If you want great ideas for digital design, start without your computer. Better yet, draw with your hands and work out in the open.
That’s how Martha Cotton, group design research director for Accenture Interactive’s Fjord Design and Innovation agency in Chicago, leads her team of more than 1,000 researchers worldwide to be more creative in understanding how people interact with digital services. Here are some of her other thoughts on creative work.
Q: Between Fjord and your earlier work at innovation consultancy Gravitytank, what do you see as the biggest challenges to creativity in the workplace?
A: Creativity requires collaboration and learning from differing points of view. If I’m in marketing and someone works in engineering, the siloed nature of organizations is a problem for working creatively.
At Gravitytank, we had an acronym for the cadence of how people work: EEEMP. Email, email, email, meetings, PowerPoint. You deal with emails, go to meetings, and your intellectual efforts are realized via PowerPoint. The first thing I do is blow that up. Let’s not deliver a PowerPoint. Can we make posters, make a movie, or have a workshop? Trying not to EEEMP is a core to trying to get teams to be more creative.
Q: Do you have a particular approach to boost creativity?
A: I try to get people to make their work visual as much as possible. I co-teach a class at Northwestern to business students, and we don’t let our students do anything digitally until week eight, and it’s a 10-week class.
We use giant walls of sticky notes and hand-drawn affinity maps and sketched ideas. We brainstorm using Sharpies. We teach them how to draw stick figures. Nothing makes me more crazy than to see a group of smart people talking, but not writing anything down or putting notes on a white board or sketching. Let’s capture it and make it visual. Let’s push on it and keep working.
Q: Do you have a particular approach or process for creativity for your Fjord team?
A: When we set out to understand people, there’s any number of ways to go about doing it. For a health care project, when we were studying people with a rather serious and debilitating condition, our researchers wanted people to share intimate details about this condition.
We set up an “emotions cube” with words like pride, guilt and stress on each side. We had participants roll the cube, and depending on what emotion it landed on, we asked them to tell a story about when they felt that way. It was a nice way to warm up people to share their lives.
Q: How do you steer your team through the creative process while keeping an eye on time, budget or staff constraints?
A: You have to be comfortable with ambiguity, but you can’t wallow in ambiguity. It really falls to project leadership on the team to say, “By tomorrow, this is where we should be,” and to help the team if they’re stuck.
Q: Some people say open-concept offices hinder their creativity. How do you see it?
A: Even though I’m quite senior, I don’t have an office and don’t want one. If I’m doing something and don’t want to be disturbed, I put my ear buds in.
A big part of creativity as well is working iteratively and not waiting until something is perfect to share with the people you need to share it with. I might post up a deck or poster that I’m working on, and anyone can look at it and comment or shape it.
I feel like the open environment supports collaboration because there are places to collaborate. It also makes work slightly less precious.