Can improving our creative processes make us better humans?

It’s time to talk process. I know, I know, it's far from the most glamorous part of being a creative, but it is important. We need to pay attention to how we do what we do and take a good look at our methods, regardless of what our final deliverable is. 

This is why I love attending events like Interact London, our design, UX and AI conference held last month. This year's theme was the Human and the Machine, and it was fascinating to see how despite our increasingly mechanised existences, the human element remains integral in life, art and creation. 

There’s a reason there are few things more intriguing than exploring an artist’s studio or writer’s study. Or hearing them outline their approaches on a stage. Humans are complex, contradictory and utterly singular. We can key in code or programme preferred behaviours, but without a human hand to guide technology – all efforts are rendered void. 

Great things happen when we crack open our internal processes and share our learnings with each other. But process isn't something we usually like to think about when it comes to creativity. There's a romantic and stubbornly-held notion that great works appear like lightning. Or that, like Hemingway famously said: “There is nothing to writing. You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.”

I think of the time I met one of my then-favourite writers. We were at a Q&A and an audience member asked him if he could tell us about his writing process. He said he didn’t have one. He was sitting at a table in front of a 700-page novel and intended to tell us there was no plan, no plot, no routine, no guiding structure, nada. He just sat at his desk churning out word after brilliant word. To me this just screamed of a man too insecure in his own work to let others in on how he got there.

This philosophy may tickle the egos of creatives because it drips with nobility and exclusivity, the absolute speciality and me-ness of my craft, but it’s not accurate. Mary Shelley may have gone slightly mad one stormy night and crafted a story that spawned a genre, but creativity does not always “come out of your soul like a rocket” a la Bukowski.

Ideas don't appear from nowhere. They exist long before we put pen to paper. And they take work. A lot of work. A painting may have taken you 12 hours to complete, but it takes a lifetime of practice to develop that level of skill. Besides, relying on sudden bouts of brilliance won’t get you anywhere if you intend to make a career out of your creativity. Creativity is 10% talent and 90% showing up. 

The lifecycle of an idea

Let's begin at the beginning. An idea is born and incubated in a quiet, pre-verbal space. It is not quite ready to emerge yet. The thinker, suddenly aware of their budding idea, ruminates. They find and assign words to it as it takes shape.

Next comes the curator who consults their library of previous experiments. The curator collects concepts that add weight, context and meaning to the soon-to-be-creation. The seedling is sprouting now. The creator, now on centre stage, must practice and play; feeling their way through the idea until they reach a state of praxis. In praxis, play becomes process. And finally, this process produces a deliverable – be it an interface, an illustration or a sculpture.

But the work isn't over just because a thing has been dragged into existence. We need to consider governance. Ask ourselves: what worked? What didn’t? What can we learn? Where can I expand my understanding? What conditions can I create to replicate my method?

Various talks throughout the day at Interact dwelled on how to measure success and offered advice for how not to drown in the data lake. While Condé Nast International's global product transformation lead Mel McVeigh rightly stated that “creativity lives outside of the data points”, we can’t discount it altogether.

Angel Brown, the group director of experience strategy at Digitas Health, posited a similar stance: "traffic only tells half the story." But it's not enough to mindlessly gather anything that could be of importance. We need to be strategic, Brown continued, because "[data] needs to be matched with intents and metrics of actualisation." 

Watch Angel Brown's talk from Interact London 2019

“Ruthless editor, careless creator”

But back to the making. This idea of playful but intentional creation ties well to Booking.com’s head of UX, Lisa Anderson's talk, titled ‘No more heroes or victims: Becoming stewards of empathy and responsible design.’ She discussed the importance of not only having what she refers to as ‘profound empathy’ when designing, but also in creating a work culture where honesty is encouraged, ambiguity is embraced, and mistakes are expected and understood.

Anderson spoke at length about how vulnerability and self-awareness are integral to the creative process. Creating teams that foster these characteristics is paramount for our collective success, because it allows us to grow without fear of losing. It supports transfiguration. Teams like this understand we’re all polymorphic and prone to change. They provide enough space to grow (and enough safety to fail without hurting our confidence). Good humans make good designers. Like Lisa Anderson said: “courage and conviction are contagious.”

Design thinking for a better world

Philips' director of data enabled design, Eva Deckers, began her talk with a wonderful rumination on what aliens or future humans would think if they found our old tools. For example, what would a keyboard tell them about our bodies? That we have seventy odd fingers? Good designers, she says, consider the “subjective and the experiential.” Excellent designers consider their own limitations in the equation, too.

If we take language as a series of signs and symbols, a means of packaging up an experience and applying relevant mouth noises to help codify and categorise it, we can see how the politics and nuances of our everyday language transcend the immediate. This takes on another dimension when considered in the context of voice search, with its firmly feminine voice and occasional inability to detect non-English speaking voices.

Good design isn’t just about perfecting our creative processes and fostering safe environments in which to experiment. We need to understand our foundations on a personal and political level. As individuals, we need to learn to unpick and tap into our old dynamics and hurts to improve our artistic offering. We need to understand ourselves in order to enrich and dive deep into our inner lives, returning with some pearl or plan for a new piece.

We are also all political agents, not necessarily in the party-activist sense, but we are all existents in the world among other existents. We have a responsibility to one another. This was a message that permeated every talk at Interact: everything we do and create and shape in our micro-environments matters. We do not design in a vacuum. The blinkers on our understanding and blackholes in our empathy cause us to create for the world as we are, not as it is.

We are surrounded by examples of such short-sighted designs. Despite making up 22% of the UK population, people with disabilities are still failed by a shameful number of websites, apps and brick-and-mortar buildings. Meanwhile, we have apps that tell us the quickest route home but not the safest. Cities were structured around the needs of able-bodied men in cars who have never had to access the space with a pram or in a wheelchair. 

A park bench being too large or the safety rails on a train being too high may seem like minor inconveniences. But when it comes to having adequate lighting on your walk home or being able to just complete mundane tasks like checking your bank balance online, small design tweaks don’t just improve the experience for everyone – they make us feel us safer, valued and seen. The answer isn't only making our studios and teams more diverse. As Danielle Morgan wrote on Medium: "we can do more than just allow people to exist in a world that wasn’t built for them."

Finding gaps in our understanding is essential if we want to become better designers, writers, artists and humans. When we can spy where our biases are limiting a creation, or better yet, surround ourselves with talented teams that poke holes in our assumptions, we can improve not just our designs, but the world around us.

Interact London is held at the Natural History Museum in London every October. Watch all the talks from Interact London 2019 on our YouTube channel

Follow Interact London on Twitter to stay up to date with next year’s event or send an email to events@nomensa.com to be added to our mailing list.

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