Archives For Creative Confidence

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I’m a big believer in the value of internships, that’s why IDEO runs a substantial program every year. As well as getting experience working on real design projects, our interns are tasked with a series of conceptual projects so they get the most out of their time with us—and vice versa. One of those activities is the Summer Intern Design Challenge, run out of our San Francisco and Palo Alto offices. Interns are asked to team up, tackle a design brief, then present their final prototypes at an exhibition. The Challenge not only gives interns a chance to collaborate with each other, but they leave IDEO with work they can share publicly.

This year, we decided to try a little time travel. Nearly 20 years ago, I participated in a project along with a team of other designers at IDEO. The brief: design a series of light switch prototypes for an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Our submissions explored unconventional materials like satin, fake fur, and rubberized Lycra, but their overall forms—panels mounted on walls—were relatively traditional.

This year, we tasked our interns with the same brief, but boy were the results different, a sign of how much design has changed over the intervening decades. While some of the interns focused on material explorations and the physical experience of a light switch—like my team and I did in 1995—others went much further afield. From a collaborative game called Smile Switch that converts facial expressions into light, to Brighter Moments, a fixture that plays meaningful messages for loved ones when they turn on the light, to a social impact service called Let It Shine that helps families in developing countries pay for energy, the idea of a traditional light switch was explored from every angle.

The diversity of approaches to this humble, often overlooked object shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, as I mentioned in a recent post, a design career is much more open today. In 1995, my prototyping team all came from industrial design and engineering backgrounds. This year, in addition to ID and engineering interns, we had interaction, business, environments, and org designers along withdevelopers and other folks joining in the fun.

The experience reminded me of a few things I’ve learned from these and other interns over the years.

Interns ask “why.” Because they’re new, interns don’t know what’s been done before. When they ask why you’re doing something a certain way, you have to explain yourself, which can reveal long-held assumptions—and force you to rethink them.

Interns energize a workplace. The best interns are eager to roll up their sleeves and jump in headfirst. Their enthusiasm is infectious and can help unlock even the most stuck teams.

Interns don’t just learn from you, you learn from them. The assumption is that interns will leave your company smarter for it, but I’ve found the learning is definitely two-way. Whether it’s beautiful wall murals, hacked knitting machines, or teaching pasta-making classes, our best interns have given back as much as they’ve been given.

When I see the caliber and diversity of the interns that spent this summer with us, and the creative approaches they took to a challenge as mundane as a light switch, I’m hopeful about the future of design. Thank you, interns, for a Master Class in optimism.

What have you learned from interns?

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Typically, the soundtrack of Fourth of July is the deafening boom of fireworks. You can barely hear yourself think, let alone have meaningful conversations with family and friends. This year, why not try something different and hone your creative listening skills in the time it takes to fire up a grill?

IDEO’s New York studio recently put together a short “Creative Listening” course in the form of a podcast for the Aspen Ideas Festival. Designed to help conference goers maximize their experience, the four bite-sized segments can help anyone develop better creative listening habits in 30 minutes. Here are a few things you’ll learn:

How to utilize your intuition: Sometimes too much information is just that. It can be overwhelming and logic can only get you so far. That’s when you need to trust your gut and ask, “What’s really important here?” “What’s going on behind the surface, the unsaid versus the said?”

How to hone your interpretation skills: Industry jargon and wordy explanations often mask the true value of something. Learning how to distill a message down to its essence, into simple, understandable language isn’t “dumbing it down,” it’s giving it wings.

How to find inspiration in unexpected places: Looking outside your normal, go-to sources can be a great creativity boost. For instance, one of our teams was working on new membership program for a credit card company. Instead of looking at the competition, they spent time with a rabbi who encouraged people thinking about changing religions to experience different types of synagogues to find the right “fit.” That extreme, analogous experience helped the team turn the corner.

And finally, learn how to amp up your curiosity: Curiosity pushes us beyond what we know and challenges us to look at long-held beliefs in a new light. Staying curious—always asking “Why?” like an earnest preschooler—is a critical muscle that needs to be continuously flexed if you want to have new, game-changing ideas.

Best of all, the course is free to download on iTunes.

Creative listening is a great tool to help you solve tough problems at work. But this holiday weekend, you might want to apply what you learn to tackle a more pressing challenge: keeping everyone happy on vacation.

Happy Fourth!

 

What’s the most surprising thing you learned when you listened creatively?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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Are you “vacation deprived”? According to a 2013 study by Expedia.com, Americans only used 10 of their 14 annual vacation days. That’s twice as many unused days off as in 2012. While the restorative powers of a good, long vacation shouldn’t be ignored, there’s also something to be said about creating mini-getaways within the workplace to help people quickly reset and recharge.

Intuitively, we all know how much our environments affect our moods and behaviors. Our offices can either be numbing or energizing; encourage rigid manners or enhance creativity.At IDEO, we continually experiment with mood-altering environments.

In a few of our locations, you’ll find picnic tables, which spark memories of summer vacations and encourage friendly, casual conversations between colleagues. In our Chicago studio, there’s a cozy, under-the-stairwell fort some of our interns constructed. You need to crawl into it on your hands and knees, like a child. And at our Palo Alto location, an old-fashioned tree house was built one summer weekend, again, by some creative interns. As you climb up the ladder and perch amid the sturdy branches and rustling leaves, you soon find yourself next to some unexpected office mates, namely, bugs and birds.

The nice thing is that all these in-office escapes were easy to do and relatively inexpensive, much like a spontaneous weekend road trip. To be fair, none of them truly solve “vacation deprivation.” To my knowledge, only an actual vacation can cure that. But they do provide quick, midday pick-me-ups and that rare workplace commodity: free headspace.

Where do you go to temporarily disconnect during the workday?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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Does changing how you make things change the way you live?

The answer is “yes,” according to Made in the Future, an experimental project I collaborated on with some colleagues at IDEO Boston. The Made in the Future website recently launched and it explores how today’s innovations in maker technology might affect designers and society at large five to ten years from now.

To get inspired about what making something by hand means to people, we constructed toy airplanes with kids, cooked alongside chefs, built motorbikes with weekend gear heads, and hung out with gifted researchers at the MIT Media Lab. We looked at cutting-edge innovations in designing, manufacturing and distributing, and asked: where’s it all heading next? It was all incredibly inspiring and we learned a lot.

On the website, we break down what we learned into five themes, each illustrated with provocative product concepts. For example, a device called MatterTone addresses the desire for meaningful customization by creating 3-D recordings of ephemeral conversations.Master’s Archive, a combination camera/laser projector, enables augmented reality woodworking education in real time and speaks to the possibilities of tech-enabled learning and mastery. These are only a few of the types of tools we might create, how those things will change the way we act and learn, and how these technologies will ultimately shape our future.

Many of the advances in manufacturing and communication we enjoy today—not to mention a number of careers like “designer” and “engineer”—trace their roots back to the Industrial Revolution and early 20-century. Some of these seismic shifts took hundreds of years to play out. Imagine what will happen if, in the blink of a decade, mass manufacturing and mass media become massively personalized, variable, and collaborative?

If my predictions are accurate, creative skills will be in ever-greater demand even though access to tools will be significantly democratized, and creative confidence will be a necessary mindset for doing business. It also means we’ll longer be slavishly consuming goods, but collaborating with the most sophisticated, large-scale manufacturers to create the exact things we need when and where we need them.

If all this sounds worrisome, take heart, there’s one thing I know won’t change. Yesterday, today, or tomorrow: the act of making makes us human.

How will you participate in the maker society of tomorrow?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

If You Build It…

March 7, 2014 — Leave a comment

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Blocks. Legos. Forts. Kids are natural builders. But most schools don’t offer such hands-on learning. They offer sitting at a desk and listening quietly. That’s a shame, because there’s no better way to learn than by doing. Designer-activist Emily Pilloton gets this idea in a big way.

The founder of Project H, Emily’s dedicated her life to improving K-12 education in America through rigorous training in design thinking, vocational skills, and applied arts and sciences. (The “H” stands for the values at the core of her work: “hearts, hands, and hammers.”) Recently, Emily spoke to me about the two inspirational programs she’s running at Realm Charter School in Berkeley, CA: Camp H and Studio H. Camp H teaches young girls ages 9-12 hands-on design, woodworking, fabrication, and welding skills, while Studio H is a design and build class for 8- to 11-grade students that Emily originally co-founded with Matthew Miller in Bertie, NC. Where literalists see band saws and blow torches, visionaries like Emily and Matthew see these tools’ potential to strengthen kids’ math, design, and visual and abstract thinking skills—and boost their creative confidence.

But don’t just take my word for it. The best way to appreciate Studio H’s potential to transform young minds is to watch the recently released documentary, “If You Build It,” by Patrick Creadon, Christine O’Malley, and Neil Baer. This wonderful movie follows 13 Studio H students in Bertie, NC. Tasked with designing and building a farmers market for their community, “If You Build It” demonstrates how design can give meaning to our lives and shows just how difficult making meaningful change can be. Thankfully—spoiler alert!—their sheer optimism and determination surmounts bureaucratic obstructions and construction challenges.

I left the movie more convinced than ever that a thinking-with-your-hands approach to education provides students with the critical tools they need to build solid futures.

What other education experiments inspire you?

Photo courtesy of “If You Build It.”

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)