The Tyranny of Text in Creating Innovative Systems

By plindberg via Flickr. Used under creative commons licence

Yesterday I attended another one of the fabulously inspiring Unfinished Business lectures put on by my friends from the Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) at OCAD by Alexander Osterwalder, Ph.D on business model generation.  The talk focused on the methodology developed and employed by Osterwalder and his colleagues (including 470 members of an open online forum who paid to see the project bought to life!) and how it can be used to illustrate (literally!) the business model for an organization. The methodology, described in the book, which was designed carefully to reflect the visual nature of the approach, centres on using art, sticky notes and conversation to help organize firms’ thoughts about how to design their business.

At its core is something fundamentally juvenile – play, drawing, movement and tactile embodiment of ideas. At the end of the talk my colleague and I were chatting with some others about the way in which methods like this — ones that use visual learning and active, arts-based approaches to creative expression — get disregarded in mainstream. I even overheard comments made about the book (which was on sale) that somewhat dismissed the reliance on pictures, sketches and a relatively non-conventional layout (for similar examples of this layout look at two books highlighting Bruce Mau’s work and ideas: Massive Change and Life / Style) .

So even among designers and design thinkers this is still an idea that’s hard to grasp. It’s the tyranny of text.

Yet, it seems so intuitive to use the many tools at our disposal to facilitate creativity. Text is good for some things, but lousy for others. It’s like the old saying:

Give someone a hammer and pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail

We’ve given our health professionals tools and learning methods made up of numbers and letters and they’ve consequently treated their subsequent strategies for learning as ones requiring text and numbers to solve. The hammer is given in school, the public and patients are nails are used in the field.

It’s not like this for everyone. Ask a five-year old to share their ideas and they might offer a story, a finger paint picture, create a play, or get their friends to build something with clay. As a thirty-five, forty-five or fifty-five year old to do the same and they’ll likely offer you a typewritten page and PowerPoint presentation (with lots of text). Why? We’ve been so acculturated into a dominant design culture of text that we rarely consider sketchbooks, art tools, or performance as options, let alone good options when we develop ideas. Our education system, cultural bias towards the written word and perhaps an elitist attitude among the learned societies (combined with a mystery around arts-informed methods of learning) all contribute to this constant promotion of written work over other forms.

Knowledge translation, at its heart, is about generating the data needed to address problems, making sense of it, and ensuring that such knowledge is implemented in a manner that solves the problem.

I’ve heard many times that we only use 10 per cent of brain, which is a myth (note: I was thrilled to find that when you look up this “fact” in Google, nearly all of the first two pages of hits are myth-busters, raising my faith that the collective peer-review system is working — something Laura O’Grady kindly commented on with my last post) . But it might be closer to reality to say that we only use 10 per cent of our available creative tools to solve problems in the health sector.

So at your next meeting, maybe bring a sketchbook instead of your laptop and see what you produce.

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