Phil Patton

Critic; Curator; Writer / United States /

Phil Patton’s Notable Books of 2013

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang, Overdrive, Hartmut Esslinger.

1 book

David Kelley is one of the founders of IDEO and of the Stanford (note the small “d,” using Silicon Valley-style informality for what is officially the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design). His brother Tom Kelley is an IDEO partner and the author of the best-selling book The Art of Innovation. The brothers’ new book builds on the idea of innovation, America’s favorite business value these days, and is wrapped in the concept of “design thinking.”

The book looks like one of those business books for sale in airport shops, with big type, lots of pull quotes in large type, and bullet points. This is unfortunate, because it is more profound than that and packed with important ideas. “Too often, companies and individuals assume that creativity and innovation are the domain of the ‘creative types,’” the authors argue. Their idea is to show that everyone can and must be creative—by which they mean everyone also can and must be innovative and, yes, can and must be designers.

Creative Confidence is full of useful techniques for analysis and research (and indeed indoctrination) taken from IDEO’s practice to bolster this claim. Many of IDEO’s famous techniques involve groups. They are also good politics for designers, who must persuade employees of companies they are doing something important to have their work implemented.

Some of the Kelleys’ advice provides the commendable function of demystifying creativity. For instance, one page shows a box of tips on how to look at customers of clients—hang around, like a fly on the wall, talk to longtime employees like a receptionist, experiment with customer service. There is the suggestion of what the Kelleys call a “bug list,” to chart defects in a situation or product. The brothers also address the problem of getting people to draw who don’t normally do so, with a series of exercises and a suggested stick figure vocabulary.

Another of the Kelleys’ key points is the need to celebrate failure. One case of repeated failure they cite is that of Ankit Gupta, who developed the iPhone app Pulse while still a student. The story demonstrates the importance of iteration: the designer spent days working on the app in café on University Ave in Palo Alto, taking suggestions from other cafe customers. “1 learned that creativity is always hindsight,” says Ankit. “It's not about just coming up with the one genius idea that solves the problem, but trying and failing at a hundred other solutions before arriving at the best one.” The story suggests one of the many ways the word “creativity” itself needs a redefinition—or is that redesign?

Like design thinking or innovation—both overused terms—creativity as a word may be a problem. Creativity suggests imagination, whole visions, and worlds. But many of the situations and solutions described in the book are closer to cleverness than creativity. The point may be that the innovative and creative are often not so brilliant or aesthetic. Many of the suggested creativity exercises end up turning a situation sideways to look at it from a new perspective.

The book’s voice slips from “we” to those of individual brothers in a slightly strange way. The pair wrote the book when David Kelley was fighting for his life against cancer, we are told in first few pages—jarringly, since the news comes amid the book’s upbeat, even jaunty graphics. Perhaps this is why it appears at times to be a summary of life lessons as much as a book on design. But that could be the point, since the argument of Creative Confidence is redefining creativity.

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