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What is lateral thinking?

Last updated

27 April 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Eliz Ayaydin

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Most people have heard of the saying “think outside the box” or some variation of it, like “color outside the lines.” But you might not realize that those concepts are rooted in a psychological processing method called lateral thinking.

So, what is lateral thinking? And more importantly, how can today’s leaders, researchers, and marketers apply it to modern problem-solving and project-based initiatives?

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Understanding lateral thinking

Lateral thinking is a solutions-based series of techniques that help the user reframe a challenge or problem with a renewed or more creative perspective. Using new relationships and associations that are not always immediately present can help you change your perspective and identify emerging or new solutions.

This technique also involves employing different methods or paths to achieve an outcome or solve a problem. It applies a creative approach.

In that sense, lateral thinking differs from vertical thinking, which is a more linear approach where following predictable steps produces predictable outcomes.

Lateral thinking goes beyond brainstorming. It involves an entire series of steps and intentional mindset methods that ultimately allow you to “think outside the box” to create, solve, and build in new directions and innovative ways. It allows you to challenge norms and break through with more efficient, effective, or resilient outcomes.

The principles of lateral thinking in UX design

Lateral thinking has four pillars, or principles.

1. The first is the process of recognizing the given problem’s dominant ideas and perceptions.

2. The second pillar involves searching for new ways to look at the problem.

3. The third pillar is letting go of rigid thinking rules, allowing the mind to explore new alternative solutions.

4. The final pillar is the act of coming up with other ideas.

You can use these four core pillars of lateral thinking to break up and recombine the elements in different, unexpected ways to think outside the box. Together, these four principles allow you to step outside of the core issue and reapproach it with fresh eyes, a fresh mindset, and no predispositions.

Benefits of lateral thinking in UX design

Lateral thinking offers many benefits. Some of the greatest are those leveraged in UX design projects.

Rigid and efficient template formats are great starting points in design, but breaking down those “lines” with lateral thinking enables a designer to “color” outside of them.

Design is meant to stand out and provide unique user experiences. Tapping into your creativity with lateral thinking allows you to come up with brilliant UX design experiences that are more revolutionary.

Three modes of thinking in ideation sessions

When you break down your thought processes into lateral thinking ideation sessions, you’ll engage in one of the three modes of thinking below. Whatever it is that you’re creating or solving, you can apply any (or all three) of these modes to tap into the most creative lateral thinking.

Divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is an early-stage form of lateral thinking where you pool together ideas, prioritizing quantity over quality.

Imagine a map with a single idea or problem at the center. You might draw lines outward from that central point to represent new thoughts. Those lines can branch out further with even more ideas.

During this thinking session, you throw all your concepts at the wall—the good, the bad, and the ugly. You don’t need to consider practical constraints. Instead, you can discover even more innovative paths forward.

Often, this type of thinking is also called “blue sky thinking.” It’s creative brainstorming without any limits.

Emergent thinking

If divergent thinking is considered the early stage, emergent thinking is the in-between phase of thought processing. It involves comparing and combining ideas. Here, variations of the original ideas will begin to evolve into new ideas.

This is the idea-building phase where you’ll form new connections, shake things up a bit, and allow sparks of creativity to creep into the solution or design-building process.

Divergent thinking is more chaotic than emergent thinking. Sessions in this phase will allow for trigger stimuli and platforms to develop. It’s here that the really big and exciting ideas can emerge as you move toward completely unforeseen possibilities.

Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking involves closing off the sessions with logical reasoning. You’ll sift through all your ideas, hone in on common themes and ideas, and eliminate those that don’t lead to effective solutions. You’ll narrow down the ideas that fit best by running them through the “filter” of feasibility, visibility, and desirability.

There’s still plenty more to do before you can bring your big ideas to fruition—but this final thinking session is where you can hope to settle on your final solution or idea.

Elements that influence ideation sessions

Several influential factors will contribute to your ideation sessions. Each of these elements will play a role in your lateral thinking exercise. Take care to recognize and incorporate the factors that make the most sense to your project ideation. Allow those influences to help you forge new designs and solutions moving forward.

Mental modes

You’ll want to consider the mental modes, also known as thinking modes. Understand how you process information and adjust your thinking in a way that will allow you to generate non-traditional or non-linear ideas. Recognize when you’re “coloring inside the lines” so you can determine when it’s okay to step outside of them.

People dynamics

Some people dynamics involve understanding and managing group cohesion in an effort to tap into the collective’s cognitive power. Group dynamics will enable a team approach, which avoids people-related obstacles and improves the generation of new ideas.

Brilliant ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Foster an environment where people are comfortable sharing ideas—good and bad—during ideation sessions.

Clear goals

This might seem obvious, but goal-setting influences ideation sessions. Your ideation session will be much more productive if you have clear objectives and have identified potential problems.

It’s a good idea to create a problem statement or point of view before your ideation session begins. From there, you can move into the various modes of thinking with a finish line in mind. You should also outline the roles of the people involved and the project’s requirements.

Tools and methods

You can’t embark on a new project of any kind without first assembling the tools needed to facilitate your efforts. Ideation sessions are no different.

Prepare and leverage any ideation methods and tools you need to help you think beyond the boundaries of traditional problem-solving. Bring in the whiteboards. Introduce a full palette of colors instead of predetermined color combinations. And tap into every tool that encourages lateral thinking processes.


Don’t think of constraints as inhibitors. You’ll want to identify and implement the right kind of constraints during your ideation sessions. These will guide your lateral thinking process as a group and in conjunction with the team’s objectives. It can be a chaotic process without a few ground rules in place.

How to improve lateral thinking

Lateral thinking, like any other human process or function, can be strengthened and improved. Practice the techniques below to build in some muscle memory for breaking free from rigid approaches, allowing more creative freedom when researching and finding solutions.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping involves visualizing your project and process. Write down a central problem or topic, then think of new, related ideas and have them spread out from the center.

Follow these steps when mind mapping:

  1. Identify your central concept

  2. Add branches that correlate to your concept

  3. Add additional terms to expand your reach and search efforts

  4. Incorporate images and colors to stimulate new ideas and visually connect them

  5. Embrace each team member’s ideas and perceptions

Using your senses

Another way to improve lateral thinking is by getting back to basics and using your five senses. Critically think about how you perceive the concept before you. Think shape, size, environmental sounds, and touch. When you’re mindful of the five senses, you can expand your creative thinking to include innovative new ideas.

Reverse thinking

You can also incorporate reverse thinking to improve your efforts. With this technique, you identify the solution or next step that most other people would adopt. Then, explore solutions for the opposite.

Don’t be afraid to challenge your own thinking. For example, perhaps you’re not a fan of the color green, so you avoid this color in every design project you take on. Recognize your preconceived notions so you can break free of them during your ideation sessions.

Tips for incorporating lateral thinking in UX design

As a digital creator or professional interested in exploring lateral thinking methods for UX design, you’ll benefit from these techniques. You’re in an artistic field, so you will naturally want creative freedom. However, there are rules to follow when it comes to effective UX designs.

Consider these tips to help you find your perfect creative, yet effective, balance for lateral thinking.

  1. Be aware of your traditional or default thought processes so that you can explore beyond them.

  2. Open yourself up to random and unassociated stimulation, like taking a different route than usual, listening to a podcast, or having a conversation with a stranger.

  3. Always be looking for alternatives and take more time to think of other options.

  4. Find transitional objects or bridges to new concepts. A transitional object is something that embodies certain characteristics that you can use as inspiration for new ideas.

  5. Ask random questions about your designs and techniques.

  6. Challenge your habits regularly.

  7. Alter your thinking by doing things like reversing the relationship between parts of a problem or going in the opposite direction of what’s implied.

Examples of lateral thinking in UX design

Lateral thinking and the processes involved can be hard to grasp if you’re unfamiliar with the techniques. To help you visualize how to apply these processes to your UX design projects, check out the following design-related examples:

  • Incorporating new formats that contradict design norms

  • Forming new angles where most designs incorporate rigid symmetry

  • Sampling color combinations not traditionally used in UX design

  • Breaking free of template designs to favor new flows of online user experiences


What is lateral thinking vs. vertical thinking?

A vertical thinking method relies heavily on logic and patterns for more rigid decision-making.

Lateral thinking, on the other hand, embraces a more creative method for seeking and identifying new ways to approach decision-making. This technique results in innovation, whereas vertical thinking results in predetermined or expected results.

What is creative thinking vs. lateral thinking?

Creative thinking is a broad term used to describe how you might explore all possibilities. Lateral thinking is similar because it also takes a more creative approach, but it’s more structured. It involves a series of processes and considers a host of factors to intentionally explore beyond traditional formats or boundaries. It’s an expressed method of creative thinking.

Is lateral thinking necessary for creativity?

Being creative as a stand-alone concept can be challenging if you don’t apply some methods and structure. Lateral thinking is essential for results-driven creativity. It allows you to apply specific methods to be more effective creatively.

Is lateral thinking the same as brainstorming?

Think of brainstorming or life-storming (where you reflect on your experiences to draw inspiration) as a step in the lateral thinking process. Lateral thinking encompasses all the steps from mindset to ideation sessions, including brainstorming beyond normal interpretations.

Why is lateral thinking important for problem-solving?

There’s no sense in trying to reinvent the wheel if there’s already a solution to an existing problem. However, problems tend to shift and present new challenges that call for new solutions. Sometimes, existing solutions can still be improved for better efficiency or engagement. Lateral thinking is pivotal in any problem-solving endeavor that calls for innovation.

Start coloring outside the lines and thinking outside the box with lateral thinking strategies. It’s how today’s designers, researchers, and problem-solvers find new and innovative ways forward. When you can apply methods and processes to your creativity, you can explore entirely new solutions and discover ground-breaking results.

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