The Power of “What if…?”

A low intensity approach to generating ideas.

The struggle to crack a good idea in any creative endeavour is a process that scholars, designers, writers and philosophers have been attempting to synthesize for years. I’ve read books with opposing views, which inevitably made things more confusing than I cared to absorb. If there is one thing that pushes creativity away, it’s complication. Our brains have an interesting way of being at our will, but also totally out of our control.

As a designer, I’ve been thrown into the mix of “solve this problem” only to be met with a wall of minutiae, specs, wants, needs, and limitations. Ultimately, the hope in this process is that all of the supplied raw information becomes inspiration which in form leads to the big idea. But a lot of the time, things just become prettier through visual design, and the problem itself remains unsolved.

In essence, the scope of the idea has been limited by its’ parameters. It’s a very uninspiring space to create, and I implore you to try something different next time:

Ask yourself: “What if…?”

Imagine the task at hand or the problem you’re trying to solve. Take an optimistic, empathic approach instead. Try to visualize the potential, no matter how big, how wrong or how much it contradicts the parameters. Put away the fear of everything you know about the assignment or idea, and contextualize it in the real world. Create a version of the world as it exists, but picture it a little bit differently, and how your idea affects that world.

Taking an optimistic empathic approach is rarely seen in the 9–5 environment. As humans, we like parameters. In contrast, we also seek autonomy. Beyond that dichotomy, we’ve been somewhat conditioned to seek approval, not to seek what is unknown, different, challenging, or maybe not right. It’s when you start to poke at the potential, you begin to define the context, which allows you to see the proverbial forest from the trees. Through this process of using boundless imagination, it’s entirely possible that you don’t need a big idea at all — it could be a change in tone, a single word, or maybe an entire strategy. The exercise isn’t intended to work like a bolt of inspirational lightning. The simplicity in the question itself enables a different kind of self-reflection that remains clear and within the parameters of the real world, as well as the bigger opportunity within it.

These simple self-reflective questions ignite our incredibly curious minds. They open us up to collaborate playfully, and talk openly.

For example, think of the advent of hackathons. Rather than subjecting the problem solver with a list of feelings, moods, market forecasting and analytics, they’re asked a simple question, which typically comes in the form of “What if…?” or “How would you make this better?”. Being hands on with full autonomy allows for some pretty incredible, yet unrequested innovation.

Without realizing, I live most of my pedestrian life through this lens. I look up a street signs and imagine better transit communication. I open packaging and imagine how to use less waste. Nearly every interaction you have has the potential to be a “What if…?” moment. We all think and act curiously, but we have a tendency to suppress what we feel might be too juvenile an approach in our professional careers. Don’t fear simplicity. Avoid complication. Think abstractly, and ask yourself “What if…?”

For more information on the author visit

Levon Travis Sharrow

San Francisco

Travis Sharrow is a business and product designer who has an extensive background in digital experience projects. Having lead major consumer-facing projects for Apple, Nike, and GoPro, he has worked to develop strong internal teams and measurable business results. By leading with an empathic point of view, his work pairs engaging experiences with beautiful visual design.