What the design profession may be able to teach us about risk-taking

May 07 2012

Adapted from Maggie Lewis's talk to attendees at Northwestern University's 10th anniversary celebration of the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change.

As an alumna of Northwestern University's MSLOC program, it is a privilege to be here among friends and share some thoughts on design. It is seven years since Daniel Pink was credited with announcing that the MFA is new MBA. With more research being done on creativity, I'm excited about what's next for the design profession. And, I am hopeful that an openness to embracing creative risks will lead to more invention for all kinds of organizations. Regardless of your education, I believe that all people are innately curious and therefore creative. You don't have to be a designer to do something novel.

However, as designers we are in one of those "creative" professions whose process and alleged out-of-the-box thinking are topics of research and conversation as to how the design process may be a model other professions might want to adopt.

Here are some reasons why I think why people are intrigued by design:
1. We do not wear suits very often to client meetings (Note: It's not because we don't want to. Rather, it's because we wouldn't be viewed as "creative" and therefore trustworthy if we did.)

2. We work in "fun" office environment—often loft spaces with a lot of windows. (Note: It's because the rent is often lower and natural light and open spaces are more conducive to great work).

3. We appear to have more fun than most. (Note: I think this may be true, as each day while we are working for our clients, we can be adventurous in our work and that's gratifying.)

I think that black clothes, lofts and fun are outcomes of the design process, not the drivers of creativity and innovation. In my experience, the most important thing a company who wants to produce innovative work can do is to be comfortable not knowing the answers or what the end result will be. Organizations need to find ways to incent and reward risk-taking.

And, as professionals whose work often starts with a blank sheet of paper (or computer monitor or wall), we know that risk is uncomfortable and sometimes results in an unhappy client. However, it is the only way to come up with a new idea by allowing freedom to try something novel and share incomplete thoughts.

While I cannot speak to an individual's predisposition to risk, I can tell you what designers do to foster risk and to bring clients into our "creative" environment so that they are comfortable with blank sheets of paper and living in the grey.

To frame this in an MSLOC context, we:

1. "Go meta."
We start every project by asking questions in interviews and active sessions with clients. We ask questions like:

What is it you like most about your organization? Why does it matter? What would the world be like if your organization didn't exist? This gives us insight into what the client is really asking us to do.

While the statement of work/contract may be for a logo, book or website, we know that the client is looking for something else such as an increase in the number of qualified applicants; greater engagement with members and donors; or increased staff efficiency.

2. Tune into the role of affect in decision-making.
We deal with type, image and color, three tools that almost everyone thinks he/she knows a lot about. Well, we know they are three things about which everyone can offer an opinion. To mitigate the subjectivity, we use some tools from scenario and strategic planning to focus attention on tangible project goals and how design will deliver them. This turns the client conversation away from, "I took it home and my spouse didn't like it," to "Holistically, I can see how this approach will leverage content and appeal to my most important audiences."

3. Recognize that what we are doing as designers impacts the client system.

An example of this is work we did with Syracuse University. The contract started with the design of a website. What we realized is that the school with which we were working was going through changes associated with the appointment of a new Dean. To assist her in making changes, we began our website process by defining the school's brand—its mission, vision and values. We conducted workshops to gather information to inform the eventual logo and website design, but carefully designed these workshops so that we were greasing the wheels of change and producing "small wins" for the Dean.

4. Beauty is a part of our lives. Everyday we work to make the world a more beautiful place. Not a pretty place, but a place that works better for the users—communication recipients.

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