Who Says You're Not Creative?

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When my son was little, one of our favorite weekend activities was to go to the beach and build stuff. Some days he was in a thorny mood or I brought the wrong snack (usually related), so Dad defaulted to standard sand castles easily made from bucket molds. But on other days, with Griffin suitably fed and in charge of operations, we dug deep, carving entire cities with an elaborate network of tunnels, towers and staircases. During one long weekend in Monterey, we abandoned the sand altogether and built a fort from driftwood, beach debris and random materials the ocean had coughed up. I miss those days.

There is something thrilling and soul-affirming about going wherever inspiration leads you, childlike. As adults, we rarely get to dig in the sand, so to speak. We're too busy; day-to-day rigors drain our energy. The verdant place where, as children, we allowed our minds to roam gets hemmed in during adulthood. Pretty soon everything has to fit into a Plan.

So it shouldn't be surprising that most grownups feel like creativity is something other people have, not them. If asked, would you include "innovative" on a list of adjectives that described you? Probably not, I'm guessing.

David Kelley doesn't buy it. Kelley, founder of the d.school, believes that every person has the capacity to be inventive, even if that ability has atrophied after years of disuse. The problem is, "they're blocked," he says, unable to deploy the creative gifts imbedded in their DNA.

The d.school, formally known as Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, is trying to unwind the coils that inhibit native creativity. You can read about their efforts in our feature story.

Kelley and his colleagues are innovation evangelists, and their gospel is a problem-solving approach they have dubbed "design thinking." It holds that most solutions begin with a true understanding of what people need, and relies on a process that boils down to "try, test, repeat." Over and over and over.

Part art, part science, part playground riff, the d.school curriculum features courses that force students to set aside their inhibitions and get back in the sandbox. Many who pass through report profound changes in how they view themselves, and a confidence that will carry over to any job or activity. And did we mention it's really fun?

Indeed, the d.school's quirky nature might invite skepticism if it weren't for its legions of devotees and their extraordinary successes in product development. In only its sixth year of operation, the d.school is being emulated in scores of places. After speaking with Kelley and other folks there, and reading Mike Antonucci's article, I wanted to sign up, too.

Innovation has driven the American economy for decades, and it will become increasingly important as other countries close the gap in know-how and infrastructure. If we could implant d.school teaching techniques throughout our educational system, who knows what sort of innovation explosion might result?

I think Kelley's right: We all have the spark inside of us. Getting it back might require a little re-education, d.school-style, or maybe a trip to the beach. We need to be reminded that a pile of sand and a shovel doesn't have to end with a castle.


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