Design fixation and idea ownership in Design Thinking


Some thoughts on design fixation, and teaching Design Thinking, in response to the article “Whose ideas are most fixating, your own or other people’s? The effect of idea agency on subsequent design behaviour” by Nathan Crilly and Maria Adriana Neroni (Design Studies 60, 2019) – available online.

Design Thinking evolved as a strategy, with a range of methods and awarenesses, to overcome the occurrence of “design fixation” – when designers and design teams identify and fixate upon a single solution before thoroughly exploring the design challenge & possible solutions. It is also known as “tunnel vision”.

Experienced designers know the benefits of slowing down, exploring more broadly, framing and reframing the challenge, ignoring their initial intuitions, and (important in business and political contexts) preventing strong voices from trying to force-through favoured ideas. Nathan Crilly and Roxana Moroşanu Firth (Cambridge University) provide three detailed case studies of fixation and overcoming fixation as emergent practices in design-led innovation in their article “Creativity and fixation in the real world: Three case studies of invention, design and innovation” (Design Studies 64, 2019). There is an extensive research lit on the topic, as well as many stories from professional designers and creatives.

In our Design Thinking courses at Warwick University, Bo Kelestyn and I develop this as an explicit capability that our students can facilitate in Design Thinking collaborations. We explore the cognitive biases that may cause fixation, how to recognise them, and plan to avoid them. That includes a powerfully effective physical theatre workshop by Highly Sprung, about risk and getting unstuck. This is matched with a continual focus on putting ideas from cognitive science into context (especially in our “reflective jam” sessions).

Some of the key biases are:

  • “Sunk cost effect” may cause fixation. This discourages honesty when developing solutions to which there is an emotional attachment, even when those solutions have problems. Also, when a designer puts effort into a solution that works well in one context, they may have a bias that encourages them to reapply a similar solution to different challenges, even though it leads them to ignore important differences.
  • “Availability bias”, when designers aren’t sufficiently engaged in the challenge, or are under pressure to deliver a solution quickly, they reach for information and ideas that are familiar or easily available.
  • “Psychological ownership” effects (e.g. the IKEA effect, in which we feel emotionally attached to solutions even when we have only added a small amount of personal input) may also cause design fixation.
  • As well as the impact of social forces, as people use the design process to develop and reinforce personal of factional power.

In Design Thinking we use techniques to avoid fixation. For example, we may organise a large team into smaller temporary teams, and have them rapidly produce potential solutions, adding them into a team-owned pool. We then apply an impersonal and objective process for assessing ideas, and combining them into more developed ideas to investigate in further iterations. We emphasise that ideas are owned by the team, and that outcomes are the work of the whole team, and in some cases, a wider community of participants.

But we also acknowledge that these techniques are not as well founded in empirical research as they should be. For example, we don’t have a conclusive answer to the important question do designers fixate more on their own ideas or on those contributed by others? This paper by Crilly and Neroni (Cambridge) suggests a stronger fixation effect on self-generated design ideas.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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