“I’m just not the creative type” — Have you heard these words before? Do you refer to other people as “creatives”, as if there’s this divine designation given at birth to just a select few? To those individuals that happen to have been born on the non-creative side of the divide, well, too bad, we’re doomed for life. We’re just not the creative type.

Poor people who were born on the not-creative side of the divide. There’s simply no hope for them.

Today I’ll challenge you to think differently. Here are the facts: Your being here in this world means that you are creative. You were born creative. We all were. Creativity is a universal human trait.  What most of us get wrong is this: creativity is not the ability to draw, compose, or paint.  Creativity is born from a different way of approaching the world. Creative people approach the world using a few key mindsets that are not reserved only for “creatives”.  Anyone can use them, in any area of work and life. They’re easy to implement — You just need to be aware of them, and start thinking (and acting) differently.

I also started on the “i’m-not-creative” camp. When I was about to enter college in the late 90s, I knew I wanted to do something related to computer graphics. I ended up choosing computer science instead of design because, well, I wasn’t the creative type. I couldn’t draw and I didn’t think of myself as artistic. At the time, my limiting belief was that creative = artistic. I ended up transitioning to the design world later on, and I’m living proof that creativity is a skill that can be learned. It’s also a practice that must be exercised. I’ll show you how.


How to think like a designer

A designer is just a regular human being who approaches the world in a particular way. A designer is always working on solving a problem they’ve never faced before. A designer employs a series of mindsets that allows them to solve for anything. You don’t need to be a specialist in healthcare, technology, manufacturing, finance, or even your own life, to be able to create an innovative solution in that area.  In fact, approaching problems with a beginner’s mind is your biggest asset. You start from point A, and let point B be informed by the design process.  These mindsets will lead you to a solution you could have never thought of on your own.


Mindset #1: Human-centered

This mindset is at the heart of all the best solutions out there. It starts with curiosity. When was the last time you observed a child exploring the world?  What have you noticed? They’re curious. They observe. They ask questions. They don’t approach anything with a preconceived notion. They seek to understand.  They don’t judge or make assumptions.

Embody a child-like curiosity next time you’re exploring a problem space. Be curious in understanding why things are the way they are, why things don’t work, or why people behave the way they do. Once you employ the mindset of being curious, you let go of judgement, and seek to understand everything around you.

How to shift into a curiosity mindset:

Picture how a child would approach it.

Ask questions, instead of assuming.

Be curious, instead of judging.

Seek to understand what you don’t know.

Curiosity ultimately leads to understanding, and building empathy for the people you’re designing for. Empathy is the capacity to step into someone else’s shoes, to understand their world, their point of view, so you can solve problems from their perspectives.

You’d be amazed at how many ideas you can get, when you approach a situation without any preconceived notions, and through genuine curiosity develop empathy for your customers. Building empathy is the foundation of human-centered design.

A few of our clients say at the start of a project that they’re curious to see what we come up with. We tell them, “So are we”. Because we start every project without the end in mind. We don’t assume we know what the solution will be, until we’ve had a chance to immerse ourselves in the lives of the target customers. We let the people we’re designing for be the roadmap to our innovative ideas.


Mindset #2: Bias toward action

“Clarity comes from engagement, not thought”

~ Marie Forleo

This is true in business, in life, and whenever you’re creating anything new in the world. Instead of thinking, writing, or talking about an idea, build your way forward instead. Be biased towards action.

Try things out early and often. Once you know enough about your customer’s pain points, put something together that represent a potential solution to their problem. Start as roughly as you can, and refine as you learn.

The “paper car” was rough, but right at that early stage to simulate the context of use.

When I worked at Microsoft Automotive, we needed to quickly get to an environment that roughly resembled the automotive context so we could test some early ideas. Just looking at designs on our screens or a tablet wasn’t enough. We asked ourselves: How can we simulate the driving context as cheaply and quickly as possible, right here in our offices? One of our designers had an idea of drawing the interior dash of a car, printing it, and mounting it on a piece of foam board. We then placed a round object on the left side of this “paper car” (to simulate a steering wheel), placed a chair behind the “wheel”, a monitor showing a driver-view of a road to simulate the road outside, and a tablet with our rough prototype within arms reach. This allowed us to learn quickly and test some ideas that informed us where to go to next.

We ended evolving this prototype little by little over time to something that felt a lot more true to the driving experience, but we started with something way rougher.

The key here is to make an idea tangible as soon as you can so you can see how people respond to it. There are 2 benefits to this approach:

  1. The act of making something tangible into some sort of a prototype makes you gain a new understanding of the problem that you’d never have if you were just describing an idea to others. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a prototype worth?
  2. Since you’re not designing for yourself, you will gain a new level of clarity when you see how your customers respond to your manifestation of an idea. Stay curious to understand how they react the way they do.

Remember that the people you’re designing for are your roadmap to the most innovative solutions. By observing how they interact with your prototype, you’ll gain a new level of clarity on what’s working and what isn’t. You leave what’s not working behind, and create a new solution based on what you observed (remember – bias toward action). Rinse and repeat.

Instead of brainstorming in your whiteboards and betting that a new product idea will be a hit, make it tangible, show it to the people you’re designing for, and let them be your guide.


Mindset #3: Iterate

It is human nature to want to get things right and not make mistakes. But because you’re designing a solution for your customers (and not yourself), it’s unlikely you’ll get it right the first time. Or the second time. And that’s okay! The whole purpose is to learn what worked and what didn’t, so you move towards a solution that will ultimately be adopted and loved.

In human-centered design, we take feedback from the people we’re designing for as a key driver to how the solution evolves. This makes it an inherently iterative process.

Fail fast and often is one of our mantras when designing. As creative humans, we want to get things wrong as quickly as possible. This way we learn what doesn’t work, so we can quickly get to what does. As Thomas Edison wisely said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Embrace that mindset next time you’re creating something new.


In summary

Design thinking puts the people you’re designing for in the driver seat. Start by leaving your assumptions behind and get curious. Get to know your customers’ needs, wants, and desires. Be quick at materializing your ideas, at their roughest form, and get them in the hands of those you’re designing for. Let them guide your next iteration. Learn from what worked and what didn’t, and build your way forward to the next iteration.

We hope you implement these mindsets in your next project. You’ll be amazed at how you’ll start coming up with solutions you’d have never thought of. Because the whole point is not about you having to come up with the entire solution. Your customers will guide you there.

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