Creative Confidence

This past Wednesday I was at Art Center to see David and Tom Kelley of IDEO speak about their new book. It was great getting to see 2 pioneers of the design world tell stories about how a little bit of design thinking led to amazing outcomes in all sorts of industries.

image courtesy of IDEO

image courtesy of IDEO

CREATIVE CONFIDENCE

The title of their book is Creative Confidence. I haven't gotten a chance to read it yet. This book is targeted mainly towards people in non-creative professions to unlock their creativity and utilize design thinking to rethink the way they learn and do things within their industries. For example, they talked about a doctor who one day saw Formula 1 pit crews on the TV. After seeing how beautifully efficient and choreographed their process was compared with the chaos in his ICU he brought in the Ferrari pit crew to his hospital for 3 days. HIs ICU learned a few tips of the F1 trade, which led to a reduction of errors by something like 40%.

An F1 pit crew can change a tire in 8 seconds.

An F1 pit crew can change a tire in 8 seconds.

I like stories like these in particular, coming from Johns Hopkins University and understanding a bit about the doctor's perspective. I spent last weekend at Las Vegas with my good friend from JHU, who was having his bachelor party there. Almost all of the guys there were doctors. I shared my work with a couple of them while we were relaxing by the pool. The general reaction was, "Wow, this is so... creative. There's no creativity in what we do, we do things the way we're trained." It was apparent that our worlds have been quite different since we graduated from JHU.

The thing is, I don't think I was more "artsy" than these guys while we were studying engineering. The difference was more that my buddy who's getting married is probably the most risk-averse guy I know. And he's proud of the fact he doesn't take risks. It's a great trait if you're a doctor. Meanwhile, being a designer takes enormous creative confidence and risk-taking. We must consistently come up with something new and tell the world, "The way you've been doing things has been wrong all along. My way is better."

YOU'RE SKETCHING THE WRONG WAY

Naturally, every step along my creative path I've been looked at like I was crazy and have been told that I was wrong. When I told my professor at JHU I was going to design school, he told me it was a bad idea, I could just hire a designer. I respectfully ignored his advice. When I was at Art Center, I took all kinds of fire from instructors and peers. Art Center is a bit famous for those harsh critiques. The most common critique I received from instructors was that I was sketching the wrong way.

When I first began learning how to sketch I had a teacher who used to make fun of me for sketching so slowly. He used to call me turtle. "Hey turtle. Still sketching?" Annoyed, I told him that one day I'd be faster than him. Of course he scoffed. After all, he could do a marker rendering of a simple speedform in under 7 minutes! Today, it takes me about 10 seconds to doodle a speedform like this in Photoshop.

When I first began learning how to sketch I had a teacher who used to make fun of me for sketching so slowly. He used to call me turtle. "Hey turtle. Still sketching?" Annoyed, I told him that one day I'd be faster than him. Of course he scoffed. After all, he could do a marker rendering of a simple speedform in under 7 minutes! Today, it takes me about 10 seconds to doodle a speedform like this in Photoshop.

Halfway through Art Center, I decided to drop out of school and start looking for work. I didn't tell many people because most people, including my family, would tell me it was the wrong decision. And of course I was aware that it seemed like a crazy decision, with no jobs lined up, no connections, and no experience. I then found my first freelance client, a medical startup. When we kicked off the project, the client, a nanotechnologist, looked at me like I was crazy when I presented him with design strategies. He was furious and told me "That's not how you design." After that encounter, I hid my design process and just showed him the resulting designs, and then he was happy. I've learned that people are very guarded and hold strong opinions when it comes to design methods, clients and designers alike.

And of course, I think most professional designers have faced off against the argument, "We've been doing it this way for the past 10 years. It works fine, you can't change it." Sometimes you see a design is obviously great and clearly an improvement on what's out there, but it gets axed because of this sort of thinking. Yes, even after you've become a creative professional, you are still under all sorts of fire. You will continue to face people who think you're crazy and that you're doing things the wrong way.

YO-YO MA AND THE GOLDEN TICKET OF CREATIVITY

Tom Kelley told another fun anecdote about a music student who hated practice. Maybe he was like the Allen Iverson of music, he didn't want to go to practice. They went to an event where Yo-Yo Ma was performing, and 3 students were given an opportunity to ask him a question. The student used his one question to ask Yo-Yo Ma, "Isn't it great now that you're famous, you don't have to practice anymore?" Yo-Yo Ma told the student that he still practices 6 hours a day. Tom said, "Creativity is not the golden ticket. It's your passion & ability to be in touch with your creativity that changes the world."

Unlike the Kelley brothers I generally do not try to convince people in other professions to be in a creative field unless they already have the passion for it. My doctor friend is perfectly comfortable living in his world. And there is only one Yo-Yo Ma. There is no golden ticket. Those who "make it" in the creative world are those who hold onto their sense of self through all of the years of criticism, sleep-deprived hours of work, cognitive dissonance, and isolation, and still have the confidence, strength, and skills to follow what they believe in.

So, to my fellow creative professionals out there: Always keep practicing, keep learning, and never lose that creative confidence.