Book Review: Creative Confidence

June 25, 2018

Creative ConfidenceTom Kelley and David Kelley, coauthors of Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, are men on a mission. Tom Kelley is general manager of IDEO, a design consultancy specializing in product development and innovation. David Kelley is a founder of IDEO and has been a leader in establishing the concept of design thinking. After experiencing decades of success working with—and designing for—many of the biggest companies in the world, then surviving cancer, David Kelley has committed his life to helping others to realize their creative potential. After seeing his interviews and a TED talk, running into him at the airport, and reading Creative Confidence, I believe that his message is not just inspiring, but actionable.

Creativity. Few words are so loaded and fearsome to people. Unfortunately, many successful people fail to embrace or even fear their creativity. Worse, they may dismiss creativity as a novelty or, even worse, suppress it within their organizations. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with creativity as a way to solve problems. Many people rarely have visibility into the process of creative professionals. Instead, they typically see and evaluate only the end results. They have been conditioned by an education and employment system that prioritizes predictable outcomes and repeatability. Often, the desire for such outcomes is based on an assumption that what always was, will always be. We see the leaders of these same institutions wringing their hands and complaining about disruption.

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In truth, everyone has the capacity for creativity, but things happen along the way to adulthood and in our pursuit of a profession. Some come to believe that everything is a competition and judge each other’s skills and execution in drawing, painting, and other creative endeavors. Again, they focus on the work product rather than the process. Many assume that those who are particularly successful in creative endeavors are somehow special. In the words of David Kelley, people opt out of creativity.

Now, we arrive at the topic of design and design thinking, which people often lump together with creative activities. I think it is one of the unfortunate accidents of our language that design is both a verb and noun. More often than not, design is used as a noun with a descriptor—interior design, fashion design, graphic design, cake design, and so on. Such uses of the word impact its perception and, ultimately, reduce its significance and power. People do not perceive design as an activity, but simply an attribute—and often confuse design with the visual aspects of a product. They might say, “I like the design of the new iPhone.”

Creative Confidence may at first come across as an idealistic discussion of creative processes and their applicability in our world. In reality, Tom and Dave’s attitude toward creativity is more of a can-do approach to solving problems. Growing up in Barberton, Ohio, the Kelley boys didn’t have the luxury of buying a new washing machine when their old one broke. They had to figure out how to fix it. Sometimes they had to improvise solutions when they couldn’t procure the right replacement part. They had understanding parents, so by taking things apart and trying to put them together again, the Kelleys developed the confidence to try new things. Ultimately, they developed the optimistic attitude that trial and error are ways to learn, not a repetition of failure.

In Creative Confidence, the Kelley brothers present a series of anecdotes that illustrate the phenomenal successes that people and organizations can realize when they unlock their creative capacity. One story Tom and Dave share in the book is that of Doug Dietz, an MRI engineer who embraced creativity and design thinking to improve patient outcomes. (I won’t go into the details here. You’ll have to read the book or find David’s TED talk.)

Creativity has tangible value, and the design thinking methodology is an effective means of realizing that potential. The popular news aggregator Pulse was conceived in a Stanford d.School workshop. The duo who designed the app—employing a fast-paced, experimental approach to designing an experience—ultimately sold the app for $90 million, less than three years after its initial launch.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the chapter that discusses creativity in teams. In fact, I happened to read it the day before a student came to me asking about how he might encourage genuine buy-in for user experience and design thinking in his organization. I was happy to share that chapter with him, and I am sure he would get a lot from the book overall.

The book weaves in several ideas for cultivating creativity in ourselves and our teams. You may already have heard about a few of these, but some may be new to you, too. One of my favorite exercises is: “Make a bad idea.” Often we are under so much pressure to create good ideas that we find ourselves paralyzed. It’s much easier to free ourselves from the pressure of finding the right idea if we derisk the endeavor by creating throwaways. But are they really throwaways, or do they give us insights into the right solution by inversion?

Fear of failure comes up a lot in organizations. The fear of failure leads to the fear of experimentation. The worry that a new idea might not live up to its promise may result in the idea never being born. The decision not to try something new is effectively an acceptance of failure without any potential for upside gain.

A big message of this book is to start now. Don’t wait for the right conditions or the perfect project. Almost every project can benefit from some creative disruption from committed team members.

Creative Confidence is more than a feel-good book promoting positivity and design thinking. It discusses the psychological basis for creativity and guided mastery, a method of becoming comfortable with our phobias.

What criticisms do I have of the book? If I had any, they would likely be directed at a larger question, not simply at the book itself. When I was facilitating a UX workshop recently, someone asked about the differences between UX design, design thinking, user-centered design, human-computer interaction, and human-centered design. I’m confident many have asked the same question. While I’m comfortable suggesting that UX design is somewhat more applied, I’m not satisfied with the completeness of that answer. The confusion around these terms is such that I know of firms who conduct internal training for both UX design and design thinking, presenting principles of these related ideas in a way that makes them less accessible to the very audiences who would benefit the most from them. Much of this confusion is labeling confusion.

While Creative Confidence is a very well-written call to action for people to become comfortable with thinking creatively, trying new things, collaborating, and iterating, it does feel somewhat incomplete. For example, it might be useful to describe the design-thinking process. At times, the book can read a bit too much like a recruitment brochure for Stanford’s d.School. There’s a lot of what and why, but it needs more how.

So what is Creative Confidence? If you are looking for information about the latest trends in prototyping or usability testing, this book isn’t it. If you are familiar with the work of IDEO, the d.School, and Tom and David Kelley, many of the anecdotes and messages of this book will sound familiar to you. You might even catch yourself paging forward to pass over some well-worn examples. But, if you are new to the subject—and even if you are familiar with IDEO and the d.School—you will likely appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into compiling the philosophy, the examples, and the creativity-building exercises that the book includes. Ultimately, the book is a concise explanation of the life work of Tom and David Kelley. 

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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