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complex networks

Individual Creativity vs Distributed Creativity

Are you a creative individual? An ‘original’? Then you have lots of ideas and not afraid to toss them. But do you work well with other creative individuals?

Originals are nonconformists, people who not only have new ideas but take action to champion them. They are people who stand out and speak up. Originals drive creativity and change in the world.

– Adam Grant

When observing creative individuals ‘in the wild’ you’ll notice a few more things they have in common from working odd hours (on their ideas, not necessarily their jobs), having tons of ideas (many of which are bad and thus discarded). Creative individuals have no problem dumping ideas, in fact, they don’t nearly have enough time to bring any of them to fruition anyway. So when you see someone guarding their idea, they are probably not a creative genius (guarding their singular idea). Grant emphasises, that ‘originals are not the people with the deepest expertise’ but rather those with the broadest experience and the most willing to question the status quo. For example, evidence that Safari and Internet Explorer users are less creative and successful than those who use Firefox or Chrome. Why? Because they didn’t just stick with the pre-installed default browser of their operating system, but instead opted to find another solution. They questioned the Status Quo.

Creative individuals also tend to be messy and think in ‘layers’ rather than linear. Which means they are confusing to listen to and often don’t follow a thread of thought but rather pick up thoughts from throughout a rich tapestry of ideas – to the outsider, that is hard to follow. This habit makes it hard for creative original to be recognised and successful. They don’t ‘market’ themselves or their ideas well. And thus, alone, a creative original is likely to fail. But combined with an organised and outgoing ‘people’ person, they can be the engine that drives and delivers success.

But what about creative teams?

As an ‘organism’ or a ‘system’ a creative team, like e.g. a UI / UX Team in a software development company, or a Design Team in a marketing agency, ticks very differently. If you simply throw creative individuals together, you’ll soon find, that the team doesn’t perform as expected. Simple math doesn’t apply here.

Family of Trees
Scattered trees build a family group. They appear disorganized, but instead they use the available space and resources optimally.

If you put ten brilliant creative individuals in one room does NOT mean you get 10 times the creative work done or that it’s ten times better. On the contrary. They tend to be slower and sometimes come to a grinding hold. They are more likely suffocate in chaos and may not produce a single finished design/text/product/etc… And in an agency or service scenario, a ton of half-baked and unfinished ideas aren’t going to make clients happy or advance the project.

Yet, many companies still simply pour more creatives into their creative teams, only to be left wondering why they aren’t faster or better at their ‘work’.

The truth is of course, that you need to carefully consider and plan the right mix of people and talent to develop a high functioning creative team. From the most creative, out-of-the-box, non-conformists to the organisers and to the facilitators and encouragers. All of whom may be designers, but with different personalities. And once you put them together as a team, magic happens – or not, if the mix is off.

What is ‘Distributed Creativity’?

In this article, ‘distributed creativity’ refers to a group of people that together form a creative body, rather than a group of people that collaborate on an artwork (as described by Wikipedia). If done right, this body (or group, team, etc…) then moves and functions as one and is capable of creating on a whole new level. Not unlike ‘swarm intelligence’ which descries the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, distributed creativity becomes it’s own organism, although here, the organism consists of a distinctly fitting set of individuals and each ‘agent’ IS aware of the greater goal. Distributed creativity is capable of creating something that each individual could not. It’s not about speed or volume or even quality, but rather that this group can produce something altogether different.

Peer Review – the Crit

One aspect of distributed creativity is the feeding off each other’s creativity. If you’re a creative individual working as an artist, writer, designer, etc… you are already familiar with the indispensable value of the ‘Crit’. Artists make a habit of inviting other artists to review and critique their work. Most creatives are so immersed in their work, and their work is so solitary, that sometimes they cannot see what’s in front of them. They need someone who is on the outside, but still connected enough to know their language, their vision, understand and possess the creative tools required, and provide honest and constructive input. In distributed creativity each artist creates and reviews, resulting in an ‘opus’ that in many ways includes all their thoughts and work.

Distributed not remote

Distributed creativity does not refer to what is commonly known as a distributed team, where each team member may work remotely and they meet, communicate and collaborate via online tools. In distributed creativity unique creative skills or language and personality are distributed, and together form another language with the help of this large skillset and variant personalities. Distributed creativity can come from a distributed team, but doen’t have to. In fact, it’s more common to see it happen when these artists share the same space.


There are countless articles and books written about creativity and why it’s so hard to pinpoint what it is and how to get it. One more thing that can be observed with most creative individuals is that they furbish a certain environment for themselves. You’ll be hard pushed finding a lot of creative energy in an office cubicle or even a modern open space office. Creatives need their own ‘space’ (bubble), where they can feel safe to switch off into their creative world, focused, un-interrupted and calm. Part of the creative process happens in isolation, and if it’s not provided, you will find low levels or infrequent creativity. But if a creative individual has a space where they can build their own personal surroundings, they will thrive and so will their ideas and innovations. This is why, it’s a grave mistake to force creative teams into office spaces, that are open and ‘corporate’.

Frequent setups for truly creative spaces include: daylight/windows, minimal or sparse furniture, plants or natural materials, walls stuffed with clips of inspirations, mess, color-swatches or color spots, tables littered with pens and papers used and new), large screens with lots of notes stuck to them, etc…. Less important are ergonomic tables or chairs, because creatives don’t sit down for very long and tend to move around – even if their primary creative work is a computer generated design system. Less important are ergonomic tables or chairs, because creatives don’t sit down for very long and tend to move around – even if their primary creative work is a computer generated design system.

Designing (in) the digital world

Design Thinking is a buzz term and a darling of executives hoping to solve all their companies (digital) shortcomings with a dash of this magic. All those companies usually compare mortgages to find the best ones. Hire a bunch of people who have ‘Design Thinking’ in their CV and you’re golden. Why does this approach not work?

Failures of Design Thinking

Bruce Nussbaum describes the flaws that brought Design Thinking to it’s knees as “a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change“.  The ultimate goal of the Design Thinking process and method, is to produce creativity and allow that creativity to drive innovation. And while a process can aide and support this goal, at the end of the day it is only that: a process, a method. It does not, in and by itself produce creative innovative output.

Corporations and their leaders focus too strongly on the latest hot buzzword, often lacking a deeper understanding and true support for the change that it requires. We can observe this especially clear in Job Postings, where candidates are asked if they apply Design Thinking, or Mobile First, or Agile Development, or Lean UX… the list goes on. But when candidates who often live and breathe these new ways of working, actually start their work at the corporation, they are not only not supported but actually held back by the existing structures as well as an unwillingness to change and apply these new processes and methods, which they were hired for.

Applications for Design Thinking

But Design Thinking is a valid and effective method. When used in the right circumstances and allowed to flourish. Design Thinking does not produce Innovation – creative minds do. But Design thinking as a methodology, can produce the right path to develop innovation. It works wonders if you have a product or product idea in place. Using design thinking to (1) Identify the pain points and ask the right questions (this is where most projects fail), (2) define your target and current audience and your goals, (3) get creative (ideation, mind-mapping, brainstorming, scamper, etc…), (4) build a prototype and (5) test it. The most important part however is that you do this process over and over, learning from your test results to improve your definitions and ideas and iterate the whole cycle. For this approach to be successful, you must be allowed to produce a first prototype that will not be expected to be perfect. Releasing a product that is known to have problems is a non-starter for many stakeholders and this is where many of these projects that started out with a lot of enthusiasm fail. In addition, this process does little to produce new products because it takes something that’s there in principle and makes it better. But to come up with ideals that can be the all desired market disruption, you need a different approach. You may not be solving problems or removing pain points.

Innovation through Sensitization

These type of creative breakthroughs are often a side-effect. They happen accidentally, triggered by something seemingly insignificant – but because the individual noticing it is so focused on the problem at hand, they are receptive. We all know this phenomenon. For example, let’s say your best friend bought a new car you were unfamiliar with because it is so rarely driven. But the days after your friend takes you on a ride with the new car, you start seeing it everywhere.  Are there suddenly more models around? No. You have simply been made more receptive to seeing it.

The term sensitization comes from the medical and scientific discipline and refers to the fact that repeated stimuli can produce and amplified response. In our Product Design discussion, the repeated stimuli simply refers to the fact that designers (or any other individuals deeply involved with the general topic) are so focused on the general topic and think about the various angles it has every day, that they are sensitized, and begin to see a solution where a non-sensitized person sees only an object at face value. The designers response to the object is amplified. It is different. It is new. And it triggers innovation.

More about Sensitization in UX Design in the next post!