The 'Aha' Movement
Designing for Creativity at Work
Masters Design Thesis at SVA's Products of Design program
Design to address the disconnect between messaging around and implementation of creativity at work.
A suite of products aimed to guide and inspire creativity in a range of workplaces, particularly those that value creativity but still fall short of its possibilities.
Creativity is a collective movement that is successful only when it dares to embrace the contradiction, inefficiency and playful nature of the creative process.
App which injects creative game play into professional networking
A desktop creativity talisman
Analog card game which leverages humor and lateral thinking to jumpstart team meetings and brainstorms
Failure Resume Builder
App that that instigates self reflection on our creative successes and failures
I've always been 'the creative one'
Translating Childhood Creativity into Adulthood
Creative is a word that I’ve used to define myself since childhood. I was the ‘creative one’ in the family, the ‘creative one’ in the classroom, and eventually ‘the creative one’ at work. As a kid I was infinitely entertained by bead kits, Sculpey clay, and boxes of Crayola markers, and those were the artifacts that defined creativity for me. Like many others, my understanding of creativity centered around art supplies and artistry.
As my professional work evolved from tasks that were artistically creative to tasks that might be better categorized as administrative or bureaucratic, my definition of creativity evolved too. I transitioned from hand-building sculptural props for window displays at Anthropologie and Saks Fifth Avenue to negotiating prices with vendors and troubleshooting massive Excel spreadsheets on the Creative Services Team at J. Crew Corporate. These latter tasks were less functionally artistic, yet required a great amount of creativity to resolve. I came to understand creativity as a broader process of exploration, problem solving and invention.
Redefining these administrative and bureaucratic tasks as creative challenges gave me a perspective and resiliency that allowed me to think of less obvious and more effective solutions.
Embracing creativity and having agency over one’s own creative process is powerful, and it’s available to everyone.
When we were children we were all creative. We invented worlds and then played in them, and we didn’t judge what we created. Many of us lost that ability or got tricked into thinking it wasn’t valuable as we grew out of childhood. The structure and demands of being an adult—especially an adult at work—oftentimes leave little room for creative exploration or expression.
The Contemporary Call for Creativity
Creativity is a diffuse and diverse concept, and it’s in the spotlight these days.
Humans are an inherently creative species, but in the last decade or so, as we’ve shifted into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the call for creativity has reached a fever pitch.
The current rate of change is exponential--not linear as it was in previous Industrial Revolutions--and the call for creative solutions has increased as the speed of progress has likewise increased. On a macro scale, the economy rewards creative industry disruptors, as evidenced by platforms like Uber and Airbnb, which have broken the transportation and hotel industries and become very powerful and very rich in the pursuit. On an individual scale, seemingly all of us have become creative content makers with sharing platforms like YouTube and Instagram. This moment is unlikely to fade. In fact, creativity might very well be the new metric by which we measure our success and self-worth going forward. Design has the opportunity to leverage the creative energies at play across industries, introducing a range of products and services that give people agency over their own creative process and embedding the spirit of creative play in spaces where it can accomplish positive change and personal satisfaction.
The methods for meeting this opportunity are to allow for mess and contradiction, instigate confidence in people to offer their point of view (even dissenting ones), create an atmosphere of trust amongst colleagues, and promote collaboration, play and lateral thinking. These approaches give individuals agency over their creative process, which I believe is the antidote to the disconnect between the call for creativity at work and its implementation. The creative process is messy: it’s about breaking the status quo, exploring without a set purpose, and being inefficient. It’s difficult to support that kind of practice in a workplace, but it’s necessary, and it becomes a reality when individuals and teams take ownership of the process. These are the principles that guide my design interventions.
The Domain of Creativity at Work
There is precedent for integrating creativity in the workplace, and the field of design represents that integration. Design is the practice of purposeful creativity. As I myself am a designer, there is a meta analysis embedded in this work: I am using my own creative process to solve around the challenge of creativity at work.
The methodology that fits creativity into the structure and demands of work is called design thinking. Design thinking, first established in the 1960s is “an umbrella term for multi-disciplinary, human-centered projects that involve research and rapid ideation” (Szczepanksa). It’s “commonly described as a mindset, method and attitude" (di Russo 3). It borrows from the scientific process and is not attached to a specific industry, but rather can serve any and all industries.
Design thinking is a contentious approach that seems to be criticized and rejected as often as it is embraced.
A notable detractor of design thinking is Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram, who delivered a talk in 2017 entitled “Design Thinking Is Bullshit.” Another design figure who once embraced design thinking but now rejects it is Bruce Nussbaum: an author and professor of innovation and design at Parsons The New School of Design. He 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 is that design thinking is the bastardization of creativity; that real creativity cannot and does not exist within the confines of corporate structure.
Their defamation of design thinking, I believe, is in response to the overhype around the value of design thinking, which began at the beginning of the century when suddenly a great number of design consultancies were established and the design thinking methodology was adopted by large corporations. Frog Design and IDEO are the still-active founding fathers of the industry, dating back to the 1960s, but 2002 marks the moment that design gained a foothold in the business world (Szczepanksa), and arguably, the moment when creativity devolved into corporate rhetoric rather than real practice.
My point of view leans towards the embrace side of the embrace-or-reject spectrum of design thinking; I approach it with optimism tempered with skepticism. While I do think that some of the design thinking templates and exercises are reductionist and contrived, overall, I think the approach has value. The process can be a powerful and transformative one, but it runs the risk of being hollow, superficial and ineffective. Furthermore, I think the design thinking approach, though largely open-sourced (IDEO puts most of their toolkits online for free download—although this can be interpreted as a marketing approach to promote their expensive creative consulting services and online courses), puts a structure and a barrier around creativity. It is also obnoxiously shrouded in flashy buzzwords that alienate non-designers.
While it’s important to understand design thinking and its relationship to creative practice at work,
my aim during this thesis exploration is to recapture the spirit of creativity, separate from design thinking.
Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist and author who is considered the father of the modern study of creativity defines a creative person as “someone whose thoughts or actions change a domain or establish a new domain” (28). He also recognizes that “creativity does not happen inside people's heads, but in the interaction between a person's thoughts and a sociocultural context. It is a systemic rather than an individual phenomenon." (23). To his first point, I would argue that a creative person should not be defined under such narrow terms. I believe that creativity is available to everyone, and that most of us are practicing it in our lives already. Making a major, publicly recognized, culture-shifting breakthrough should not be the measuring stick by which we gauge someone’s creativity. Since Csikszentmihalyi wrote these words in the 1990s, there have been some major shifts that have expanded our collective definition of creative people, such as the democratization of creative software, the availability of free online tutorials, and the obsession with content sharing apps. To his second point, I absolutely agree that creativity is not an individual practice, but rather is a “team sport” (as Tom and David Kelley term it too). To practice and recognize creativity, there must be a cultural basis for it—whether that be national culture or corporate culture.
An initial investigation surfaced the idea that human creativity was threatened by AI and neural net technologies. Artificial neural networks are computing systems whose structure resembles that of an animal brain, and which are programmed to ‘learn’ to do tasks on their own. However, several compelling arguments about the limitations of computational thinking reinforce my optimism in human creative capacity, such as the idea that the capacity for imagination requires a value system, emotions and bodily perceptions, which computers cannot achieve. Physicist Leonard Mlodinow argues that "computers are heading toward ever-faster calculation, [but] that hasn't translated to ever more elastic thinking" (Mlodinow 44). Elastic thinking is a term adjacent to creativity, encompassing the abilities to deal with ambiguity, to see above established systems and reframe problems, and to make associations across disparate ideas. And according to a McKinsey Global Institute report, it is far more likely that humans’ work will involve greater integration with automation and AI, rather than being outright replaced by it. I am convinced that computers will aid us in becoming more creative as technology relieves us of the mundane and repetitive tasks that distract us from our creative potentials.
Lastly, I would like to call attention to the urgency that underlies my call for creative thinking and doing. Humanity’s productivity has increased exponentially in the last decades, allowing us to thrive in such a way that our success threatens the very planet that sustains us. We are at a dire turning point, and in fact, we may have crossed the threshold already. Climate change, tenuous global food systems and the multitude of challenges that arise when humanity burgeons and tightly concentrates into urban areas are coming to a head. In the design world, these are coined “wicked problems,” and we need creativity to find innovative solutions to these crises and the crises that are on the horizon. Csikszentmihalyi’s writing substantiates this idea: "human well-being hinges of two factors: the ability to increase creativity and the ability to develop ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas" (322).
Process & Methodologies
The macrostructure of the investigation takes the form of the double diamond innovation process (also known as the double diamond design thinking model). The process begins with a divergent phase of research and discovery. For me, that entailed reading literature from historical and contemporary experts in the fields of design, psychology, physics, visual arts, neuroscience and business who have a unique perspective on creativity. There were also plenty of TED talks, online articles and podcasts that address the topic of creativity, which layered in to form my point of view.
There is an astounding amount of literature and interest in the topic of creativity, but I am not overwhelmed by it; rather I see it as a signal that I’m working on something topical and meaningful.
The second phase of the double diamond innovation process is to converge on a definition of a problem within the domain, essentially defining the right thing. The third and fourth phases of the process include a second divergence and convergence cycle, with the aim of designing the thing right.
For designers, a project moves forward not just through reading and analyzing, but through prototyping and iterating as well. The ‘Aha’ Movement is the result of nearly a dozen product development sprints which resulted in tangible and intangible design solutions. To be sure that I was not designing in a vacuum, the sprints were guided by insights from desk research and interviews with subject matter experts and potential users. I interviewed more than forty subject matter experts and involved more than thirty potential users and was further guided by formal critique from colleagues and design industry experts.
Interviews with Subject Matter Experts and Users
Mapping the landscape of creativity at work so as to understand key themes and key stakeholders.
Co-Creation Workshop with Users