In March 2021 I was invited to give a talk at Sheffield Women in Tech about Design Thinking. But instead of talking about our tried and true design thinking methodology (just google it!), I decided to go a little deeper and talk about creativity in the tech space. Because I think design thinking is great, but it works even better if the people coming to the table are able to bring their unique, creative perspectives to bear on the problems we are trying to solve with design thinking 🙂
In 2017 I transitioned from a career in publishing and graphic design to a career in tech doing user experience and service design for the financial sector. I found myself not only working with digital media, but with layers of highly complex systems. Enterprise software was no joke, and when I first started working in software I didn’t really understand what ‘enterprise’ meant, or ‘agile’ or ‘lean’ or any of those techno-jargon buzzwords. Frankly, I was clueless. But I was ambitious and driven and had good reasons for wanting to roll up my sleeves and put my creative problem-solving skills to the test.
First, an Artist
As a human being, I identify first and foremost as an artist. I’m sensitive, creative, I have a powerful imagination and I am incredibly driven. It is my greatest strength (and at times my greatest weakness). I have been on the pursuit of art and truth since I was a child. I grew up in the deep south, in rural Alabama, and developed a fascination with art early on, and sought truth because I couldn’t accept what the (conservative christian) adults were saying. My early influences were Bob Ross and the Renaissance art I saw in my family’s Encyclopaedias. We didn’t have art classes where I am from (except for some arts and crafts at church), but I didn’t receive any formal training until I went to university. So I spent a great deal of time as a child sat around with tracing paper, tracing images out of Encyclopaedias and magazines. I remember, my grandmother’s Encyclopaedias were the best because they had loads of illustrations in them. Fond memories.
Once I got to university, I was free to pursue training in art to my heart’s content. I had no idea what kind of professional I wanted to be, it’s not something I was really that concerned about, I just knew I wanted to learn to think and do art. So I studied Fine Art and Philosophy and took loads of other classes in science, history, theology, literature and psychology for fun. (My rural Alabama public school education left me more thirsty for knowledge than satiated, it was far too easy and left me bored and unimpressed). Realising I would need a way to make a living (and pay off my student loans) after university, I settled into graphic design since it offered hope of a career.
The Comforts of Publishing
So my professional life emerged from studying art, and I started doing graphic design work around 2007. My first job out of university was at a publishing company, I started as a graphic designer doing ancillary work like designing ads and packaging for some products that we sold, but quickly climbed the ladder to reach the position of art director of two internationally distributed magazines, Sew Beautiful and Stitch Craft Create, as well as a number of books we published. My training in Fine Art at university allowed me to be a sort of jack-of-all-trades in publishing—I could do illustrations, typography, work the camera, nail compositions for photoshoots, build/create props for photoshoots and of course use my graphic design skills to create page layouts and design systems for the titles I worked on.
The great thing about publishing and media is that it is a mature industry. The printing press has been around since the 1500s, and modern day publishing is a well oiled machine. Working in that environment, while it definitely came with a lot of pressure to produce high-quality content against harsh deadlines, provided a great sense of stability and routine. You could always count on the following certainties in publishing:
- Deadlines are real. Printers are part of a supply chain network, and they won’t stop or make exceptions for you. You always ship!
- Context is predictable. You know how people consume your products, books and magazines are well-trodden media and there were well-defined criteria for making a cover pop on a newsstand. You knew that in December you’d need to have your Christmas issue on newsstand, in March you’d send out your Easter issue, etc. There was little mystery.
- Product is well-defined. Books and magazines are made of paper and cover stock, you would know well ahead of time how many pages you needed to fill, and typically (in magazines) roughly how many pages you needed to put aside for advertising. You knew you’d be printing in CMYK unless you could convince your boss to splurge on a 5th colour to make the cover pop with some neon or metallic ink. And you’d know if your magazine would be wrapped and sold with little knick-knacks. Fun fact: the British market loves knick-knacks. As a designer, I loathed this because wrapping a magazine in plastic to contain knick-knacks meant the cover design got obscured, but our marketing teams gave us no choice but to yield to the knick-knacks.
- The medium is predictable. We all know what happens when ink hits paper, there are some nuances you learn about printing (e.g. make sure to use 100% black on text, watch your margins, etc) but those are quickly learned and programmed into your design system and templates.
- Data drives content decisions. Our marketing team was constantly doing testing and running focus groups to discover what content and images would grab the most attention. Another fun fact: white cakes on the cover of a magazine really sell! (…at least they did back in the 2010s). And for what our marketing team missed, the production team heard about through a highly-engaged community of readers / subscribers. Instagram and Twitter were great platforms for us to engage directly with our audience, we’d host Twitter chats and Instagram craft-nights and got to know our audience really well through those social channels.
Field Observations from Tech
In 2017, after doing publishing and print design for about 10 years, I transitioned into a job in the tech industry as a user experience designer for enterprise software solutions in the financial sector. Huge change from my craft and sewing magazines to finance! You can read about why I made that change in a previous blog post.
Honestly I had no idea what I was doing at first, but I felt confident that I would be able to apply my knowledge, principles and experience to the new set of problems I was facing in designing software. And fortunately this proved to be true, thank goodness! But, I want to share with you some observations on the tech industry, from the lens of someone who used to work in the (very mature) publishing industry.
- Tech ≠ cutting edge. Ok so this will be obvious to everyone working in tech, I think (I hope), but I definitely had this view as an outsider that I would come into tech and be amazed at how modern and techy and cutting edge every was. Maybe I would have felt that more had I joined a start-up, but I entered into the enterprise platform side of technology and I found the edges to be of the soft variety rather than the cutting, sharp type. Legacy systems, monolithic code bases and (ahem) legacy mindsets are all pervasive. And this is in an industry that is immature, just a wee toddler in the eyes of the elder publishing industry. My first impression of a lot of the solutions and apps and systems I was working with was that they had kind of been hacked together since the beginning of digital time. And I don’t think anyone would disagree with me. It makes sense for such a young industry, we’re still figuring it all out…
- Deadlines are soft. “We’re delivering in July,” tends to mean “We’re delivering in November at the earliest, you’ll be lucky to have it by January.” Software is… well, ‘soft’ is a good way to phrase it. It’s highly malleable, you can tweak and change the spec for ever and ever amen (scope creep). It happens often. I have seen a few things get delivered and out the door when promised, but more often than not either the deadline changes or the spec changes. Things are always changing, tech itself is evolving rapidly, so that sense of certainty is out of grasp.
- Prototypes. Prototypes are interesting to me as someone from publishing, they’re definitely useful for user testing and validation but personally I feel that that too often they leave so much to be desired, and when user testing, our test subjects (humans) are often eager to please and tell us what they think we want to hear “Yes that button makes sense, I would click here, maybe change this little thing…” There is an art and timing to prototyping, but so often the prototypes get rushed because leadership or marketing want something to test and show to customers, which can lead to rushed work and designs going out pre-maturely. This isn’t great because it means that good old fashioned research, sketching, interviewing, focus-group testing and data-driven insights can sometimes get left behind in favour of something shiny and clickable. It’s a mine-field.
- Workflow. Does anyone else get a little PTSD when you hear the term ‘workflow?’ It’s that thing that we want to believe our users are doing (in order to understand context of use), but it’s impossible to nail down because they all do things differently. Workflow and user journeys have a place in technology, for sure. But my observation is that too often we lean on workflow diagrams and journey maps to give us a sense of certainty and comfort in a world that is anything but certain. Users are humans and humans are unpredictable at times: you cannot always anticipate how they will ‘journey’ through a product, application or service (unless you’re building a very definite path for them, like registering for a bank account). But when you’re building software that can be used as tools, I think workflow can be a curse. I’ve witnessed highly nuanced workflows from one or two customers get turned into requirements meant to serve the needs of 40+ customers. Danger zone! (Tip: I prefer concept modelling to workflow mapping when it comes to dealing with more complex products).
- MVP. I’ve yet to meet an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) that I liked. I hate to say that, but it’s true. As a woman of faith I believe that one day, I will meet that MVP and we’ll be best friends, and we’ll go frolicking hand-in-hand with customers in the flowery fields of release cycles where we can rapidly iterate and improve that MVP to make it into the P we knew it could always be. But unfortunately MVPs (in my limited experience and observations) haven’t been all that. I’ve had a few good near-MVPs emerge from innovation sprints, but I can’t really call them MVPs—maybe MVPrs (Minimum Viable Prototypes) but not MVPs because they weren’t released into the wild. They were prototypes. I do believe some of the more recent MVPrs I’ve worked on will go on to become MVPs and fully-fledge Ps, but until that happens, I shall wait with bated breath. I suppose that the environment I work in (enterprise platform) isn’t the most conducive to start-up style MVPs, but it feels like something we should be able to do. There are many reasons for the failings I’ve mentioned regarding MVP releases, but I won’t elaborate on those much here other than to say it’s related to—if not often confused with—the Prototype problem mentioned above. Too often MVPs get defined as something that must do a job minimally but get designed and developed quickly (without much consideration, often skipping over future thinking), and often the prototype phase gets skipped entirely in favour of MVP. This, again, leaves us dealing with uncertainty, a shifting landscape in our thinking and delivery of products.
So thus far, I’ve (hopefully) painted a picture for you to demonstrate the contrast between the well-established, mature industry of print media and publishing compared to the young, uncertain industry of software development and technology. I want to be clear that I love tech, I love the challenges, the complexity, the shifting landscape and race to keep up with technological advances. I love working with people, using creativity, communication and story-telling to compel action and move the needle forward. But I think it’s healthy to have this awareness of the industry as still being in its infancy! It’s positive in that we’re still in the wild-west phase of colonisation of the digital sphere, the opportunities are vast. And every day I find beauty and poetry in the advancements of technology and innovation. I have found the state of the art in tech, and it’s an exciting place to be.
And within the space, there is a self-awareness of these problems and growing pains. To address these problems, we use processes—agile, design thinking, ops (DevOps, DesignOps, ResearchOps, etcOps)—and these processes do have positive effects. But it’s important to remember, the problems we face are not just with the technology itself—although that’s part of it—but with people, with design, with creativity and in making all of those things work together harmoniously to create an environment where good products can emerge in a predictable way (so dreamy)!
I do love learning about new processes and systems and ways of doing things because I’m a creative person and designer through and through—I design my personal life as much as my professional environment, and put as much creativity into my paintings and artwork as I do my professional design work. It just flows. But I feel one thing we’ve been missing in tech is more conversation and support for creativity itself. I believe we would all benefit from nurturing the creative spirit of the individuals who come to work every day, the people we pay to bring their unique perspective and creativity to bear on these complex problems we’re trying to solve. So… let’s get into that.
I’ve learned a lot about being an artist in my life, and I’ve been committed to the pursuit of art and truth my entire life, so in this next section I’ll share with you some tips for behaving like an artist—behaviours and habits I’ve learned along the way to keep me moving forward.
How to Behave Like an Artist
Capture everything. Liberate your brain.
- Get everything out of your head—write, sketch, record: Your human brain is only capable of holding so much information at any one time. We all know what it feels like to have a brilliant idea only to forget it later when we promised ourselves we’d write it down. Make a practice of getting things out of your head, whether it’s your to-do list, a passing thought, an idea…
- There’s no perfect method, it’s only important that you do it: Do not get hung up on how you get things out of your head, just do it. Writing something on a post-it note or a random piece of paper is better than not writing it down at all. I tend to try and aggregate all of my thoughts and ideas using two apps—Otter and Evernote. I use Otter to capture voice notes and memos (I like it better than the default voice memo app on my phone because it transcribes everything!) This is great for in-the-moment random thoughts and ideas, when it’s not ideal to just stop and write stuff down. Then I use Evernote because I like how searchable the notes are on there, I can tag notes and categorise them so it’s easier to find things later on. But I also capture notes on random pieces of paper, sometimes I’ll even use the native notes app on my MacBook to capture initial thoughts on something, and then if it’s meaningful enough I’ll copy it into an Evernote entry. If a thought or a note is important enough, at least if you’ve captured it somewhere, you can find it.
- Creativity likes momentum—action begets action: This is a little secret, artists know this, but creativity likes momentum. Once you start, it’s easier to keep going, and it will be easier to start the next thing and so forth.
- Be prolific: Out of the momentum of your action will emerge your ability to be prolific. The more you practice getting ideas out of your brain, the more you will do it. The more you commit to organising those ideas (in whatever way suits you), the more you will be committed to doing that in the future. Creativity isn’t a one-off event, it’s a process, a journey—but if you stop, it will also stop.
Don’t be precious. Quantity over quality.
- Get the bad stuff out first: Take heart, dear one, we’re all full of really bad ideas. Every single one of us. Even the most talented artists and brilliant minds will have bad ideas, but the thing that sets prolific people apart from the rest is their willingness to get the bad stuff out of the way first. In tech we think of this as ‘fail forward,’ but you need to apply this mentality to your thinking and creativity to. You can’t ‘fail forward’ if you don’t have an idea to stumble over in the first place! In practicing getting stuff out of your head, you will have things come out that at first you might like, but then afterward realise it’s not that good… maybe it’s downright awful or cringeworthy—but that’s TOTALLY OK! Roll with it.
- Commit to the process (it’s an evolution): Nurturing your creativity is an investment, it’s not a one-off event, a-ha moments do not exist in silo, they only emerge from process of learning, thinking, seeking and making connections (having ideas). Stick to it and…
- The good stuff will emerge: You’ve got to get the bad out before the good stuff can emerge, but have faith that the good will come if you just commit to the process! Remember when you’re getting your ideas out, go for quantity. Don’t wait until you think an idea has passed some imaginary quality-assurance check in your brain before it can come out—get it all out of your head (write, sketch, record, etc).
Feed your interests. What’s your news?
- Follow your nose—nourish your curiosity, never stop learning: Your curiosity is part of what makes you you. The things that interest you, the weird little things you think about, the connections you make—that’s part of what makes you unique and special and that is the thing we need to see more of in tech! Everyone else has learned the methodologies and processes and we can repeat agile and lean principles to one another, but beneath that is our individuality and it’s important not to lose that! Don’t let yourself become homogenised by the culture around you. Follow your nose, explore the things you’re curious about, even if you think they’re silly or childish—too many of us left our inner child behind in favour of some impression of an adult that we believed we needed to be; but don’t forget who you are, don’t let your curiosity wilt on the vine. Ask yourself regularly, “What’s my news?” (Is it really BBC or the Guardian or John Oliver? Your news is unique to you. Beware of following the masses.)
- If you have a question, seek an answer, then seek alternatives: Commit to learning. Do not think that your degree(s) certify knowledge, they’re just piece of paper to tell the rest of the world you know something about something. Never stop learning. If you’re curious about something, explore it, ask questions to find answers (e.g. Google it, YouTube it, read about it) and then keep going. Don’t stop with one answer, look for multiple perspectives on it. The more you learn about a thing, the closer you get to the truth about it. For example, you want to learn to cook: rather than just pick up one recipe and make it, read a whole of host of similar recipes and notice the similarities between those recipes—what are the foundations? The way to get to first principles is to study broadly and distill, you’ll see the patterns, you’ll understand the foundations. That is how you can build flexible knowledge.
- Trust your instincts, often solutions emerge from alternative contexts: This ties back to just ‘follow your nose’—we are so full of ideas and beliefs of things we ‘should’ be doing, of following the script the world has laid out for us (or we’ve laid out for ourselves). But you can break out of that. No matter how weird you think your ideas are, just trust your instincts, let yourself go down those rabbit holes, you never know what you might find. So often a solution to a problem you’re working on will emerge from an alternative context… for example, I’ve found so many parallels between working on construction software (what I currently do) and publishing (what I did in the past). They are principally the same, so often times when I’m trying to wrap my head around complexity in the construction space, I find an analogy in the publishing space that gives me some guidance and a framework for thinking.
Let go. Practice a beginner’s mindset. And give your ideas some space.
- Think about things through a child’s eyes—ask ‘What if?’ blue-sky questions: Practice a beginner’s mindset, this is so important when thinking of how to solve a problem simply. As a designer, my goal is always to reduce complexity down to something that feels simple and intuitive. My best tool for doing that is approaching problems from a beginner’s mindset—this ignites my curiosity and helps me find questions to ask (there are no stupid questions). In workshops, when brainstorming solutions to a problem I always ask participants to think about problems through a child’s eyes—e.g. how might we design this solution so it’s easy enough for a child to use? It’s a simple trick, but apply this type of thinking to any complex problem you’re working on and the questions and ideas will flows.
- Think about things as if you were an alien: Divorce yourself from the human race for a moment, sometimes it helps to zoom waaaaay out on a problem, imagine looking at it from outer space, and imagine how that problem might look in context of all other problems and systems surrounding it. And, again, beginner’s mindset—how would you explain the problem back to an alien that just arrived from outer space? How would you show them your solution?
- Go broad, go big, go weird, then connect back: Get out of your bubble! Use these tricks to expand your mind, share your ideas around and get feedback from a diverse group of people. Then connect the dots back to your original problem, use your new-found creative insights to bring new light to the problems you’re trying to solve.
- Let go of perfectionism—think of working on your ideas in versions (iterate, prototype, build and develop): Again, there’s no perfect way to nurture your creativity, sometimes it’s best to let go of the methodologies and processes you feel you must follow. Creativity is not a tick-box exercise. Creativity is an evolutionary process. Your ideas will emerge and then re-emerge and evolve over time; allow them to change, think of them as versions. Use writing, sketching, reading, conversation, workshopping, and any other tools or methods you have available to test and build on your ideas.
- Walk away: Sometimes you need to just walk away. Often when I’m working on a painting, I have to leave it sitting somewhere in my house so I’ll catch glimpses of it but won’t be actively working on it for a while… I have to walk away from the work in order to come back to it and finish it. I do the same with most of the work I do. In walking away I’m giving myself space to get a new perspective, to think about how I’ve done things thus far, and use my learning to help me find the answers, the solution, and the energy to come back and finish the work.
I hope you found this post helpful, and I hope that more of you take the time to nurture your creativity. I truly believe that each individual has something unique to bring to the complex problems we face in society today, but those unique abilities need to be nurtured.
If you have any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @iamcourtneykyle or leave a comment.