Designing on Both Sides of Your Brain

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Someone once asked me if, as a thinker, I was rational or creative. Left brained or right-brained. I considered it, and asked in reply, do I have to choose? Is it possible to be both? I didn’t think I could afford to discriminate. I wanted to be good at designing things, and I needed all the brainpower I had available.

The ultra-compressed version of the scientific method has two parts. Part one: when you have an idea, you must expend time and energy to prove that it works. Part two: you must also expend time and energy trying to prove that it doesn’t work.

Later in life, having read about our best thinkers and problem solvers, I learned that there is a natural balance that can be mastered between both intensely imaginative, and passionately logical lines of thought. It’s my claim, echoing many people before me, that we need to seek out this synergy to be good at design.

The myths of rational thinking and the methods of science
Before learning about design in college, I studied advanced logic theory. At parties, it was the last thing I wanted to mention, since it was certain to bring yawns and glares of boredom from beer-holding peers. The general reputation for the subject was that, like mathematics and science, it was dreadfully dull. These fields were seen as predictable and highly structured: you learn a formula for this, an equation for that, repeat a proof someone discovered decades ago, and then call it a day.

It followed that the scientific method, considered a pillar of progress in the academic world, had an equally poor reputation. But this status is decidedly unearned. The surprising truth is that for designers everywhere, the scientific method can be an extremely powerful tool for finding and evangelizing your great ideas.

The ultra-compressed version of the scientific method has two parts. Part one: when you have an idea, you must expend time and energy to prove that it works. Part two: you must also expend time and energy trying to prove that it doesn’t work. That’s it. Welcome to the world of science.

This simple set of two different approaches to evaluating ideas can improve the quality of your entire thought process, and the value of the work you produce. The power of the method is that it asks anyone who would call themself a scientist, or a designer, to attack problems from both sides.

It’s not enough to take a pet idea and make claims about its value. Instead, you must seek an objective view of the idea, and invest time in disproving your own claims. If it truly is a good idea, it should be able to withstand the scrutiny of your critical evaluation. If it crumbles under your own inspection, you will have saved your team, and your users some time by returning yourself to the drawing board without interrupting anyone else.

The value to designers is twofold: First, it improves the clarity with which you view your work. Your ideas might be good in some abstract sense, but we should not confuse them with meaningful solutions to the customer or business problems at hand. Second, by making yourself comfortable with critiquing your own work, you improve the quality of any work you output. Like proofreading your own essays, you become more self-sufficient, as a designer.

Beyond your design skill, your strength in convincing others of your ideas to your team will improve. Instead of only offering the positive attributes of your design, you can present the challenging questions you asked, and express how your proposed design excelled in the face of those challenges. The more scrutiny you can apply yourself, the more confidence you will have. Even better, your comfort level with discussing designs with others will improve. Your internal dialog about your work will more naturally match your external dialog with peers and teammates.

(Note: While many teams thrive on communal critiquing of work in an open and supportive environment, which is good, many others are not so fortunate. The overall goal is not to spend more time in isolation, nor to control your development team like puppets, but instead, to derive a system, both internal and collaborative, for surfacing the best ideas, and delivering them to customers).

Live by analysis, die by analysis
To the frustration of creative thinkers everywhere, the nature of poor usability engineering can often cause a team to focus on design problems in the narrowest way. Without proper counsel from an experienced usability engineer a team can miss large opportunities, falling into the trap of minimizing problems instead of solving them. Quick changes rarely solve the underlying and systemic causes. Often problems run deep, down to assumptions made early in a project, and manifested at different levels in code. Without the wisdom to look deeper, no amount of usability studies will significantly improve a design.

At the most negative extreme, an analysis-dominated development team will achieve only turd polishing: the constant refinement of bad ideas, without any hope of arriving at substantially new approaches to the problem. What’s required to maximize the value of analysis is creative thinking. Knowing when and how to switch gears between analysis and creative exploration is the key.

The synergy of solutions
Cars are designed to switch gears easily. Modern humans are not. When we learn a technique or a tool, it‚s natural for us to fixate on its use. If you have a hammer, everything is a nail.

It follows that people who learn to take comfort in analysis and process, tend to have difficulty rejecting those models, and switching to inspiration and creative passion as their guideposts. Alternatively, the creative-minded often struggle with structured evaluation, or models, methods and processes for problem solving. The good news is that you don’t have to choose. You can be both creative and rational.

At the moment when project goals, or usability issues, are identified, someone has to take control of the response. How deep a solution will be required? If shallow corrections or additions are all that are needed, then it’s appropriate to engage in a quick brainstorming session before proceeding in a single direction. But if more serious problems are found, or the project goals are more substantial and involved, deeper exploration into new alternatives is justified. This is where the team has to shift gears and invest in exploration.

All problems have multiple solutions. The larger the problem, the more open the solution space. To understand the different choices requires a creative approach. Someone must lead the way in expressing the different possible directions. What are three alternative navigation designs, and how would this improve the design, relative to known customer behavior? Can we reduce the number of categories we have by a third to simplify some user decisions?

This line of exploration might be led by someone skilled at asking the right questions, or by a surge of inspiration and expression of ideas by someone gifted in those traits. But the method is less important than the result: A set of alternatives, manifested in prototypes or pictures, that can be compared and evaluated relative to the needs and problems at hand.

Comparison vs. creativity?
Some designers ruffle at the comparison process. They’d prefer to allow their personal choice of approach to surface as the direction for change. This is almost always a mistake. Often it’s impossible to understand the merit of a design, without comparing it against several potential alternatives. It’s hard to know if something is good or bad if it is standing alone.

Recalling the scientific method, it’s in the designer’s interest to work to prove and disprove her own firmly held beliefs. If her heart is concerned with the customer’s experience, she should want the best idea to surface, regardless of her own initial preferences. She should be willing to be convinced that there is another way that’s better, regardless of who came up with it. Often it’s only when comparing two ideas that the best idea—a hybrid of the two—is discovered.

At the moment when the team has arrived at some good ideas, hopefully through evaluating the tradeoffs of alternatives, analysis becomes the greatest need. Perhaps there is time for a quick usability study, or heuristic evaluation, to help confirm that the proposed changes will truly have a positive impact on the customer. There are always more details in the world than can be considered by the designer’s mind, and it’s much cheaper to learn from mistakes in prototypes than in production code.

Design is a reflective process
The entire process of idea exploration, evaluation and implementation is reflective. No one mindset or attitude prevails. Instead, it’s the judgment of the designer, or the team leaders, to approach each kind of problem in the appropriate way. Some moments require an emphasis on the logical and rational. Others demand creative exploration and expression driven work. Often the entire project cycle is spent shifting between different modes of thought, exploring, evaluating, and exploring again.

Few things of importance arrive from either/or thinking. It’s the wise and the successful that are able to derive approaches to difficult situations that unify and combine, rather than separate and divide. Think Yin/Yang or chocolate and peanut butter. The greatest opportunities for the mindful designer are in exploring how to build complementary relationships from seemingly competing traits.

Scott Berkun is the design and usability training manager for Microsoft Corporation. He has been at Microsoft for eight years, including working on Internet Explorer 1.0–5.0 in various roles from usability engineer to program manager. He writes about design at http://www.uiweb.comand


  1. Most teaching methods and tests are geared toward the left brained and this makes it a struggle for those who are right brain dominant to keep up. However, using a picture association method to memorize things can help level the playing field. I invite you to check out… 

  2. In my opinion was a little mix up when talking about the balance in designer’s brain and the balance in the design process (as team work).
    And I don’t think the “comparison technique” is a methodology with enough foundation for choosing or discovering the “right design”. I hope there something some substantial in the back that allow the designer to explain his reasons for choosing one design and not another in a more meaningful way.

    In my personal opinion all professionals should require an “optimal balance” between both hemispheres of the brain to gain the best performance. The most logical and rational disciplines will need maybe more development on inductive thinking to create new ways of exploration or solving problems, or more pictorial skills to communicate in a more visual way their findings, or be more speculative in the design of process that they are going to user. And the most creative professionals should improve the other hemisphere skills such as verbal to communicate better to others, use more often analytic thinking to evaluate their designs propositions or more symbolic to look easily for patterns.

    A balance between integration with others and differentiation from others is the key of a complex self. For this reason is in everyone’s responsibility to improve and develop skills to acquire their “desire balance” (between hemispheres). I said that because I believe that an entire discipline is too wide collective of individuals to assign an “expected balance”. Does a graphic designer need the same balance between left and right brain sides than an industrial designer? or interaction designer? I don’t think so. For example an interaction designer will need a 50-50% as he needs to understand in a rational way context needs and desires and at the time be creative at the time of proposing the definition of the behaviour of the product. And an industrial designer should be maybe more rational as his task involve more production-engineering coordination. But a balance of both hemispheres is need as explain in the article.

    Also this helps to explain that in my opinion design process is more much complex than just shifting between different modes of though in the different stages of the process, as many more people and ways of thinking are integrated the process. I don’t think that the balance should be look between the different stages because I believe that the balance should be look inside in each of the stages. Obviously the ideation stage will be need a more creative thinking and in the implementation stage a more rational thinking will be need but this balance is determinate a priory in the strategy itself. I think that the relevance is to try to integrate symbolic, analytic, rational or deductive skills in the creative stages and in the evaluation stages try to integrate spatial, intuitive or pictorial aspects.

  3. Er, isn’t his name Scott Berkun (with an “N” at the end), NOT “Berkum”?

  4. I am a supposed “creative” working in a “developer” company. I have had artistic skills and talent since childhood and the utilization of those have always come easily to me. My actual interests, however, have always leaned towards the logical. Perhaps it is some sort of “the grass is greener” phenomenon.

    The difficulty in balancing creativity and logical process in my experience is tied to the populations I have been a part of. I have been inside of “multimedia” environments where I was valued for my analytical, process-oriented techniques among a large population of “creatives.” I am now valued for my “creative” skills inside of an equally large population of business analysts and developers. Both have been very rewarding, but my passions lean toward the middle, and I am starting to see interaction design as the most realized of those “middles.”

    It is difficult to demonstrate the value to either side the things that I consider exciting and useful, such as interaction design, user-centered business analysis, information architecture, etc. The developers think I am (or perhaps should be) excited about designing the logo (I’m not, but I can) and the creatives can’t understand why I’m not bored to death sitting through weeks of process research with the client (I’m not, and I do.) It’s very similar to an actor being typecast in the film world. To many, you are simply whatever your last role portrayed you as.

    Once you begin to analyze, inform and deliver within projects, the difference and value of having a “creative” in the “business” stages of a project is seen, as it is in the development stages to a lesser extent. Only by building reputation, however, have I been able to get somewhat beyond the “bring in the designers last” philosophy.

    “Wild thinking” should be introduced early in the process as it benefits all parties involved-users, clients and developers. This type of thinking provides value not only on web projects but particularly desktop application design, as that world is more deeply entrenched in “traditional” thinking and can use that occasional jolt of original thought.

    Designers who are unwilling to explore the divide between creative and logical thinking will probably find themselves stagnating. More and more of what is designed needs to be critically analyzed rather than simply visually appropriate in order to get real approval from that most “unacknowledged” person in all of these worlds — the user, the person the design is for.

  5. Scott wrote:

    >Different choices requires a creative approach.
    >Someone must lead the way

    >The method is less important than the result

    Right on, brother!

    There are a lot of books and examples of where the ‘method’ is at fault, never the designer.

    Most designers or developers hide in their company’s organigram (should I call meeting?) or confine themselves to other homogenized experiments where they can avoid confronting the ‘real world.’

    Without the protection mantle of some ‘scientific method,’ designers would be forced to accept personal responsibility for the validity and reliability of their decision-making, instead of spending-all-their-time using company resources producing numbers to support things they already know.

    If you accept responsibility there is no where to run and nowhere to hide. Do lousy work and you will be found out.

    It’s a motivational technique. Sort of like old pirates, burnng their ships upon arrive in the New world.

    Mission-driven projects or research, contract research or other ‘arranged’ project help, (i.e. things on the quantitative-side), uphold and maintain a Wal-Mart-type sociology (no surprises, please!), and vitiate any efforts to discover and explore the actual world.

    You need to be creative to be creative. It is the spirit in the fire which cooks your dinner.

  6. I enjoyed reading this article and the comments. For me, the truly great thing about the web as a medium is the way it engages both my creative side and my logical side. The Yin/Yang reference is apt. Rather than perceiving a conflict between the creative and the logical, we should see harmonious aspects of a whole. “Designing on both sides of your brain” is holistic.

  7. I designed a course for ‘improving’ business analysts skills by adding some of those ‘we’ engage. I have a number of activities in the discovery of ‘balance’, and leveraging the free energy to be found ‘edge of the wave’. Included in that section is discovery of the principles of Yin/Yang and other concepts that show that in most natural order it’s not one or the other, but ‘both’ (eastern vs. western medicine). The strength of fabric is gained not from the warp or the weft but in the bond where the two intersect.

    While we tend to discuss a lot of the ‘mechanics’ of our discipline, there are some softer issues that we haven’t pursued. As Scott pointed out we need to find that ‘intersection’ of ‘best ideas’ for an even better idea. That means that we have to learn to work through creative tension. We have to dance the dance several times until we’re comfortable with the ‘confrontations’ that will ensue. We have to engage in these activities with a safetynet of ‘trust’: that nothing is intentionally directed at the person. And that, paraphrasing a concept attributed to Gerald Hirshberg (Director of Nissan Design International), the ensuing abrasion should generate “light rather than heat”.

  8. This article made me remember of the “lateral thinking” books by Edward de Bono.
    His first book, named “Lateral Thinking”, is still alive after more than 20 years. And I still remember it after all that time.

    Basically, his idea is that we should not be afraid of the outcome of the right half.
    Also, that the left rational part can’t create nothing new but only elaborate on what the right side suggests.

    That there is an intuitive spark that shows us the target, and then and only then we can build the rationale of the path to get there. And that it never happens the other way.

    I was impressed by the book because it was describing the way I functioned.
    As an engineering student then, I was being trained the wrong way and this reading somehow legalized what I was really doing.

    Scott’s article has refreshed all that ideas, thanks Scott!

  9. Hey Scott…thanks for this article. I’m a high school senior interested in design and for one of my classes I’m researching on a “Career-Based Essential Question” I had to come up with in relation to design.

    The question is…”Based on the fact that design is objective, meaning people have their own likes and dislikes, how does a business critique a designer’s work?…How does a designer’s ‘grading scale’ work when there is no right or wrong in creative Art?”

    I got some good feedback from this article on how creative teams come up with alternative ideas as they continually analyze their thoughts and ideas…but I was just wondering personally, if you, Scott, had any more knowledge/ wisdom/ advice you could give me based on my career question I asked above?

    Once again…thanks a lot for the article,
    Hope to hear from you,


  10. I am working on a Master’s thesis on the very topic Scott discusses in his article. I am also interested in hearing other opinions by industry professionals on the subject.

    If anyone would like to share some of your thoughts on the right/brain left/brain and their roles in multimedia design topic, please email me:

  11. I am writing a thesis currently on creativity use in web design and I am going to quote this article’s coined phrase “turd polishing”.
    This is a fantastic article aside from its non-serious take on the subject.
    Top effort

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