“To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it, all my life.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
As designers, we are innovators. Most designers (if not all) strive for innovation and originality. However, this is a trait not exclusive to designers, but to people in general. We like to stand out from the crowd, knowing (or at least believing) that we are unique. We like to wear clothes that no one else has and drive cars that no one else rides. Because being the first to do something – being an innovator – has a direct association with being original, and originals are often highly valued in the world. Even though not all of us like to admit it, we all want the admiration, recognition, and respect that comes with being an innovator.
In a study about “Undergraduate Self-Perceptions of Creativity and Independence” done by the Texas A&M University in 1977, 596 students of seven different schools answered 20 questions about how they perceived themselves in terms of creativity and independence. The results showed that an extremely high percentage in every school rated themselves as original:
However, we know the truth. That is, some of us are unique and capable of producing innovative things and some of us aren’t; some of us innovate, and some of us imitate; some of us lead, and some of us follow. Still, we all desire to be original and be innovators.
Conceptual and Experimental Innovation
“When all think alike, then no one is thinking.” – Walter Lippmann
In his book “Originals,” Adam Grant mentions a study by David Galenson. Galenson is an economist from Chicago who has gained academic notoriety due to his theory on artistic creativity. Galenson studied the ages at which innovators made their most important contributions and he also identified two styles of innovation: conceptual and experimental.
Conceptual innovators – or conceptualists – think of an idea or a solution to a problem and they execute it. There is not much iteration needed in conceptual innovation. It’s a fast approach, which is why conceptualists tend to make their most important contribution at a young age. Galenson compares it to being the equivalent of a sprint.
Some examples of well-known conceptualists are:
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby at 29.
- Albert Einstein, who presented his formula E = mc2 at 26.
- Orson Welles, who made Citizen Kane at 26.
Experimental innovators – or experimentalists – on the other hand, are those who solve problems through trial and error. If something doesn’t work, they try again, until they get it right. Iterations are plentiful and the process is usually slow, causing experimentalists (on average) to make their most meaningful contributions at not such a young age. Galenson compares the experimental approach to a marathon.
Some famous experimentalists are:
- Mark Twain, who wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 50.
- Alfred Hitchcock, who made Psycho at 61
However, we don’t choose the type of innovator we are. Kurt Lewin – a psychologist widely considered as the father of modern social psychology – proposes in his field theory that the development of an individual is the product of the interaction between inborn predispositions (nature) and life experiences (nurture), in an equation known as “Lewin’s Equation”:
B = f (P , E)
Where B stands for behavior, P for person and E for environment.
Interestingly, Lewin himself is a conceptualist and in his field theory he stated:
“Without theory, it is impossible for any science to progress. The fruitfulness of theory lies in the unknown facts and relations it envisions, which can then be studied or observed under experimental conditions. Theory should fulfill two main functions: first, it should account for what is known; second, it should point the way to new knowledge. Experiments should, therefore, be undertaken with the purpose of testing theoretical concepts, instead of merely collecting and analyzing elemental facts or classifying behavior statistically.”
The conceptual and experimental approaches to innovation have a direct impact on the speed of the design process. But what about ideas? Is there a faster or easier way to come up with ideas?
The Search For Ideas: Active or Passive
“Others go to bed with their mistresses; I with my ideas.” – José Martí
Inspiration is the starting point of the design process for most designers. Sometimes we search for the idea itself, and sometimes we search for ways to execute it.
This is known as “information-seeking behavior”, a term coined by Dr. Thomas D. Wilson, an English librarian turned academic. Wilson defines information-seeking behavior as:
“…the purposive seeking for information as a consequence of a need to satisfy some goal. In the course of seeking, the individual may interact with manual information systems (such as a newspaper or a library), or with computer-based systems (such as the World Wide Web).”
Similarly to the innovation models, there are also two main models of information seeking behavior identified by Wilson: Active and passive.
Active search is when an individual actively seeks information: the individual intentionally seeks for information through different means. On the contrary, passive search is when an individual gains information in an unintended way, like for example, while watching TV or reading a book.
Every designer uses both models in their professional life, and most of the times in the same project. Sometimes we will have a client with a particular need and we will have to actively seek for ideas and solutions. Other times we’ll be in the middle of watching a movie or reading a book, or even engaging in the most mundane things like walking our dog, and out of nowhere, an idea – maybe a solution to something we had in the back of our mind – comes to us.
But what about the times when we know we have to actively seek for an idea, and instead we choose to do something else? Something maybe entirely unrelated to our original task. This is called procrastination and it’s normally seen as a bad habit. But is it?
“Procrastinator? No, I just wait until the last second to do my work, because I will be older, and therefore wiser.” – Unknown
Creative people tend to use procrastination as a form of incubation to avoid making premature choices, letting them naturally evolve into the right solution to the problem. Procrastination is sometimes seen as a deterrent of progress on a task or project. However, even though procrastination may slow down progress, it has an advantage: It makes us more flexible and receptive to new ideas.
Adam Grant explains in his book “Originals,” when we procrastinate, we are postponing something that needs to be done to do something else instead. That something else is usually something of less importance. For instance, when we are passionate about the project we are working on, or trying to solve a problem,—this is important because we tend to think (consciously or unconsciously) about things we care about— it will naturally remain in the back of our heads. Our subconscious self will actively work on it, coming up with theories, and proving and disproving them internally, while our conscious self does something else.
This human tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was left incomplete is called “The Zeigarnik Effect”, and it’s named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. It’s backed by Lewin’s field theory: a task that has already been started produces a tension, which is only relieved when the task is completed. This tension improves cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents, similarly to a rush of adrenaline in a moment of danger which would make us hyper-alert of everything available for us in order to survive.
Dr. Rena Subotnik – recognized for her studies in intelligence and eminence and their predictive characteristics and the current director of the Center for Psychology in Schools and Education at the American Psychological Association – wanted to find out what does it take to turn raw potential into creative products that benefit humankind, she, along with some other researchers, interviewed an elite group of scientists that a decade before had won an event called Regeneron Science Talent Search. The participants were asked whether they procrastinated on four domains: routine tasks, creative tasks, social life and health behavior. More than 68% of the scientists admitted procrastinating in at least two domains.
One participant explained:
“Often, when I’m procrastinating, I really have something on the back burner and I need the time to work it through.”
“In scientific work, ideas need time to mature.”
Procrastination gives us this time, plus an added benefit: It keeps us open to improvisation. When we plan ahead, we tend to follow the plan we established. We may become rigid and linear and this can unwillingly block other creative possibilities that present themselves, simply because we are blind to them.
So if you are a creator and you procrastinate, you can continue to do it guilt free as long as it’s the right amount to promote creativity and not slow you down. But if you are a creator and you don’t procrastinate, maybe it’s time you teach yourself to do so and you might get something valuable out of it.
“The whole is better than the sum of its parts.” – Aristotle
There are approaches and methods of design that are sometimes imposed upon the designer by nature. Some other times, the designer has a choice over the approach he chooses.
At the end, it’s not a process or an approach that makes us efficient. Instead, it’s knowing ourselves. Knowing if we are conceptualists or experimentalists. Do we prefer to look actively for ideas or wait for them to come to us? If we identify this, then we are identifying our strengths and our weaknesses, what we can do better than others and what others can do better than us. By accepting that we have traits that will work for us and traits that will work against us, and finding a way to make everything that we are work together harmonically and efficiently, we can make ourselves into more efficient designers.
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