check out or search for “stereogram” in your web browser.) The recommended way to see the embedded image is to bring the picture right up to your eyes, de-focus, and slowly move your eyes back until the 3-D image pops out. The hard part is being patient and relaxing into the blur. Our brain wants to quickly resolve the fuzziness and deliver the familiar 2-D image. It takes practice to allow for uncertainty and wait for something hidden to emerge. Creative people describe their process as organic and are often surprised by what emerges from the apparent chaos.


Play with stereograms as a warm-up exercise for building an affinity wall or visioning. Note the initial feelings of discomfort when the image is blurry. Note, too, the delight you feel when the 3-D image reveals itself. I especially recommend the book 3-D Planet: The World as Seen Through Stereograms by Hiroshi Kunoh and Eiji Takaoki.

Engage our hearts along with our minds

You’ve heard the maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s true with individuals and teams. Most of the us spend the majority of time at work in our heads: solving problems, meeting schedules, and checking off tasks on our to-do list. To be truly creative, though, it helps to consciously include our hearts in the process. And, it only takes a minute or two.


You can do this individually, or as a group. Get comfortable and take a couple of deep breaths. Close your eyes and feel your heartbeat. Silently remind yourself of why you care about your work. Affirm that your intention is to make the world a better place, improve the lives of your customers, attract abundance to your company and to yourself, and honor yourself and your coworkers. You’ll be surprised at the difference this makes in teamwork and creativity.