All views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent TU Dublin in any way.

Entries in creativity (3)


Design thinking and creative intelligence

If we are to take Bruce Nussbaum’s word for it the role of ‘design thinking’ in business development and innovation has been in decline since 2011 when he called it a ‘failed experiment’. Nevertheless, I suspect that its value as a methodology for re-framing ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber 1973) has yet to be fully realised. Undoubtedly, there remains considerable confusion around the notion of design thinking. For example, 'Designing Growth', a discussion hosted by Dublin City Council in 2013 to explore how design could be harnessed to drive economic growth in Ireland revealed competing understandings of the role of design in design thinking.

The international panel of experts held divergent opinions – as did the audience, largely made up of members of the design community. The event was intended as 'a discussion on ways to develop new and better public services, communication platforms, education and business models through design' but had difficulty getting beyond a debate on the value of design itself, never mind design thinking. This was a disappointing, if not altogether surprising, outcome: all the more so due to the missed opportunity to convince John Moran (the panel’s deliberately selected sceptic and influentially positioned Secretary General at the Department of Finance) and other policy makers of the value in utilising alternative methodologies to plan the rebuilding of the national economy following its collapse in the recent recession.

The confusion between ‘design thinking’ and ‘designing’ in evidence at the event is not unusual. From an academic perspective Lucy Kimbell writing in 2011 suggests that:

Even on a cursory inspection, just what design thinking is supposed to be is not well understood, either by the public or those who claim to practise it.

In 2007 Nussbaum was a proponent of the role of designers:

My own current thinking is that designers must play a critical role in the creation of this new field of design thinking. The whole core culture of design is essential to design thinking.

Later that year Nussbaum's thinking has developed to the point where he is recommending that CEOs:

have to understand design thinking – using the process to manage the company. That is what [Steve] Jobs does – he isn't a trained designer but he gets it. He focuses on what is important these days. And it took him a while to get these skills. Remember all those mistakes along the way?'

This understanding of design thinking as an approach to problem framing and problem solving – derived from the design process – emerged from business schools. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, interviewed by David Dunne in 2006 says 'today’s business people don’t need to understand designers better, they need to become designers.' Martin had gained an insight into the design process from encounters with a small design firm in Toronto and a later involvement with IDEO. He was fascinated by the way designers approached problem solving by accepting constraints and ‘creating something that looks great and sells’. He also recognised that the same approach applied in business:

As I watched it, I saw that this is what great business leaders do. They enter some kind of constrained environment where they want to do something that is near impossible. They have to figure it out by thinking differently from anybody else. The best of what I see in the best business people is the same as what I see in designers at their best.

Kimbell cites Martin, from the Design of Business (2009) describing design thinking as having:

something important to offer managers, enabling them to shift from choosing between alternatives to helping them generate entirely new concepts.

Designer and writer Aiden Kenny (Notes and Thoughts from the 'Designing Growth' Event 2013) proposes that it may lie in ‘collaborations between business strategists and strategically-minded designers’. This all suggests a particular application for design thinking as a methodology for re-framing problems that society is having great difficulty addressing. But, just as it appears there may be a consensus developing Nussbaum appears to change his mind. In 2011 he writes that:

The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ.

A cynical response might be that his conversion is simply a strategy to support his new book, Creative Intelligence (2013). But, in fact, he attributes it to the failure of CEOs to understand and implement design thinking correctly and opportunistic designers misusing it to increase business. He reports a conversation with IDEO’s Tim Brown and quotes his analysis:

Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change. 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.

The ability to live with mess, with uncertainty, and with the looping circularity of creativity is something that John Cleese (The Origin of Creativity 2009) talks about also. He acknowledges the instinctive urge to move from uncertainty to decision and argues that it limits creativity. The longer one is willing to live with the discomfort and continue exploring solutions the better the ultimate result.

It seems that some of Nussbaum’s motivation in describing creative intelligence is to move away from the preconceptions he believes have limited the potential he, and others, saw in design thinking. He recognises that the wicked problems have not gone away and they require attention – as a matter of urgency. By changing the context in which they are addressed participation in the search for solutions is opened up to everyone. No single profession, design included, can claim ownership of the creative process so perhaps the new terminology will support the framing of problems in new ways that lead to the development original solutions.


On being creative …

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.
—Robert Louis Stevenson 

I took the time to reread Stevenson's essay An Apology for Idlers before leaving home for work this morning. I found the Anthology of Prose Writing that introduced my fifteen year old self to this, and many other essay writers, while still at school. It is interesting how some concepts stay with you even though you may not fully understand them at first.

My early morning search of the bookshelves was prompted by a realisation that lately there has been little time for idleness in my own busy life. Stevenson's well crafted exposition on the importance of idleness to creative thought has been reworked many times since. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times reshaped it for a contemporary audience concluding that:

Life it too short to be busy.

It suggests that idleness is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body. John Cleese also proclaims the importance of making space for creativity. He puts it quite bluntly saying that if you spend your day running around ticking things off lists you are not going to have any creative ideas. Usefully, he goes on to describe a methodology for integrating idleness with our busy lives. It requires the creation of a time and space bound oasis where your 'mind can come out to play', where creativity is allowed to arise and the more usual critical faculties of the mind are put away for a while.

I have a tendency to indulge the conceit that our modern world is so much busier than ever before, that we have so much more on our plates than our predecessors. At various times I have this blamed this on email, the internet, computers, mobile phones, or simply the ubiquitous nature of communication. This, despite the fact that Stevenson described an equally busy life in 1877. It might be argued that he was writing as the effects of the Industrial Revolution were creating our modern world but, it is quite clear Stevenson was arguing that busyness is more a self-imposed state of mind than an objective reality. He was warning of the consequences of not allowing the mind to come out to play.


Art, Science and Innovation

I have been noticing an increasing emphasis on the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) subjects in the current debates concerning the role of education as the key route out of our economic woes. The proposition is that innovation emerges from these areas. But, is that really a sound proposition?

As consumers we generally become aware of innovation in the form of a new product or service, made manifest through some form of technology. We also know that contemporary technology requires an understanding of science, engineering and math. Therefore, it seems logical to assume that teaching these subjects will lead to greater innovation and, of course, innovation is wealth generating. So, what's wrong with all that?

What is wrong is that the proposition misses that elusive ingredient: creativity.

Last year John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, launched a programme called 'STEM to STEAM' to alert business to the importance of adding Art to the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in education and research. The website reporting on the initiative suggests the

value of art and design to innovation is clear: artists and designers humanise technology, making it understandable and capable of bringing about societal change. The tools and methods of a studio-based education offer new models for creative problem solving, flexible thinking and risk-taking that are needed in today's complex and dynamic world.

In a way, it is somewhat surprising that we need to be reminded of this in the first place. It is broadly recognised that STEM subjects on their own cannot lead to innovation. The much misunderstood element of creativity is a prerequisite to developing an innovative product or process. But, becuase the creative process is so fundamentally different from the scientific method it is misunderstood by those whose methodology is based on it. Creativity is imbued with mysticism and consigned to the arts – safely segregated to the arts community.

This belief – or, more accurately, lack of belief – was also accepted by the business world for most of the last century and into the early part of this century. That is, until Bruce Nussbaum and others began to study how entrepeneurs came up with their ideas. They began to develop a new approach to business which they called Design Thinking. At its simplest, this means applying the iterative process of design to business. The idea was was taken so seriously that university business schools in Stanford and Columbia championed it and built curriculla around it. (Nussbaum has recently suggested that Design Thinking has run its course and is now using the term 'Creative Quotient'.)

The aspect that interests me is why, when we think about education, we appear to have forgotten the advances in our understanding of how business, and the wider economy, works. The repetitive mantra emphasising the importance of STEM smacks of desperation... it ignores the need for a more holistic approach to development. The key factor of the STEM to STEAM campaign is to remind those responsible for the future shape of education that we need to be producing graduates who don't see creativity as a mystical gift granted to the chosen few but a real tool to be harnessed and used alongside those of science technology engineering and math.