Are Designers Creative? Project

Drawing created by one of my students to represent her ideal world. For her, an ideal world would involve stores where everyone could get experiences, feelings, colorful sunsets, maps and time.

Developing creative thinking, and reconnecting with the imagination and the capacity to envision new futures and different realities is essential to address system-level challenges. Similarly, Don Norman, Ken Friedman, and Terry Irwin, among others, have indicated creativity as the skill to master in the 21st century. In the introduction to the Design Thinking, Design Theory Series (MIT), Friedman and Erik Stolterman discuss the need to problem solve through “rigorous creativity, critical inquiry, and the ethics of respectful design”. Thinking creatively has many benefits for well-being and society, helping people feel more confident about their decisions and taking risks, see problems from new perspectives, and find joy in the little things.

For designers, as creative individuals, creativity should be second nature. Designers should be open minded, flexible and able to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty. However, this is not always the case. Creativity in design is mostly associated with a sudden, unplanned “creative leap”, rather than deliberate action. Many designers don’t take full advantage of their creative potential and constrain themselves with familiar ideas, or get attached to ideas too quickly. These behaviors limit designers’ problem-solving process.

But for sure the role of creativity in design has been investigated before, right?

Yes. Creativity in design has been investigated but mostly from similar perspectives and a unilateral perspective. Prior studies primarily have been based on artificial situations and framed problems through controlled experiments, using protocol analysis, and focused on:

  • examining novice designers (students), rather than experienced designers (professionals)
  • measuring overall quality of design concepts and outcomes
  • examining design process activities and creative strategies
  • exploring ways to enhance the design process by proposing creativity theoretical models and techniques
  • examining the generation of ideas (brainstorming) only; rather than other dimensions of creative thinking (behaviors, mental blocks, internal and external factors, etc.)

Research studies unrelated to design have examined how creative ideas originate in the brain and how mental blocks influence that process, but also from a unilateral perspective, often cognitive neuroscience or psychology. This homogeneity makes creativity studies from an integrated perspective combining cognitive neuroscience, psychology and design knowledge rare. There is also a lack of ethnographic studies looking at creativity in design in professional practice and unframed challenges.

Creativity On-demand in Design Project

For the last two years, I have been investigating the role of creativity in design practice to understand how deliberate-cognitive creativity can enhance designers’ problem-solving process, in cross-disciplinary settings where domain-specific expertise is needed. While findings have been extremely interesting, the journey has been a little bumpy as it can be hard to gain support to pursue less conventional research projects like this. Too frequently, creativity research with a focus on design is described as “not academic enough,” or “not scientific”, even when the need to nurture designers’ creative capability to its full potential is more critical than ever. 

Investigating creativity and understanding how to use creative thinking at will can greatly help equip designers to more effectively foster creativity in others, lead collaborative teams, and contribute to address complexity with imaginative ideas. Expanding Creative Problem Solving literature, outcomes from my studies have indicated promising results when people understand the science of how to be in control of their own creativity. For example, even one year after being part of a creativity seminar using novel techniques, students still write to share how reconnecting with their creativity has helped them cope with the new COVID-19 pandemic reality, adjust to online activities, and develop new internal strategies to take risks and embark in different experiences.

Working Together Matters

Another important finding from this project is that collaboration is essential to holistically investigate creativity in design. One person alone cannot do or know about everything. A team is needed. In this case, a cross-disciplinary team should work together to analyze the many dimensions involved in creative thinking and design problem solving process.

  • Are you working on creativity but don’t have a team?
  • Are you interested in investigating creativity but don’t know how?
  • Would you like to support creativity research?

Get in touch!

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