Creative Intelligence or Design Thinking?

Two minds of Design: Creative Intelligence or Design Thinking











Design commentator Bruce Nussbaum shook up the world of design thinking this week arguing that it is a “failed experiment” and that Creative Intelligence is an appropriate term to replace it. What might this mean for design and its increasing role beyond its traditional boundaries?

Reading the blogs (and comments) at FastCo Design this week it would seem that anyone invested in design thinking might want to take cover. Design thinking apparently has jumped the shark and is, as Bruce Nussbaum claims, a failed experiment. In its place should be creative intelligence, a process that Nussbaum describes as:

I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned. I place CQ within the intellectual space of gaming, scenario planning, systems thinking and, of course, design thinking. It is a sociological approach in which creativity emerges from group activity, not a psychological approach of development stages and individual genius.

This proposal comes from a visible frustration with the way in which design thinking has been taken up as a tool with the critical component — creativity — left out in the cold.

Nussbaum’s rally against design thinking has not to do with its successes (in which he outlines many, including the widespread application of it to service and non-profit development), but rather where it becomes a barrier and where it fails to deliver:

But it was creativity that Design Thinking was originally supposed to deliver and it is to creativity that I now turn directly and purposefully. Creativity is an old concept, far older than “design.” But it is an inclusive concept. In my experience, when you say the word “design” to people across a table, they tend to smile politely and think “fashion.” Say “design thinking,” and they stop smiling and tend to lean away from you. But say “creativity” and people light up and lean in toward you.

Nussbaum clearly struck a chord with many. Within hours of the article being posted, dozens of comments were posted to the site, with most favouring the cause of creativity over design thinking.

Frog Design‘s lead on health projects, Robert Fabricant, weighed on this issue as well with another FastCo Design post comparing CQ to Wile E. Coyote’s efforts to get the Roadrunner, speculating that CQ may not fare much better than design thinking in the long run if not applied strategically:

Creativity is generally viewed as an inherent quality within a person; there’s a notion that you find out early in life whether you are creative or not. How many times have you heard a business person say “I am not creative” in a meeting? The concept of “Creative Intelligence” (or CQ) extends that model by implying that our level of creativity can be assessed in a quantitative manner similar to an IQ score. By bringing creativity into the sphere of assessment, I fear that CQ will ultimately suffer a similar fate as Design Thinking.

Fabricant worries about the institutional co-optation of the term CQ much as design thinking was/has/is by many in the business world.

While I respect the efforts to extend the creative power of design beyond the confines of mere terms, the rhetoric of pro- or anti-design thinking has already left me exasperated. It is evident that many are dissatisfied with what design thinking hasn’t brought and how it has been used, but my concern is that we may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and undoing the good it has done by claiming such things as it being “a failed experiment” .

I argue that it never had the chance to be fully implemented in the first place, nor have we ever raised it to the level where any scientist (behavioural or otherwise) could claim an experiment ever took place. I’m nit-picking the words because that is exactly what the design thinking critics have done, but in this case I am arguing for more research not a new term.

Design practitioners and scholars may wish to consider the answers to the following questions before closing the book on design thinking:

  • What are the central theoretical foundations of design thinking?
  • How does design thinking map on to what is known about how people change their behaviour? or organize in groups, teams and communities?
  • In what ways does the science of complexity and system dynamics fit with the design process?
  • What are the personality and delivery variables that influence an acceptable facilitated design process?
  • What is “success” in a design thinking intervention?

None of these questions have been answered. Books have been written, talks have been given, and magazines fill themselves with articles on design thinking, yet in all my intellectual travels I have not found answers to these questions. As a behavioural scientist and emerging design practitioner myself, I would rather know these answers before making such claims to abandon the idea.

Further, the concept of CQ is, as Robert Fabricant noted, fraught with pitfalls ahead. Every time a new “intelligence” is introduced, the rush to assess it, measure it and teach it produces a wave of scholarship aimed at tree-loving rather than forest appreciation. Where I think design thinking could have gone further was not so much in instilling/harnessing/discovering creativity, rather in getting people to consider the systems that people fabricate to do creative work in.

It is perhaps ironic that in a week where design thinking is under attack in the social media world that FastCo Design’s parent, Fast Company, published an interview with one of the founding fathers of the concept, David Kelley of IDEO on designing better workplaces and workforces. In that interview, he frames design thinking in a process and outcome that is worth listening to for those interested in adding to the science of design thinking and how to make these better environments:

The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing–building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help. Once you understand what they really value, it’s easy because you can mostly give it to them. You can give them the freedom or direction that they want. By getting down into the messy part of really getting to know them and having transparent discussions, you can get out of the way and let them go. The way I would measure leadership is this: of the people that are working with me, how many wake up in the morning thinking that the company is theirs?

I welcome more discussion on CQ and believe anytime creativity is bared for people to explore and nurture society benefits. But the risks of abandoning one idea without science to create a new one is that design’s influence itself might wind up the victim. Creativity is an old concept and many disciplines hold it as part of its central tenets and design risks losing the good in design thinking while reaching too far into creativity unless it has the science to back it up (see an interesting link between science and design in this month’s Metropolis magazine — that’s for another post)

Of the few that have managed to traverse this area between design, creativity, and science is Keith Sawyer at Washington University in St. Louis. Check out his books on the subject.

**Photo entitled “Is the traditional business world at war with creativity?” by opensourceway used under Creative Commons license from Flickr

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1 thought on “Creative Intelligence or Design Thinking?”

  1. Great summary of an important debate, Cameron. Design thinking is certainly ‘the new black’ and while it brings fantastic perspectives to an arid debate about corporate creativity, it is being embraced as yet another quick fix by many business leaders. As you say, it stil lacks a robust scientific foundation to enable it to help drive real change within organisations.

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