The relationship between being creative and letting go

This past Friday and Saturday I helped out with a design-thinking workshop led by Tracy Brandenburg and Sirietta Simoncini and their graduate students in the Systems Engineering program at Cornell University. The workshop was held for dozens of executives from around the country.

Throughout the two-day workshop, the execs were asked to prototype their ideas in several forms: physical prototypes, storyboards, and skits. Each time the workshop participants had to present their prototypes, Tracy or Sirietta would call out a reminder, “OK. Once again, it’s time to let go of your prototype both physically and emotionally.” For some, this was easy. For others, this was really difficult. It’s hard to detach from something we just made and admit to ourselves “This isn’t done yet. I need help.”

In an art school critique, it’s often the case that students aren’t allowed to defend their work. “You won’t be there in the gallery to explain your concept to the viewer” so the reasoning goes.

Art students are trained to let go of their work.  My colleague from RIT, Roberley Bell, has an assignment in which her design freshmen work on a project all semester. Then on the last day of class, she hands out shovels and tells the students to bury their work in the ground. This may seem extreme. But compare the burying to the exercise from the professor she got the idea from — he hands out matches and instructs his students to burn their work!

And then there’s this experience I had as an undergrad in art school: I approached my professor with a print I had made and asked him what he thought. He looked at it for 10 long seconds. Then he picked it up, ripped it in half, threw it on the floor and said “That’s what I think.” For months I was shocked. But then I came to realize two things: 1. He was probably having a bad day and 2. He didn’t rip up my work because he didn’t like it. He did it to show me that I was being too precious about it. Harsh as that approach may seem, he effectively taught me to let go.

What makes this letting go even more difficult is that you can’t let go completely. You need to let go enough to gather useful feedback and listen well. But you also have to remember that you are the designer or artist or entrepreneur and your vision matters. When Project Runway contestants have a client challenge, their mentor Tim Gunn always has to remind them, “At the end of the day, it’s your name going down the runway. You want to please the client. But you also want to maintain your vision.”

Not easy.

A trick, I think, is to remember that feedback is essential but should not always be taken literally. For example, when someone testing your prototype says “This button should be red” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the button should be red. As a designer, you need to interpret feedback. “This button should be red” probably means, “I want the button, or the action the button sets into place, easier to find and use.”

Still, in order to get feedback in the first place, you need to let go of your prototypes, both physically and emotionally. You need to be open and vulnerable. You need to have faith that the feedback, once you interpret it, will help you develop and deliver something better that you are able to when working alone.

related reading:

Crafted Products


There will come a time when it will no longer make sense to mass manufacture and ship products all over the globe. This will happen when the convenience and low cost of tools and components for making products in small local factories wins out over the economic and environmental costs of shipping to and from abroad.

When that time comes, there will be a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to manufacture and sell crafted products — products made in small customized batches, manufactured as needed. The products might be anything from small electric toothbrushes to big boxy refrigerators.

This will go down in one of two ways:

1. Large firms will emerge with a franchise model

2. Individuals will do it on their own, create their own networks of knowledge and resource sharing.

The former perpetuates the top down, centralized, mass solutions that we have today. The latter promotes regionally specific innovation and collaboration with the advantage of global knowledge-sharing network.

Or perhaps there is a third option. If so, what does that look like?