Ellen Rose

Ellen Rose 2019

The 'Aha' Movement

Designing for Creativity at Work

A Master's thesis blog: Products of Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts


Defining Creativity | Corporate Creativity: Is It an Oxymoron?

In business especially, it is important that we eradicate the idea that creativity is a solo venture reserved only for geniuses. Creativity is a team sport, and many companies have had great success basing their values and corporate structure on that idea. While there are countless examples of contemporary start-ups that have transformed the economy and our way of life—say, Facebook, YouTube, and Uber—building a business based on creativity and innovation is not a contemporary phenomenon. Hewlett Packard, Olivetti typewriters, 3M and IBM, for instance, positioned their twentieth-century businesses on experimentation and invention, to the effect of repeatedly creating transformative products and becoming indelible fixtures in the market.

The call for creativity in business has reached a fever pitch in the past decade. The drivers for it are the major economic and political shifts like a volatile economy still recovering from the Great Recession and globalization that has destabilized the traditional monopolistic mega-corporations. On the other hand, this unpredictability has opened the door for opportunity and innovation. Creativity is top-of-mind for CEOs: in 2010 IBM conducted a survey “of more than 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide” and found that what they believed their companies required most was “creativity…more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision” (IBM). The model of staying competitive by cutting cost does not serve today’s businesses. Companies instead should focus their resources on the development of new products and services, which requires a nurturing and permissive environment based on exploration. In other words, the present-day economics of efficiency should be replaced by an economics of creativity (Nussbaum 237). An increasingly volatile and complex global business environment needs to be countered with an approach that seizes on ambiguity and tolerates failure. Creativity is the way forward.

Creativity, as mentioned before, is a broad term that encapsulates the work done by, well everyone, from painters to regional managers to stay-at-home moms. Creativity in the workplace is a specific concept that is entangled with terms like innovation and Design Thinking. So what is the difference?

Innovation essentially is corporate creativity. It is a process that celebrates flexibility, curiosity and the creation of new things. Innovation is especially celebrated in the tech industry, which is based on its ability to iterate and create products rapidly and agilely.

Design Thinking is a highly contentious term that is embraced as often as it is rejected. Design Thinking is the human-centered process of generating new ideas and products, as applied to industries well outside the realm of design.

Design Thinking is a highly marketable, neatly packaged approach that promises to deliver creativity to “the world of big business–which is defined by a culture of process efficiency.” (Nussbaum, FastCompany).

It can be a powerful and transformative process, but it can also be hollow, superficial, and even dangerous if applied without rigor, meaning or input from the people it is meant to serve or represent.

There are countless detractors of today’s application of creativity in the workplace and the Design Thinking mechanism: notably, Natasha Jen of Pentagram, who delivered a talk in 2017 entitled “Design Thinking is Bullshit,” to business professor Vijay Govindarajan who "argues that innovation is just another way of describing the 'execution' phase of better efficiency, not creativity per se" (Asma 240). Bruce Nussbaum, author and professor of innovation and design at Parsons The New School of Design posits that “from the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process” (Nussbaum, FastCompany). His argument suggests that Design Thinking is the bastardization of creativity. Real creativity cannot and does not exist within the confines of corporate structure.

Arguments aside, building a team that is creatively confident and better suited to manage the complexities and unknowns of business today and tomorrow is an important and widely held goal. What are the ingredients for building a creative team?

Psychologist and author R. Keith Sawyer offers this tidy summary of what makes for a great creative team: “trust, familiarity of members with each other, and a shared commitment to the same goals” (Nussbaum 26). Trusting co-workers means bringing your whole self to work and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, which is no small feat. Further research has illuminated some other key factors in building creative teams. Diversity is paramount. Diversity of thought, backgrounds, and disciplines leads to stronger and more advanced ideas and products. This notion is the basis for the way that innovation consultancies like IDEO and SYPartners construct their teams: teams are formed based on projects, and are comprised of a small group of individuals with varying backgrounds like engineering, marketing, business and anthropology. Teams assemble and reassemble based on the needs of the company’s projects and clients. David and Tom Kelley write that innovation is “fueled by restless intellectual curiosity, deep optimism, the ability to accept repeated failure as the price of ultimate success, a relentless work ethic, and a mindset that encourages not just ideas, but action" (Kelley 74).

Kelley’s use of the word action is important to highlight and explore. Is the nature of creativity metaphysical—creativity for creativity’s sake—or rather does it imply utility and outcome? I would argue that creativity implies the latter. There are elements of creativity, like play and free association that can’t be subjugated to a purpose or direction, but in a broader sense, the act of creativity must have an outcome. Creativity is an exploration that results in something, and whether that something is tangible or intangible is negligible.

Creativity is both the journey and the destination.

Leadership is of course a major component in fostering creativity in the workplace—a specific type of leadership that instead of emphasizing “command-and-control [favors instead] a participatory approach that involves collaboration and teamwork" (Kelley 208). Participation means that all employees feel that creativity is an important component to their work and are primed to generate new ideas themselves and recognize potential value in the new ideas around them. Managers and executives need to provide the time and space for exploration and spontaneity.

Many people perceive work as a creativity-killer. Many others have experienced that feeling first hand. Following rules, functioning within a restrictive hierarchy, working to fulfill specific goals and getting bogged down in repetitive, mundane tasks are surefire ways to turn someone’s brain into soggy, uncreative mush . Disengagement at work is rampant and not restricted to the United States:

“data collected by Gallup in 2016, [shows that] only 32 percent of US employees feel involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their jobs...across 142 countries, only 13 percent of workers feel engaged with their work”(Gino 166).

Cultivating a culture of creativity is crucial not just for the sake of employees’ health and well-being, but also for the success of the company: “engaged employees, Gallup finds, perform 20 percent better than their disengaged counterparts, and they are three times more creative" (Gino 166).

There are a host of complex underlying forces behind disengagement at work, such as someone’s education or access to certain types of work, but a culture of creativity is certainly an important element to mitigating those other forces. Francesca Gino, behavioral scientist, author and Harvard Business School professor offers some suggestions for staying creative and engaged at work. For instance, framing work around learning goals rather than performance goals incentivizes employees in a different and more impactful way. Seeking novelty at work rather than settling for stability makes projects more challenging and more rewarding. Furthermore, she recommends that leaders encourage constructive dissent, keep an open mind, be authentic and transparent, approach problems as a novice despite having expertise, find freedom in constraints and get their hands dirty. (Gino 198-211).


1 Asma, S. (2017). The Evolution of Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

2 Chen Q., Feng J., Jiao Z., Liu Z., Qiu J., Rolls ET., Sun J., Xie X., Zhang J., Zhang K. (July 2018). Neural and Genetic Determinants of Creativity. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29518564

3 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.

4 Dubner, Stephen J. (2018 October 17). How to Be Creative Ep. 354 Freakonomics Radio. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://freakonomics.com/podcast/creativity-1/

5 Gino, F. (2017). Rebel Talent : Why it pays to break the rules at work and in life. New York: Dey St Books.

6 Kalb, C. (May 2017). What Makes a Genius? National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/05/genius-genetics-intelligence-neuroscience-creativity-einstein/?user.testname=photogallery:3

7 Kelley, D.; Kelley, T. (2013). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within All of Us. New York, New York: Random House Company.

8 Mlodinow, L. (2018). Elastic: Flexible thinking in a time of change. New York: Pantheon.

9 Nussbaum, B. (2013). Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect and Inspire. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

10 Nussbaum, B. (2013 April 10). There’s a Difference Between Creativity and Innovation. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/difference-between-creativity-and-innovation-2013-4.

11 Nussbaum, B. (2011 April 4). Design Thinking Is a Failed Experiment. So What’s Next? Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/1663558/design-thinking-is-a-failed-experiment-so-whats-next.