The antidote to design fixation


Originally written for Wake in 2017. See the post on their blog here.

Design fixation is the tendency to latch onto the first solution we come up with and treat is as superior to other ideas, regardless of merit. It can be a tricky topic to breach with a colleague because it can sound like you’re questioning their instincts, but it is a studied psychological phenomenon that all designers should be mindful of in themselves and in their teammates.

If you’re in the ideation phase of design where new ideas are critical, fixation is a curse that will halt all forward progress. As Dr. Nathan Crilly of the University of Cambridge said, “Whether designing a new toy, a new bridge, or a new piece of software, fixation can stop the creative process cold: severely limiting the way in which we see a problem and the variety of solutions we explore.”

Fixation is a natural tendency for most people. If you encounter a situation or a problem that resembles one you’ve seen before, it’s natural to fall into the same line of thinking. If it worked then, it will likely work now. This becomes dangerous when we run into problems that are similar to things we’ve seen before, but not identical. In these situations it’s very common to pull out the closest tool you have in your toolbelt, instead of giving this unique problem the thought that it deserves.

Whether you’re falling into old thought patterns, or just “trusting your instincts,” here are a few things you can do to fix your fixation.

Bad Brainstorming

One great way to stop fixating during a brainstorming session is a method called “Bad Brainstorming.” If you’re unfamiliar with it, here are the ground rules. First, make sure the problem you’re tackling is clear – this technique doesn’t really work if you’re unclear on the problem. Once you have your problem well defined, everyone will individually come up with the worst solution to the problem they can possibly think of.

Trying to re-design the toothbrush? What if instead of cleaning the teeth, you built a device that made the rest of the user’s body dirty, so the teeth were clean by comparison?! Yes, we’re looking for ideas on this level of awful.

This “Bad Brainstorming” session will do a couple things. First off, it will keep anyone from getting attached to their first ideas because they were intentionally as impractical and silly as possible. In addition to combatting design fixation, it also sets a great tone for the rest of your session. Participants will feel more relaxed, more conversational, and generally more willing to share ideas since the ice is broken.

For bonus points you can go around a second time and have everyone describe what the exact opposite of their bad idea was. Sometimes these ideas will still be awful, but other times you might be surprised with what comes out of this exercise. If nothing else, it will be a list of ideas that you certainly wouldn’t have arrived at otherwise.

Peer Review

When you’re in a brainstorming session and there is a difference of opinion in the room, it can be difficult to give criticism without forcing that person to justify their idea, thus making them even more attached to it. During a research study that Nathan Crilly from the University of Cambridge conducted on the topic of design fixation, one of the participants described that once someone latched onto an idea,”…most of their effort will be going to prove that that works, rather than exploring the full range of options.” This is the last thing you want during a working session.

Sometimes no matter how conscious you are about fixation, it will still happen. If you can tell that you or a teammate is hung up on an early idea, it may be time to call in reinforcements.

In order to nip fixation in the bud, call in an outsider and ask for an informal peer review. This is meant to be as fast and relaxed as possible, so just grab someone else from the office. Everyone has 5 minutes to prepare their “presentation,” 2 minutes to pitch their idea, and 3 minutes to hear thoughts from the reviewer. It’s important to note here that the point of the exercise isn’t to make product changes based on the reviewer’s input, but rather to hear a fresh, unbiased perspective on the ideas presented. Hearing someone else talk through your idea will allow you to see it from a different angle and may expose some holes you were unable to see before.


Hopefully you’ve combatted fixation before you get to this point, but the final bad-idea-filter is prototyping. It’s easy to get attached to an idea when it only lives in your head, because any possible issue that arises, you can immediately imagine a fix to. Products don’t have the same shape-shifting ability, so it pays to do some low fidelity prototypes early.

Once an idea is on paper (and we do recommend paper over pixels at this point), it’s easier to see it for what it really is. How well does this solve the problem you were trying to solve? Where are people struggling with it? Getting an idea out of your head and into the real world will allow you to see exactly how people will receive your idea.

Sometimes there’s good reason to give preference to your first ideas. Is it a low stakes decision? Probably not worth tremendous time. Maybe you’re solving a problem you’ve solved a million times before. A prescriptive way to move forward can be tremendously valuable. But as designers it’s usually your job to think outside the box, so we have to be able to break the familiar patterns and feel confident that we’re delivering the best ideas. Being able to prevent, or at least identify and address, design fixation will help you along that path.

Will FletcherComment