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The Processes That Guide Creativity

In 2003, while working on a redesign for Black & Decker, a designer on our team observed a colleague struggling to shut off a table saw after a piece of woodworking got stuck.

Not wanting to let go and risk damaging the piece, he finally called someone over to hit the power switch for him, instantly making clear the value of a hands-free option. This insight led to a low, oversized power switch – large enough to be operated with the knee – on the table saw they were designing, which went on be a top seller, and win an IDSA award, too. Today, knee-operated power switches are a standard option for table saws, from B&D and everyone else. And if it wasn’t for this brilliant observation, none of it would have happened.

Or so you’d think. Both designers and business people love passing around stories like these, because they reinforce the romantic myth of the lone genius, stumbling out of the blue upon the magic idea nobody else sees.

But the truth is that moments of inspiration aren’t unusual at all; practically any product innovation you can name has benefited from several. And if they seem to happen out of the blue, it’s because that genius was primed.

For example, Black & Decker’s Thermal Leak Detector, a project led by our industrial design director, Chris Murray, came out of an engineer’s realization that colored LEDs could show thermal leaks nearly as well as a pricey thermal imager. This insight happened in the field – just like the knee-operated power switch – while watching people struggle to use traditional infrared thermometers that were already on the market. And the “living hinge” that snaps easily over the sharp on Becton Dickinson’s SafetyGlide injector needle started as a napkin sketch created during the cab ride home from the project’s kickoff meeting. The SafetyGlide has sold more than 50 million units.

This raises a question: if “accidental” flashes of insight aren’t accidents, what are they? And more important, how do you plan for them? Here are five conditions for incubating creativity:

1_myth_21. Release the myth of the lone genius.

Now that that’s out of the way ….

2_contraints_72. Set the right constraints.

In my experience, what makes or breaks a design team isn’t a lone genius, but a design process that creates the circumstances for creativity, and shepherds those insights into the final product. It is, more than anything, about setting the right constraints – something the Eameses were talking about back in the 1950s. Designers are already bound by constraints of budget, schedule, and user expectation, but the best design teams add their own. We know that the right constraints don’t just curtail possible outcomes; they sharpen the eye, and inspire our work.

Try it. Next time you embark on a design project, fabricate some false constraints. Force yourself to design the device for single-handed operation even if you know the user group you are designing for can use both hands. Here’s another: Challenge yourself to figure out a way for the user to actuate and operate the product without looking at it. How will he or she know the product has successfully transitioned to silent mode? These types of constraints are not requirements, but they make the exercise more challenging and the solutions more valuable. I’d go so far as to say that the more constrained the process, the more exciting the design challenge.

3_framework_23. Provide the framework.

Brainstorming has gotten a lot of criticism lately, because its traditional format as an anything-goes exercise in idea generation often doesn’t work. Several years ago, as Bresslergroup’s teams were getting larger and our design problems more complex, we realized that unstructured brainstorming wasn’t yielding the right ideas. What we needed was a process. So we created a series of rules and constraints (described in detail here) that make sure everyone attending a brainstorm is prepared, focused and heard. It’s more work than showing up and shouting out ideas, but the results are noticeably better.

Over time we’ve designed a number of processes meant to provide just enough of a framework to give teams the tools and freedom to operate at their full creative potential. These processes sprang up exactly where we needed them – some help plan for creativity within the innovation and branding strategy work we do with our clients. Others help with the iterative design and engineering development. Structures especially come in handy when you have an integrated team of people from different disciplines who are each used to the “industrial design way” or the “electrical engineering way” of doing things.

The key to getting these structures right is making sure they’re properly balanced. Design relies on repeatable, applied creativity, and that puts it in the middle ground between business and art. Where it lies on that continuum depends heavily on the type of challenge – a blue-sky conceptual project is very different from a patent infringement one – but balance is always key. Too much structure and you default to obvious solutions, or give up in frustration; not enough, and you end up designing for yourself.

Hallmarks of a Happy, Creative Design Firm

  • A shared perception that the process is supportive of creativity.
  • A quiet office, because everyone’s out on field research assignments.
  • Low employee turnover.
  • No design star on staff, trying to overshadow everyone else.
  • A collaborative atmosphere with shared ownership of innovative solutions.
  • A steady stream of moments of inspiration.
  • Rules limiting the amount of time spent in meetings. (Creative work happens best when it’s unencumbered by interruptions.)
  • A culture that supports creative initiative (and begging forgiveness over asking permission).

 

4_caves_14. Build caves and commons.

In the workplace, this balance is reflected in the “cave and commons” approach that’s begun to displace the old cubicle versus open office debate. The “cave” is the isolated, solo space where individuals can focus; the “commons” is the shared environment where ideas are exchanged. Bresslergroup’s offices provide both, as will our new office. And while we still insist on regular team sessions to share and critique ideas, our designers know they can go wherever they feel most productive, even if that means working from the office after hours or from home, on hours they largely set themselves. One of our industrial designers comes up with many of his ideas on his bike rides to and from work. And I wrote this blog post — an act of creativity in itself! — while on the road.

5_designers_15. Set designers loose.

In many cases, we even insist that designers leave the office, knowing that the best ideas rarely come from the conference room. Observing users in action is a great source of insight, but so is being the user yourself: On a project with portable cameras similar to GoPro a few years back, our director of user research and human factors, Keith Karn, started focusing on mounts and connectors after he lost two cameras in one day while mountain-biking with a couple of their professional riders. The variety and sturdiness of camera mounts has become a major differentiator for most of the companies in that field ever since.

In another out-of-office success story, my colleague Daniel Massam incorporated customizable backlighting for a Sirius in-car stereo, after watching two installation experts in action and realizing how important it was to match the car’s dashboard lighting. In each of these cases, the key insight sounds like a one-off discovery. But underlying it is the process — of having designers spend a portion of their project in the field, or using the target product themselves — that creates the situation where discoveries can be made.

Design Good Processes

Lately, this has got me thinking about creative process, not as a necessary evil that keeps us from going off the rails, but as a design project unto itself. There are a lot of similarities between a good process and a good product design, after all. They both evolve over time, through trial, error, and evaluation. They both strike a balance between reliability and flexibility. And perhaps most important, they both work to augment the natural capabilities of the people who use them. We’ve designed a lot of great things at Bresslergroup over the years, but in many ways, the processes that guide our creativity are the most valuable things we’ve made.