Creative Designers, A Needed Oxymoron


Featured image: Port-A-Personas designed for one of the students for her Creativity Toolbox. The two images on the right side also belong to that project. The top-left image is from the Creativity Children’s Book, and the one on the bottom-left corner is from the Creativity Experience. All these projects described in this blog post have been created by undergraduate students from Princeton University.

The final project of my undergraduate creativity and design class is a quite vague and broad assignment. Students are asked to create something (we call it “Personal Creativity Manifesto”) to show how creative they have become but also how their creative and design selves would have a role and make an impact in the future. The solution can take any form from a more traditional written paper to a video or a website.

The core of the class is helping students see the world through a different lens, and reconnect with that “unconstrained” part of themselves that once was the one ruling and making all the decisions while operating in a less realist world than many “grown ups” live in. At some point in our lives, we all operated with a constraints-free mindset, but a combination of cultural and social constructs, our own incapacity to take family and peers’ opinions just as opinions, and the education system contributes to minimise that way of thinking to the extent of almost disappearing as we grow older. Often, designers and artists, who have been exposed to creative training (I would argue that for more than 2 years at least – no scientific work to cite here, just empirical experience), can more easily reconnect with that part of themselves, and it is this “different” way of thinking that labels designers as “creatives”.

However, not all designers actually exercise their creativity at a daily basis. There are too many short-cuts and pre-fixed solutions that many designers prefer using rather than spending more hours exploring and experimenting with new ideas. If, more than ever before, it has become common place that thinking creatively is the way forward to come up with “innovative solutions”, why many designers don’t take this path? Proposing radically different ideas requires to be working with a very open minded recipient (a.k.a. client, supervisor, boss, manager, etc.) able to see the value and potential of an idea rather than just focusing on possible negative consequences. In addition, different ideas tend to be in opposition to what ever the “rest” say or think. This means that to be the designer openly generating these kind of ideas, you need go “against” the norm. This is too often easier said than done, as education systems and society train us to be like “everyone else”. Consequently, many truly innovative ideas get shot down because they are presented to the wrong person or to a person not brave enough to see beyond conventions or what they think everyone may want.

Coming back to the class, throughout a semester we encourage students to develop this different way of thinking. We encourage them to come up with crazy wild ideas first, and then think about how could they become solutions. This process is harder than it seems, because at the beginning students don’t allow themselves to think in non-real terms. By the time they arrive to their final project, they have gone a long way, and most of them have embraced this new way of thinking (or at least have the tools to reconnect with it).

Applying creativity

Last semester, I was happily surprised with most of the students’ final projects. Many projects showed the limitless power of imagination and a re-connection to their unconstrained selves. For many students this wasn’t just an assignment, this was an opportunity to further explore their newly rediscovered way of thinking and create something that will remind them of their full creative potential. These are only four examples of a rich spectrum of students’ solutions:

  • Creativity Toolbox: Rather than focusing on explaining how creative she was, this student decided to show it by explaining the set of tools she uses to solve problems. For that, she built with her own hands a set of the 17 tools that have helped her shape her creative development. Some of these tools even give her “fantastical abilities that respond only to [her] command”. From “empathy glasses” and “port-a-personas” to an “assumption dissolver”, each of these tools will help someone else understand her thinking process and creative potential.
  • Creativity Castle: As a way to push herself to reconnect with her active imagination, this student pushed back and reclaimed her childhood way of thinking and viewing. She created a place of inspiration, in the form of a castle (Yes, she did create a real castle of considerable size), that combines her thoughts and ideas from childhood with her aspirations as an adult. Inside the castle, eight rooms are colour-coded and given a name, representing a different creative essence. Specific objects and writings also communicate the purpose of each room in her journey to always remember to reconnect with her creativity.
  • Creativity Children’s Book: Inspired by the creative way in which Dr. Seuss books approaches real problems, this student created her own children’s book as a way to illustrate her creative ideas to deal with three real world social issues: inequality, discrimination, and world wars. The story of her book showcases her personal journey and who she aspires to become in the future. To illustrate the story she invented and drew an imaginary world in which, the main character, a young girl, learns about these problems that society faces and tries to figure it out how can she help address them. The story is told through a metaphorical lens in which all names, characters, scenarios and objects are fictional but denote key aspects of the real issues. For example, discrimination is represented through dialogues between the “stouts” and the “touts”, plants in the “Tutt Tutt Tip jungle.”
  • Creativity Experience. Everything on this project was there for a reason: the goods and the bads, representing this student’s own imperfections and complexity. This student created an interactive experience to help the reader/user “walk in [his] shoes” while applying the skills he has learned throughout the class and will be using in the future. The project involves many parts including gloves, batteries, miniature trees, lights turning on, and circuits. The user is invited to follow the student’s creative journey by engaging in five activities: waking up, starting thinking, applying knowledge, applying effort, and using creativity. Hard to explain with words, this project needs to be experienced.

These and other projects demonstrate that creativity isn’t just a magic spark that hits you in the shower. Creativity requires hard work, learning how to see connections, and seeing things from various perspectives and unconventional angles. But above all having the courage to go against the currant if needed. For that, shutting down the judgemental side of the brain which is constantly pressuring us to do “what we are supposed to do”is essential. Creative designers (as opposed to “conformist designers”) trust their inner voice, own judgement and ideas, and are not afraid of exploring uncharted territories.

Yes, it is true: it isn’t as easy as it should be to work with people having the kind of flexibility of mind that is needed to support these ideas and take them further, but if we, designers, show the full potential of this way of thinking and doing, eventually, wild ideas will be given a second chance. This is the kind of thinking that we need to find solutions to the rapidly increasing complexity of the world.


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