Design Thinking and the Myth of Creativity

By Lindsay Schwartz

March 9, 2018

I’m a podcast nerd. Little captures my attention better than good audio programming. A Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, titled “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” recently caught my attention in a big way.

While relating her experience as an acclaimed author, Elizabeth spoke to the odd, yet fairly well accepted idea that creative people must experience pain and anguish to produce their best work.

She shared examples of greatly talented individuals like Ruth Stone and Tom Waits who experienced these troubles, and others who succumbed to terrible endings at the hands of their craft. She went on to explain how she sought to avoid this painful path after the success of her book, Eat, Pray, Love.

As she looked to history to find a reasonable framework to continue writing in a positive and inspired mindset, Elizabeth found something useful in the lore of ancient Rome. She learned Romans didn’t believe creativity came from human beings, but rather from a divine spirit. “Romans called this disembodied, creative spirit a ‘genius,’” she said.

To the Romans, a genius wasn’t a supremely clever individual. It was an entity that lived in the walls of an artist’s space and aided in the artist’s “genius” creations. It’s easy to see how this fantastical construct of the genius could protect an artist from feeling overly responsible and anguished by the outcome and criticisms of his or her work.

A More Sustainable Kind of Genius

Beyond just finding a healthy mindset, Elizabeth’s talk discussed what I think is a beautiful and radical idea: Instead of honoring the rare person as a creative genius, we should consider honoring the genius available to each of us.

Whether by Roman genius or otherwise, acknowledging that good ideas can be inspired helps open our imaginations to possibility, allowing interaction, dialogue, and connection to bring genius to the table. As a creative professional, this message feels really important to me.

In prior work experience, I found myself trapped under the weight of competition. Little research informed our project briefs, and designers worked in isolation, competing against one another to bring their aesthetic skill sets and best ideas to the next project meeting in circus-like surprise reveals. In these situations, I often felt tormented by unspoken expectations of performance. This suffering didn’t result in my best work—quite the opposite. It was stifling.

I now work for Azul Seven, a firm that practices design thinking (instead of design competing). The process, which includes extensive research, helps to bring out creative genius by encouraging collaboration and curious observation of the world.

Tapping Into the Value of Stories

Humans are inherently social animals that have evolved to survive by sharing information.

More often than not, we share information as stories. We use stories to define our experiences, perspectives and perceptions of the world around us.

As a design thinker, part of my job is to listen to the stories people (a.k.a. users) share. Many of my days are spent conducting research in the form of empathetic interviews. The information is then used to guide and inspire a semi-fluid methodology for creative problem solving, like this:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Most people wouldn’t naturally equate the word “methodology” with free-flowing creativity, but you’d be surprised what this process can do to reliably create innovative results.

Creativity Through Collaboration

As a design thinker, I’m most interested in hearing stories that reveal problems or opportunities for innovation. Those insights are the foundation for transformative creative results. But even once the problem is defined, we’re still just getting started.

At Azul Seven, we conduct user interviews in pairs, because no two people hear a story the same way. Our unique perspectives and thought processes influence what details we pay the most attention to and the conclusions we reach. By working in pairs, we widen the scope of our research and ultimately the creative solutions we’re able to generate.

The collaboration expands even further when we unpack interview research with additional team members who were not in the field with us. This brings more perspectives (and questions) to the table for what’s called “radical collaboration.” At this point, people are typically on their feet, moving, and contributing to the process with bright Post-its in hand.

This scene, with everyone gathered around the whiteboards, is often what comes to mind when people think of collaborative design work, and understandably so. It’s exciting, and it takes the pressure off any one individual to perform or deliver. The group dialogue allows opportunities for everyone to share thoughts and insights. The SOP is to actively refrain from judgement and to even encourage team members to expand on the ideas they share.

From here we go through rounds and rounds of ideation, prototyping and testing (wash, rinse and repeat, as we sometimes say). But what I see now, is that the genius of creativity resides within and around each of us, and by opening ourselves to one another’s stories and insights we have the power to change the world with innovative ideas. That’s why I enjoy the work I do at Azul Seven.

As humans, we come from innately different backgrounds. When we bring these differences to the table, the spectrum of creativity—of what is possible—feels boundless. If that isn’t genius, I’m not sure what is.

If you’re interested to learn more about design thinking services or training, please contact Azul Seven.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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