Creativity Is at the Core of Being Human

As Partner Emeritus and an Executive Design Director at IDEO, Jane Fulton Suri continues to advance design insight and inspiration and develop future creative leaders. She co-leads IDEO U’s Insights for Innovation course and has taught at Stanford, California College of the Arts, and the University of California, Berkeley. Jane recently published IDEO’s Little Book of Design Research Ethics and is currently bringing her mentorship and expertise to the IDEO Tokyo office.

Jane shared with us her unique wisdom and perspective—gleaned from nearly 30 years experience as a design leader at IDEO—on the evolution of design and fostering creativity and innovation among future design leaders.

Creativity at the Core with Coe and Jane

Tell us a little about yourself and what you’re doing at this point in your career.

I’m excited about the next generation, both within IDEO and the world, continuing to be inventive—particularly in the way we inform and inspire projects through the investigations we make. I’m generally trying to encourage experimentation. We have some well established ways of approaching challenges, staying human-centered and being inspired by behavior, but I’m constantly looking for new or more inspiring ways. We can always do better, and I think there are some interesting changes in designers’ relationship with the outside world.

When I came into design 30 years ago, designers knew they were designing for people but they didn’t think a lot about the people. IDEO was a pioneer in emphasizing the point that we were designing for people—that we needed to know about people, engage with them, and learn about their lives. As time has gone on, we’ve evolved to designing more with people—bringing people more fully into the process. That’s a development from designing for people to designing with people.

The designer’s role is changing, and part of what we’re now providing for the world are tools for people to design for themselves. I think of that as supporting design by people. Designing for, with, and by people are all happening at the same time, they’re not mutually exclusive, but it’s a change in orientation. It means our relationship with people is changing. Let’s learn about you, but let’s help you learn about yourself as well. We still need to develop methods that feel more collaborative and more mutually beneficial in the discoveries that we make.

Could you give examples of design for, design with, and design by people?

Designing  an ATM is an example of designing for people, because the equipment needs to be owned and maintained by the bank. We’re designing a system for people to use, and as designers we need to make all the decisions about how it behaves. We also need to ensure that people understand how to use it and that it feels safe and delightful.

As an example of designing with people, I would jump to recent work with MassMutual. Originally, MassMutual was interested in selling more products to young people, but we learned that most young people aren’t interested in insurance products and have little confidence in their ability to make good decisions about their financial lives. Through design research, we discovered that MassMutual could fulfill a real need by engaging with people—and not just young people—and providing tools to foster a smart mindset about financial issues like chipping away debt and saving to buy a house. They’d learn about making life decisions that ultimately impact their finances. Together with MassMutual, we designed Society of Grownups, a place to foster financial literacy and help young people embrace their inner adult.

In the first example, it was appropriate to watch people transacting with an ATM and design in response to what we saw. In the second, we needed to engage people in deeper and more trusting ways—to help them help us by going on a learning journey together. What kind of events and activities would be engaging and helpful? The output has been to empower people to navigate the financial complexity they encounter in their lives. That was designing with people and supporting them designing by themselves, because ultimately they’ll make all the choices.


“People are designing and adapting for themselves all the time—it's always fascinated me and I’ve found it very inspiring. Design by people inspiring design for people.”


Tools we’ve created to help people design by themselves are things like the Human Centered Design Toolkit and Design Thinking for Educators. Those are highly designed outputs we developed by engaging with people over a period of time to find what they need. You could also say that IDEO U is all about empowering people to design on their own.

I used to think this was a linear progression, that we started with designing for people and then with people and finally by people, but I realized, ultimately, it’s a virtuous circle. We’ve always been inspired, even when just designing for people we were inspired by the workarounds people developed for themselves. The kinds of things we captured in Thoughtless Acts. You’ve probably seen how people put old tennis balls on their walkers to give them stability and make them quieter. People are designing and adapting for themselves all the time—it's always fascinated me and I’ve found it very inspiring. Design by people inspiring design for people. Helping people see their own workarounds helps them realize that they’re designing, and that together we can design a better system. The whole thing sort of feeds itself.

It’s a mutual inspiration cycle. Designers get inspired by what people are doing for themselves, it informs us. Then as people do more design for themselves, they’re more sensitive and attuned and have more respect for professional designers. They realize what’s involved in bringing something to life. That mutual respect and circularity is key. For IDEO, it’s one of the reasons we can be successful; we need to keep all of those balls in the air because they’re all mutually informing. This is what I love about IDEO U. It’s based on practitioning, not on people who are experts at training packages or teaching packages, but becoming experts through a deep grounding in doing it. It’s very authentic.

Tell a story about a creative team you were part of. What helped that team thrive?

I’m thinking about an IDEO team here in Japan. Often our clients are deeply curious about what we do and have a fair amount of anxiety about the process. This puts pressure on our team and there’s a lot of bandwidth in maintaining the our team’s self confidence in the context of clients who are not feeling very confident. We have to project confidence, even when we don’t quite know what we’re doing yet.

Our breakthrough on this project was when we actually started making stuff. The brief was pretty unclear; the company was asking for direction on the next technology they should be making. It was really wide open. In a short, quick project we wanted to demonstrate that our approach would surface opportunities that would be valuable to them. They wanted help navigating the future with the technology capability they had, and they didn’t know what the next thing should be.

First, we helped them think about who might be an appropriate audience for a new technology and who is underserved by technology. We’ve been very focused on the aging issue, and in Japan that’s a big one. But within that space, there’s an enormously wide range of opportunities. When we started brainstorming ideas, we transitioned quickly to building prototypes. Having someone on the team who could make ideas come alive and enable convincing interaction, even crudely, there was something we could rally around—something we could test with people and start getting feedback.

What was the impact you were able to have?

The breakthrough was going to the point of building prototypes that worked and got everybody excited, both on the IDEO team and the client team. The nuance was in going from a fuzzy brief to, let’s just pick something, let’s pick a demographic, explore it, and make something while not worrying too much about if we were creating the right thing, because we know that we’ll get to the right thing eventually. What we often need is to move from ideas to making them tangible quickly in a way that’s compelling. After we did that, there was a lot more confidence on our team because it was building confidence in the client. Again, a virtuous cycle.

Why do you think the world needs creativity now more than ever?

I’ve always believed that creativity is at the core of  being human. I don’t think there’s ever a time when it hasn’t been important, but it may be more acceptable now. Because one of the problems with creative people is they upset the status quo. Creativity is about making change. By nature, even when it’s directed to improving things, creativity tends to be disruptive or subversive, unless it’s accepted in a space as a norm. Maybe society is moving toward creativity being recognized as a more significant advantage of being human. There seems to be a lot more excitement around it. We’ve had some serious times in history where creativity has been frowned upon. Certain groups of people have been allowed to be creative, but it’s been stomped out quite a lot through human history. We’re reclaiming our heritage. It’s an exciting time.


I’ve always believed that creativity is at the core of  being human.


What is something you’re working on now with your personal leadership style?

I’m working on finding the right places to be opinionated and declarative. My own style is based more around asking questions; I support people and help them think through problems by provoking them with questions. That’s because I am curious and I’ve found that inciting  curiosity helps us get to better places.

My least comfortable personal space in leadership is in being assertive about what I think we should do and getting people to follow that way. It’s an interesting challenge, particularly while here in Tokyo. What I really want to do here is empower the people who are going to be staying here to lead from the front, but I still find provoking with questions seems to be more fruitful. This is supporting people to make the decision themselves, but think things through wisely and with some guidance and safety.

In Japan, is the leadership style of leading through questions common?

I think questions and curiosity generally are fairly unusual here. On the side, I’m learning the traditional art of wood carving for wood block printing. I’m being taught by a master carver who’s been carving since he was about 12 and he’s in his mid sixties. I think I’m very odd to him, because I’m always asking questions and I want to know why I’m doing things. I think the traditional way is that you just do the right thing because the person with experience, the boss or the master, is telling you how it’s done; you don’t really question why you’re doing it that way. It’s done how it’s done, and you do how you’re told.

I believe that leading through questions is rare in Japan, and more natural in IDEO. I think to be a well-rounded leader we need the ability to move in all those different spaces—supporting, provoking, questioning, inspiring, leading from the front, and having answers. But when you’re trying to empower people, you probably don’t want to be spending too much time at the front.

If you had a magic wand, what would you do to design a world where anyone could build creative confidence to solve real world challenge?

If I had a magic wand, I’d like us all to have more insight into the broader world that we live in, and more appreciation of how a small change could be beneficial or not beneficial to the entire system. I’d like to help people make choices and design decisions based on a greater sense of harmony with the world of living things, including other people. It would give people insight about the relationship we have with each other and the rest of the world. They could better see where they benefit by benefitting others. Instead of focusing on solely making more money or having more people buy their product, if people thought about how they could serve others and align their success with the success of others, that’s the mindset I would be striving for. That’s what my wand wants.


Learn the methods Jane discusses and take your team to new territory in our Insights for Innovation online course.

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