Green fire truck

Learning Design from a 4-Year-Old

By ICS UX Design Team

At a previous job, my boss brought her four-year-old son to the office. He immediately thought I was the coolest person in the world. It could be my keen fashion sense or the fact that I was the only male in the office (#feminism). But it was probably because he is four and clearly hasn’t met enough people.

Regardless, this development meant that I would end up playing babysitter and doing kid activities — not something I had originally looked forward to. But little did I know when he first “outside-voiced” that he wanted to color, it would be a transformative experience.

If you’ve never seen a preschooler color, it can be described in two words: violently uncoordinated. The action is essentially gripping the marker like Macho Man Randy Savage gripped a Slim Jim, raising it above their head, and slamming it down repeatedly like they are trying to murder the paper.

It’s really pretty scary…and a little bit hilarious.

Unorthodox coloring techniques aside, the real impact for me came when we flipped to the fire engine page in the coloring book and the kid grabbed a green marker. Although I initially thought he planned to color the trees surrounding the truck, he surprised me when he started color-murdering the truck itself.

“Fire trucks are red, not green!” I screamed in my head. My heart began racing, my internal dialogue became erratic, and I battled whether or not to stop this madness. But then I thought, does that fire truck have to be red? Why not green? Or purple? Or a hodgepodge of random colors?

Here I was, a designer working on projects with bigger budgets than my cumulative lifetime earning potential, and I’m getting hung up on a coloring book with a four-year-old. On its own, this isn’t that big of a deal. But the point is that I was stuck in a mindset of “it has to be this way.”

Keeping an Open Mind

No matter how we may try to always be open-minded for our clients, the truth is that as designers we have a collection of people telling us to push the envelope while simultaneously telling us how things have to be. Teachers, art directors, and senior designers tend to pigeon-hole their entry level colleagues, who quickly understand they should design for their superiors instead of their clients. Those more-senior voices say things like “I’ve been working with this client for years, and they don’t want to see anything like this. Do this instead.”

It isn’t client input that is dictating the direction. It’s encouraged self-censorship before an idea even reaches the client. When designers go through years of this, they undoubtedly end up in a position where they are seriously limiting their field of view. It’s not a fault of the designer — it’s a simple survival mechanism.

What Can We Do?

Kids have this ability to not really care about things, like rules or adult stuff, or where their fingers just were. They are free-minded, and so much of the world is still completely new to them. This is not the case with adults, who tend to fall into lives that are predictably redundant. There are societal (and parental) expectations of career path and marriage and home ownership. All of these expectations (not the actions themselves) begin to move us further from that mental freedom we had when we were kids.

What can we do to ensure we don’t fall victim to this sort of drone mentality? I actually don’t have an answer, and I probably never will. But, I’m still looking. I view life as a constant push to always be better — getting to perfection isn’t really the goal — so here’s a look at what I’ve been doing to avoid drone mentality. Maybe sharing this will help someone else find their path.

Video games

Although the knowledge of this would make my parents cringe, the truth is that video games have been a huge addition to my creative problem-solving practice. However, I don’t just play any games. I try to play them with some sort of beneficial purpose beyond pure enjoyment. I don’t like the point-and-shoot games popular of late, but prefer games featuring puzzles and/or great storytelling — games like Kerbal Space Program, which teaches the basics of aerodynamics and presents me with tons of challenges around how to maximize the potential of a rocket to achieve a task.

My favorite (and most frustrating) game as of late has been The Witness, which is kind of like being dropped in a world with no people, and signs written in a language with a character set you’ve never seen before. It’s challenging, and you need to stretch your brain pretty hard to figure it out. Not exactly the most stress-free Saturday afternoon, but just my cup of tea.


I have loved chess ever since I was a little kid. Back then I only knew how the pieces moved and what a checkmate was. A couple years ago I decided to seriously start learning about the techniques and finer points of the game. The reason I think chess is a great exercise for creativity is that no two games are the same. It is said that in the history of chess, which spans some 1,500 years, there has never been played two identical games. I don’t know if this is true, but there are certainly enough combinations that it could be true.

“Real-world” problem solving

The quotes are important here as I don’t actually solve many problems. This is more an exercise in thinking about how to achieve a goal outside the normal pattern I do every day. These problems are meant to be solved quickly, without regard to whether the solution is actually feasible. I have envisioned everything from non-chafing men’s boxer briefs to creating a magnetic motor. These ideas never see the light of day, but they are a fun way to break from the monotony of our work.


Although I don’t think like a child (my girlfriend would disagree), I certainly draw like one. It’s part of the reason I am a designer and not an illustrator. But, even people who draw like an expert can benefit from sketching. I see a lot of designers who don’t like sketching, or sketch just to get an idea on paper to say they sketched and then never explore it. But drawing brings out something special. Just the act of drawing an arc on one thing can spark a new idea. This is something we don’t get in the digital spectrum. I click the circle tool and I drag out a circle. But when I draw a circle, there are so many possibilities for where that line can go. What was supposed to be a circle can essentially become anything (even a green fire truck). So draw things, anything. Real, imagined, abstract, it doesn’t matter.

What's the Takeaway?

Although this coloring book incident happened five years ago, I was reminded of it recently when a colleague and I were going over some wireframes. There was a moment of disagreement about the alignment of the elements in a section. I liked the look of them center-aligned, and he liked them left-aligned. During the conversation I said “you can’t left align things in that instance.” Really? He simply responded, “I disagree, but let’s move on.”

He was right to dissent. I had long moved past the stage of wanting a different layout, and instead reverted to a “you just can’t do that” mindset. 

If you have kids, you surely think they are the smartest and most special kids in the world. Maybe they are. So take the opportunity to learn from them. Parents tend to focus on teaching their kids, not so much on learning from them. That’s a mistake. They're the ones exploring creativity without boundaries, getting excited about the simple things, and showing how to take life a little less seriously. So, the next time your kid hands you a picture that looks like Jackson Pollock painted it while having a seizure — an illustration that in no way even remotely resembles a school bus yet he or she insists is indeed a school bus — remember, there’s no reason it can’t be.

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