There’s been some talk lately about creativity, creative advantage, or, as Bruce Nussbaum puts it, Creative Intelligence or Creative Quotient (CQ). This is great; for the first time in a while, creativity is being heralded as a valuable attribute in business and innovation, and is a more understandable concept than perhaps “design thinking.” Moreover, creative practice in many disciplines, including many MBA programs, is being touted as the critical ingredient for innovation. Check out what the Rotman School of Management (and others) has been doing, or read Roger Martin’s book, The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.

With this renewed interest in creative thinking, one might assume that creativity among design practitioners and students is on the rise. But in fact, from a design school admissions perspective, it’s never been lower. Students applying to design schools today have far fewer incoming skills, a smaller breadth of ideas, and they generate a fraction of (art) work than applicants did in previous years.

In talking with students, parents and colleagues at other universities, kids just aren’t exposed to the variety of creative practices that were available years ago. While I hesitate calling this an epidemic, I will assert that this change makes design school recruiting more difficult, complicates teaching creative practices, and further enhances the creative divide between those who “are creative” and those who believe they are not.

However, the innate ability to make abstract connections among disparate entities and a willingness to jump into a messy design problem (or any complex situation) with both feet are becoming rare skills. The ability to get down and dirty by building, making, and exploring without stringent boundaries is a skill seemingly disappearing from today’s youth, but increasingly sought by employers who are searching for “innovators.” So why does this disconnect exist?

The problem is that many primary and secondary schools no longer emphasize creativity or expansive thinking as a fundamental practice in science, math, history, and art. Many schools (and, by extension, teachers) are under immense pressure to achieve basic academic testing scores, so they are forced to teach directly from the book to achieve predictable and measured outcomes.

Consider the number of arts and music programs across U.S. high schools axed or “mothballed” during budget cuts. During tough economic times, creativity is viewed as expendable. I’ve heard over and over again, that “diversionary activities” like art can happen outside of school. In the era of No Child Left Behind, our collective perception is jaded by a culture that promotes coloring within the lines, waiting for directions, and asking permission before doing anything. We’re not preparing students to deal with the abstract and complicated problems they’ll experience in life. We’re creating a creativity deficit.

In his book How We Think, written a hundred years ago, John Dewey noted that teachers at the time struggled to find a balance between mass education and teaching pupils individually. He wrote: “… the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near to the attitude of the scientific mind.”

I’m perplexed that as children we play, invent, draw, and build with reckless abandon, yet at a certain point in school, creativity is “taught out” of students and replaced with formulas and procedures for achieving results/answers. This is dangerous, and at the university level we are consciously trying to re-instill this creative spirit. Incidentally, we employ approaches, methodologies, and processes rather than adhering to procedure or an official way of doing something.

If we’re to believe that creativity (i.e., design thinking) is really the next big thing in industry, then why is it going away in our educational system? Why hasn’t creativity had a prominent and permanent role in all organizations? Why have we rediscovered this fundamental human quality now?

Rigidity in the classroomThis is important for the UX community to understand because, like classical design, UX is not just about problem finding and problem solving. It’s about forming meaning from abstract situations and creating the future of the way people live, work, learn, and play. To be truly innovative, UX teams must be positioned to have the means to break free from conventions, linearity, and pure metrics. UX needs to reawaken the fundamental aspects of expansive creative thinking that enabled UX to initially carve its own hybridized niche. I will contend that a common thread among the disparate backgrounds of UX practitioners is their fundamental capacity to create (in addition to high concern for people). Therefore, to enrich our own creative practice, indoctrinate newcomers into a mindset for creativity, and to evangelize UX practice, I will put forward three core attributes of creative practice.

#1: Building Shared Understanding

Design rarely happens in isolation. By its very nature, designing is a social activity requiring collaboration and sharing of ideas. Sketching, modeling, and prototyping bring embryonic ideas into tangible form. The more tangible an idea is, the more solid the understanding. With solid understanding come shared understanding, common language, and group concinnity.

By visualizing ideas in sketched, notated, diagrammed, constructed, or interactive form, you actually invite response and collaboration. It is easier to respond to an idea than to generate a new one. Sketches, models, and prototypes make it even easier. Just think about how hard your brain works when you try to generate new ideas on the spot or when you are trying to understand someone’s point. So the rule here is to draw, model, and build to the best of your abilities. Even if you think you can predict the response, it is best to bring ideas into form to give them a fighting chance and help ease the work of the rest of your team.

shared understandingBuilding a shared understanding can also happen on an individual level. Have you ever started sketching some ideas and discovered you’d drawn something entirely different than what you’d been thinking? Your brain’s natural ability to make connections among all the things you’ve seen, experienced, and done is greatly facilitated by a sketch. I always think of this as an organic form of dual processing, where consciously I’m capturing my ideas in a methodical way, while unconsciously my brain is working in a frenzied state to make sense of my thoughts and my drawings. I’m always surprised at what I’m able to come up with.

#2: Playing the “What If ?” Game

Expansive thinking is the backbone of creativity. The ability to make connections, find new options, and propose “better” alternatives is highly valuable in a variety of contexts. Have you ever met someone who is great at making connections and asking just the right questions? And have you ever met someone whose sole purpose in life is to derail any discussion with obtuse tangents?

Each time we ask a question about a concept, there is potential to spiral into tangentland. At the Pittsburgh-based design firm Thoughtform, they call it falling down “rabbit holes.” tangents on ideasThere is a delicate balance between nudging a concept into shape with thoughtful questioning verses running tangents roughshod.

Playing the “What if?” game is a vital and natural component of being creative, it requires you to simultaneously reflect upon previous knowledge, assess your current understanding, and to forecast how a new idea fits in the future. Questioning the status quo is all part of searching for the next answer in a design problem. But skillfully playing the “What if?” game requires serious chops to back up a line of inquiry. Merely asking why something exists seems to initiate a challenge, whereas proposing alternative solutions or ideas may help make better connections. Again, this requires some means of visualizing ideas and a willingness to throw ideas out for discussion.

#3: Courage to Fail Beautifully

In a previous article for UX Magazine, Playing in the Sandbox, I wrote about the vital role of experimentation in design and why UX practitioners must be pioneers in spirit. Designers, developers, engineers, and all UX practitioners engaged in strategy, problem-solving need to have creative confidence. Creative confidence is the courage to fail, knowing that if your idea doesn’t work you’ll be able to come up with plenty more ideas in response.

Ribbon for failingDeveloping ideas involves risk-taking, optimism, and lots of personal investment. After all, UX (and design) is about developing ideas, not an ideal. What may satisfy user criteria and client constraints today may not be relevant tomorrow. We live in constantly changing times and all products evolve through iteration. For now, creating the über-design or ultimate concept is not the goal; agility, adaptability, and continual tweaking enable products, systems, and services to remain relevant and to get better.

So, why not put forth edgy or blue-sky ideas? Truly creative types will do this automatically; it is not a conscious activity for them. However, the downside is that you need to be responsive and able to pull back highly conceptual ideas before they derail.

Failing beautifully can only be achieved with great personal investment, commitment, and with the ability to see a concept through to a high quality visual/physical/interactive form. Regardless of whether the concept will make it into production, committing to an idea and following through will give your idea the best chance, and if it fails, at least you will fail beautifully. I have respect for failing beautifully because a half-hearted attempt at anything undermines the entire creative process. Simply put: commit, execute, follow through. And if it doesn’t work, try it again.

Closing Thoughts

Being creative involves aspects of expansive thinking, pushing boundaries, and bringing new ideas to light, but it isn’t about talent or skill necessarily. Creativity can be learned and practiced.

I’m not sure the world is ready to measure CQ, assign standardizations around creative intelligence, or to enlist sweeping metrics, but continuing the conversation and reflecting upon how creative thinking enhances the role and presence of UX is, in my opinion, really what’s needed.

For an interesting article titled Neuroscience Sheds New Light on Creativity on Fast Company.

Check out the interesting video, Do schools kill creativity?

For a summary of design thinking vs. creativity, check out Don Norman’s thoughts.

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