Lateral Thinking

Your constantly-updated definition of Lateral Thinking and collection of topical content and literature

What are Lateral Thinking?

What is Lateral Thinking?

Lateral thinking (horizontal thinking) is a form of ideation where designers approach problems by using reasoning that is disruptive or not immediately obvious. They use indirect and creative methods to think outside the box and see problems from radically new angles, gaining insights to help find innovative solutions.

“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

- Dr. Edward de Bono, Brain-training pioneer who devised lateral thinking 

See how lateral thinking can stretch towards powerful, “impossible” solutions:

Lateral Thinking helps Break Out of the Box

Many problems (e.g., mathematical ones) require the vertical, analytical, step-by-step approach we’re so familiar with. Called linear thinking, it’s based on logic, existing solutions and experience: You know where to start and what to do to reach a solution, like following a recipe. However, many design problems—particularly, wicked problems—are too complex for this critical path of reasoning. They may have several potential solutions. Also, they won’t offer clues; unless we realize our way of thinking is usually locked into a tight space and we need a completely different approach.

That’s where lateral thinking comes in – essentially thinking outside the box. “The box” refers to the apparent constraints of the design space and our limited perspective from habitually meeting problems head-on and linearly. Designers often don’t realize what their limitations are when considering problems – hence why lateral thinking is invaluable in (e.g.) the design thinking process. Rather than be trapped by logic and assumptions, you learn to stand back and use your imagination to see the big picture when you:

  • Focus on overlooked aspects of a situation/problem.

  • Challenge assumptions – to break free from traditional ways of understanding a problem/concept/solution.

  • Seek alternatives – not just alternative potential solutions, but alternative ways of thinking about problems.

When you do this, you tap into disruptive thinking and can turn an existing paradigm on its head. Notable examples include:

  • The mobile defibrillator and mobile coronary care – Instead of trying to resuscitate heart-attack victims once they’re in hospital, treat them at the scene.

  • Uber – Instead of investing in a fleet of taxicabs, have drivers use their own cars.

Rather than focus on channeling more resources into established solutions to improve them, these innovators assessed their problems creatively and uncovered game-changing (and life-changing) insights.

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How to Get Fresh Perspectives with Lateral Thinking 

For optimal results, use lateral thinking early in the divergent stages of ideation. You want to reframe the problem and:

  1. Understand what’s constraining you and why.

  2. Find new strategies to solutions and places/angles to start exploring.

  3. Find the apparent edges of your design space and push beyond them – to reveal the bigger picture.

You can use various methods. A main approach is provocations: namely, to make deliberately false statements about an aspect of the problem/situation. This could be to question the norms through contradiction, distortion, reversal (i.e., of assumptions), wishful thinking or escapism, for example:

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Here, we see the norm of conventional schooling challenged and some unpredictable (and even outrageous) notions to trigger our thinking. Our example showcases this method:

  • Bad Ideas – You think up as many bad or crazy ideas as possible, but these might have potentially good aspects (e.g., helping children specialize in desired subjects earlier). You also establish why bad aspects are bad (e.g., inserting biochips would be a gross violation of human rights).

Other helpful methods include:

  1. Random Metaphors

    • Randomly pick an item near you or word from a dictionary and write down as many aspects/associations about it as possible. E.g., “Exhibition” – “visitors walk around enjoying paintings”; “learn about cultures”; “pleasant environment”.

    • Pretend some genius in your field told you this item/word is a good metaphor for your project. E.g., you can organize information, tips and images for your travel-related app to also act like an art/museum exhibition, so anyone can enjoy an interesting tour of a given location.

    • Use the metaphors you think of to improve your design/product. E.g., you create a captivating app which virtual tourists can enjoy with (e.g.) virtual reality features.

  2. SCAMPER – To help generate ideas for new solutions, ask 7 different types of questions to help understand how you might innovate and improve existing products, services, concepts, etc. SCAMPER is remarkably easy to learn and efficient in ideation sessions.

  3. Six Thinking Hats – To reach for alternative viewpoints, you examine problems from 6 perspectives, one at a time (e.g., white hat = focusing on available data; black hat = focusing on potentially negative outcomes). 

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

Overall, it’s important to stay aware of where ideation sessions are going. You may need to pause to redirect the group’s thinking or introduce a new trigger/provocation to help the creative process. Later, you use convergent thinking to isolate optimal solutions.

Learn More about Lateral Thinking

Take our Creativity course, featuring lateral thinking: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/creativity-methods-to-design-better-products-and-services

This thought-provoking Smashing Magazine blog explores lateral thinking with more techniques: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/01/transforming-problem-solving-creativity/

Read one design team’s insightful account about lateral thinking: https://blog.makingsense.com/2018/01/something-to-try-this-2018-lateral-thinking/

Literature on Lateral Thinking

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

Learn more about Lateral Thinking

Take a deep dive into Lateral Thinking 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.

All Literature

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