Embrace Opposites

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What is Embrace Opposites?

Embrace opposites is a convergent ideation method which designers use to explore their design space by finding overlaps between different categories or opposites. When they chart and compare two apparent opposites, they might find features that are common to both—and ones that are not—and spot new design opportunities.

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

— Niels Bohr, Pioneering physicist behind atomic structure and quantum theory

See how to find design possibilities by comparing utterly different things.

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Appearances can Deceive – Go Behind the Scenes with Embrace Opposites

In our complex world, it’s simpler to differentiate things by thinking in terms of dichotomies or opposites (e.g., books and websites) even when they have overlapping attributes. Distinguishing things this way helps us make quick decisions: (e.g.) “good” or “bad” as absolute values, without considering the many degrees in between that describe something’s/someone’s qualities. However, reality is usually too complicated to categorize with “either/or” labels. Often, things that seem totally opposed (e.g., political parties, personalities) share characteristics. For example, what does an “introvert” look like? Or an “extrovert”? Can someone be both?

In ideation, you can embrace opposites to see if you can enrich a problem and focus on designing innovative features. For example, consider a simple switch:

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

If A is “Off” and B is “On”, these are categorical distinctions. However, if A and B were other items that were opposed or distinct (e.g., menus and radio buttons), you might see them in dimensional terms, instead, and ask if they share features. Also, you might be able to design for a combination of these, perhaps with more of one than the other:


© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

© Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

So, you can get a deeper understanding of a design problem and the elements you’re working with if you analyze the categories and dichotomies you perceive. Dimensions tend to be richer than categories, but trickier to work with. To envision this, let’s re-approach our extrovert-introvert dichotomy. We might flip it into a graph, so:

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0


© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

This makes it easier to look for common elements and neutral ones if we divide our graph into 4 squares, where:

Top left = More Extroverted

Top right = Design Possibilities!

Bottom left = Neutral

Bottom right = More Introverted

So, you might find a dimension to manipulate in your own project. It might be (e.g.) a menu (A) that pulls down and includes radio buttons (B) – anywhere where elements of both apparent opposites work simultaneously. At least, you can confirm when “opposites” are indeed distinct.

How to Embrace Opposites

Try these steps to identify design possibilities:

  1. Create an overview of the different categories or opposites you have in a current design problem. (E.g.) You might say that the desktop version of an application and the mobile version of the application belong in two different categories: desktop and mobile.

  2. Dissolve the categories and ask yourself “In what ways can my application be both desktop and mobile?”. On the surface, it can’t (users either use their phones or desktops to view your application). But are there any situations where it can? (E.g.) a tablet is in some ways in between the two. It has a big screen like a desktop, but a smartphone’s touchscreen interactivity. 

  3. List all the overlaps you find.

  4. Go through your list and consider how big the overlap for each item is, whether it’s mostly one or the other (remember our x-and-y-axis graph above). Now place the items on your list there. E.g., a tablet is probably midway between a desktop and a smartphone, but a laptop with a touchscreen is more like a desktop computer than a smartphone.

Consider which consequences the overlaps have for your design. Should you use the same interaction principles for all of these devices? If not, how many versions do you need? If your application is specialized, maybe the mobile with a touchscreen is the perfect device for it and you should forget about all the other versions.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Make Things Opposite 

Embrace opposites is also helpful if you disagree with the design goal:

  1. Reverse your problem statement. E.g., you wanted to help people feel more inclined to use public transportation than their cars. Now, imagine you wanted to make people more inclined to use their cars. What would that take? How can you try to make people spend even more time in their cars? How can you make it even nicer to drive the car and less attractive to use public transportation? E.g., you could:

  • Simply decrease the number of bus routes in the area;

  • Have it so there’s only one bus in the morning, one in the evening;

  • Make bus tickets more expensive;

  • Lengthen the routes;

  • Have the driver play really loud techno music on routes which elders often use. 

  1. Now, turn those insights around. E.g., you could research to see what areas most people are taking busses in. Then, you could make more busses available more frequently in those areas and offer fewer busses where there are rarely any passengers. 

Overall, remember that determining the opposite of something can be complicated. However, the effort can pay big dividends.

Learn More about Embrace Opposites

Take our Creativity course, featuring embrace opposites.

Here’s another interesting angle to consider with design and opposites.

Literature on Embrace Opposites

Here’s the entire UX literature on Embrace Opposites by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Embrace Opposites

Take a deep dive into Embrace Opposites with our course Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services .

The overall goal of this course is to help you design better products, services and experiences by helping you and your team develop innovative and useful solutions. You’ll learn a human-focused, creative design process.

We’re going to show you what creativity is as well as a wealth of ideation methods―both for generating new ideas and for developing your ideas further. You’ll learn skills and step-by-step methods you can use throughout the entire creative process. We’ll supply you with lots of templates and guides so by the end of the course you’ll have lots of hands-on methods you can use for your and your team’s ideation sessions. You’re also going to learn how to plan and time-manage a creative process effectively.

Most of us need to be creative in our work regardless of if we design user interfaces, write content for a website, work out appropriate workflows for an organization or program new algorithms for system backend. However, we all get those times when the creative step, which we so desperately need, simply does not come. That can seem scary—but trust us when we say that anyone can learn how to be creative­ on demand. This course will teach you ways to break the impasse of the empty page. We'll teach you methods which will help you find novel and useful solutions to a particular problem, be it in interaction design, graphics, code or something completely different. It’s not a magic creativity machine, but when you learn to put yourself in this creative mental state, new and exciting things will happen.

In the “Build Your Portfolio: Ideation Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises which together form a complete ideation project so you can get your hands dirty right away. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

Your instructor is Alan Dix. He’s a creativity expert, professor and co-author of the most popular and impactful textbook in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan has worked with creativity for the last 30+ years, and he’ll teach you his favorite techniques as well as show you how to make room for creativity in your everyday work and life.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

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