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:

http://99u.com/articles/7187/why-sharing-your-work-setbacks-struggles-breaks-creative-blocks

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4 thoughts on “The relationship between being creative and letting go

  1. Excellent point. I also teach DT to students with design and business backgrounds and I consistently find that business students (and engineering ones, to some extent) have no experience with the culture of critique in the way design and art students do. They lack the vocabulary that experience provides. This is really unfortunate for the reasons you outline and why DT in Business Schools is so effective. It opens conversation in ways that traditional business evaluation processes (e.g., six-sigma) don’t. – Glenn Platt

  2. On the flipside of that, I think it’s important to learn to let go of the result of one’s critique, as well. For the longest time I was too concerned and worried about upsetting my colleagues and team with my feedback. Especially if I was unsatisfied with their work. Would they be angry at me? Unhappy? Sad even? So I held back criticism that may have been needed. I learned that, as long as I state my feedback in a constructive and friendly way (maybe not tearing their work into pieces and throwing it on the floor) and as long as I am convinced that the results will be better if re-worked, I need to let go of their reaction to it.

  3. Methods to increase empathy are usually called “user-centered design,” but that just shifts focus from one ego to another.

    Are any design methods grounded in nondualism? Is there a “mindful design?”

    1. Do you mean design that considers whats best for everyone? I think arch 4 humanity, ashoka, grameen are orgs that aim to give people in developing economies the tools to become designers or entrepreneurs in their communities comes close. What do you think?

      Also, social life cycle assessment (lca) or “stakeholder assessment of the firm” considers all folks touched by a product, service, or system.

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