I started 2018 by reading Creative Confidence, written by the Kelley brothers of IDEO. In it, they say that
“at its core, creative confidence is about believing in your ability to create change in the world around you. It is the conviction that you can achieve what you set out to do. We think this self-assurance, this belief in your creative capacity, lies at the heart of innovation.”
In product land, there’s always a lot of talk about the best way to maximize your design process. But in articulating process, you unintentionally also put guardrails on it. When you define a project roadmap, you also define the paths that will and will not be taken; and your team and clients generally look to you to show how all the steps will add up to greater whole. Basically, you begin at the starting point, saying, “This is how it will all come together into your new website, app or necessary interface within X amount of time and Y amount of budget and provide Z amount of value to their customers.” And while there are reasons for such methods, they can be severely limiting and stifling to creative innovation.
Fortunately, when chapter founder and my fellow co-organizer, Alex Molloy and I sat down to plan out our agenda for the OpenIDEO Los Angeles chapter in 2018, we both expressed an interest in developing our creative confidence. (OpenIDEO is the open-innovation practice arm of IDEO that engages with hundreds of thousands of people in communities all over the world.) So Alex and I built our monthly design-thinking events around the goal of learning how to build and nurture creative confidence. In hindsight, here are some important themes that emerged:
“Exploration leads to accomplishment” – Julia Cameron
For the purposes of this article, I will differentiate design work and creative work as follows: Design (especially UX) work is made for someone else. The reason to design is because there is a need and user out there who longs for it. Creative work is driven by you. There is no defined purpose, method or strategy to make it, except for whatever reasons personally drive you to do it. Does creative work require design? Yes. Does design require creativity? Yup. Is creative work meant for other people, too? Definitely, but the motivations behind why we design or why we create are very different.
To explore this, it helped that one of the first global OpenIDEO challenges of the year revolved around circular design and how to help Nike reuse the waste from making their shoes. The proposal was a big and complicated problem, but we appreciated how Nike was willing to jump into some exploratory design. In fact, that was explicitly written into the challenge rules: To avoid athletic and footwear solutions, and instead, propose solutions that significantly advanced the reuse of waste.
In the end, we created a two-part workshop around this problem in which we led groups through conceptual prototypes. During the workshop, Alex and I challenged participants to think of out-of-the-box solutions. For example, after an ideation segment, we encouraged groups to think of unexpected user groups—like surgeons or professional dancers—who might have problems that could be served by reusable Nike waste.
What was interesting with this challenge was how participants struggled with letting go. Quite a few people felt even attempting to address the problem of reusable waste in two days was impossible. Because the problem was too big, there just wasn’t enough time to understand everything to design a truly tenable solution.
But I think that’s why we embraced this event. The purpose wasn’t to come up with a workable solution. The purpose of the exercises were to just go down unexpected rabbit holes to come up in unfamiliar destinations. To go through the journey rather than expect the outcome. To try just because we could rather than never try at all.
“Art is a crucial means for turning thinking into doing in the world.” – Olafur Eliasson
In Creative Confidence, the authors talk about unexpected experts or reverse mentoring, explaining that one way to spark innovation is to avoid speaking to subject matter experts. For example, if you need to build a better house after choosing the choosing the right sandpaper grit, ask a repair shop rather than the people who make them. Or talk to a blind person about a visual experience, instead.
I think we as designers miss out on a similar innovative opportunity when it comes to upping our own skill-sets. Generally, we prioritize knowledge based on its obvious outcome. If I take this course, workshop, bootcamp, book or webinar, then I will get X. But I think one of the most essential traits of a creative is their ability to find a relationship between object A and object B, especially when objects A and B have no clear correlation. And in order to do that, it’s important to look outside of the knowledge that defines your domain.
So for our July event, we decided to do something completely different. We organized a field trip to the Marciano Art Foundation, a contemporary art museum with over 1500 works in its collection. (The main exhibit was an installation by Olafur Eliasson.)
The exercise for the day started off with OpenIDEO LA Chapter leader Kyleigh Smith leading a brainstorm on observation and encouraging people to pay attention to other people and their conversations. Later, leader Dan Vang led our group through a collaborative design exercise in which a group observed an object. One person drew part of the object, then passed the paper onto the next who drew another part, and so on.
But overall, what people seemed to appreciate most was the time to step out of all the things on their to-do lists. To be in a space and place that was different from their usual schedules. To slow down, observe, and listen without the need to define the purpose for the activity.
“People first. Product later. Design the right thing. Design the thing right.” — Dana Chisnell
Many organizations stop at benchmarking their innovations against the competition. They’re looking for what’s currently happening rather than questioning whether the current ways are best. UX design and design thinking (and all the iterations of it) posit that to embrace empathy—to first position your perspective from that of someone else’s—is the most powerful way to innovate.
As such, when the opportunity arose to contribute research at a local level for an OpenIDEO global challenge, our LA chapter jumped at the chance. The challenge was around the following how-might-we statement: How might we design the next generation to-go fiber cup to be recoverable on a global scale, while maintaining the performance standards we know and trust?
What I appreciated about the workshop personally was that it was all about research. There was no product or solution to create. Instead, the efforts of our community were to truthfully document what was real for us at a local level and provide an accurate representation to our colleagues in chapters around the world in London; Aguacalientes; Austin, TX. To inspire them with our actions. And I think this is such an important part of designing the right thing for people first. It’s not about guessing where your work is going. Rather it’s about knowing your work is going out there and that it can and might be picked up by someone else. And that is magical.
Overall, the year was very inspiring for me. I found intentional and unintentional ways to explore the themes of creativity, inspiration, innovation and joy in my professional work. Intentional ways included bringing art, poetry, design thinking, and experimentation to the monthly workshops we hold for the OpenIDEO Los Angeles Chapter. The unintentional ways included taking some risks, like a sabbatical to Yosemite through a new startup called Amble.
But if you’re looking to play with things outside your wheelhouse, here are the specific concepts we used at the OpenIDEO LA Chapter to get our creative juices flowing:
- Explore Latent Needs
When you spot a contradiction between what you see and what you expect, it’s a sign you should dig deeper. If you go beyond a target demographic and look for extreme or edge case users, will you see an opportunity?
- Look to Unexpected Experts/Do Reverse Mentoring
Don’t go to the subject matter experts. Ask a repair shop about what they have to fix most often. Ask a blind person about a visual experience.
- Reframe the Challenge
Basically one of the most powerful ways to reframe a problem is to humanize it. In the book, the Kelley brothers discussed the famous case study of reframing the MRI experience for children around their needs instead of the machine’s needs. Another way to consider this perspective is by altering focus or your point of view: extreme users whose behaviors can point to nascent market needs. The one that stuck most closely with me from the book was how a team looking into beauty products talked to a forklift operator. He often used a foot bath, and this use case was rarely considered.
How might you step into a new perspective about your design work or block off time to follow a creative path this year?