Book Review: Creative Confidence by David Kelley and Tom Kelley

Creative Confidence by David Kelley and Tom Kelley

Creative Confidence is a book I first found while looking for ways to delve deeper into the world of Design Thinking. Design Thinking, which is an approach to problem-solving emphasising empathy, experimentation and iteration, was first pioneered by the book’s authors, David and Tom Kelley.

David is the founder of the “” at Stanford University, which focuses on the education of design and innovation. Both are involved in the running of IDEO, a design consultancy firm, which concentrates on bringing innovation and design thinking into organisations across a range of industries.

The goal of IDEO, the, and this book are to bring a human-centered approach to problem solving, allowing individuals and organisations to have the confidence to tackle difficult problems using creativity and innovation. Design Thinking can aid this by offering a structured process for problem-solving, such as the one outlined in the Interaction Design Foundation’s diagram below:

Design Thinking 5 Step Process

The structure of this book follows a similar structure to the creative process. Each chapter roughly maps to a step in the process, which are broken down as follows:

(1) Flip

The “Flip” in question is described in the sub-title of the chapter: “From Design Thinking to Creative Confidence”. Here the authors set out that the book will bot be simply detailing Design Thinking methods. It will have a broader scope and describe how the key elements of Design Thinking, such as empathy, an experimental mindset, and the will to tackle difficult problems, can be applied to all creative endeavours, in all aspects of life.

What is of primary need is a “Flip” in mindset. To challenge assumptions and approach problems with the idea that anything is possible. Which brings us to the next chapter…

(2) Dare

The barriers to taking on creative challenges lie in false beliefs that some people are naturally creative and some are not, and that our creative abilities are fixed and incapable of growing. The authors want to challenge this perception and believe that fear of failure is one of the principle barriers to creative confidence.

This can be overcome by having the courage to take the first step into a creative challenge. By removing the stigma of failure, individuals and organisations can build up their creativity muscle in the same way as any other skill. The key is taking the first step…

(3) Spark

The subtitle here is “From Blank Page to Insight”. The first great obstacle that must be overcome is the fear of the blank page. The root of this fear is in the fear of failure and the fixed mindset that leads to a lack of creative confidence.

The remedy for this is to take the first step. Just start doing something, learn from your mistakes, and be open to any insights that arrive. These insights are the “Spark”. This what the great creative geniuses are the master of, but anyone with the right environment, enough repetition, and enough useful inputs can create something new, even if it’s just a new angle or implementation of an existing idea. One idea begets another and creativity has a momentum of its own. The next step is putting the ideas into action…

(4) Leap

As much as the blank page can be a pain point in the creative process, the step where an idea has to be taken out into the world and tested can be equally as scary. The type of fear experienced here is an external one rather than an internal. Fear that the idea won’t work, fear of financial loss, fear of failure and rejection in front of others.

As with failure at earlier stages of the creative process, the feedback gained in any negative outcomes at this stage can be invaluable. It can help enhance or refine the idea, or simply help avoid wasting any further effort with this particular approach.

Failure at this step can also be mitigated using methods suggested by Design Thinking. Empathy with users and a solid definition of the problem can ensure that you are tackling the right problem in the right way in the first place. An iterative approach where ideas are tested by end users early and often reduces the amount of wasted effort on rejected ideas. Tools such as prototypes can be used to better define the implementation of an idea, and are a more cost-effective way of testing the idea with users before it is fully completed.

(5) Seek

Having achieved a degree of creative confidence, the authors challenge the reader to take inspiration from what they have achieved. They encourage the reader to make innovation a passion. That the reader should “Seek” out opportunities to implement the key elements of design thinking — empathy with other users, taking on difficult problems, and believing that through innovation the world can be made a better place.

This can be accelerated by evangelising a creative culture amongst the people around you…

(6) Team

Reading a book (such as this one) is by nature an individual experience. Creativity for a large part of the process is a more collaborative one. The spark of genius and the overcoming of certain obstacles can happen alone, but the different inputs, mixing of ideas, testing and refining all have to happen with a larger group.

The authors suggest several ways to allow the creative confidence of an individual to flourish in a group or organisation. The end goal being that the organisation itself can achieve the desired approach to creativity. The authors encourage a “karaoke confidence” in the work culture, where individuals can operate without judgement and the fear of failure, feeling free to bring forward new ideas and challenge existing ones.

The environment that the group works in can foster creativity. From the ambience to the tools available, such as whiteboards, post-its, markers and whatever the necessary design materials may be. The phrase “How Might We…” can be used to defined the problem to be solved in a positive way. Using prototypes are powerful as a tool but also as a cultural norm where testing and iteration is implied. Taking inputs from a diverse range of backgrounds and testing them against a similarly diverse range of viewpoints can also ensure that both the problem and solution are being viewed from all possible angles.

(7) Move and (8) Next

The final 2 chapters, “Move” and “Next” again emphasise the need for action in the creative process. From taking the first step, to implementing an idea, to testing and iterating on the idea. This must be built upon by iterating on your own creative process, until you are confident enough to start spreading your creative confidence through your organisation and the wider world. Design, innovation and creativity are a daily habit and a life’s mission.

If, like me, you are looking for a book that goes in depth on Design Thinking techniques, then you will find Creative Confidence light on that kind of detail. What the book is useful for, is laying out the process behind creativity. The structure provided give guidance for anyone looking to step further into design or innovation. Having this as a guardrail allows a freedom and shift in mindset when it comes to taking on creative endeavours. Hopefully leading to innovative solutions to some of the world’s problems, both big and small.

As far as whether that would be enough to convince you to buy the book, there is a chance that if you’re a fan of design thinking, you will already be of this mindset and that the book will be preaching to the choir. On the other hand, it’s always good to have a book like this to help validate your ideas. It might also be useful material to help get buy-in from others if you’re not working in an environment that has this sort of “creative confidence”. The authors of the book might serve as better advocates of their approach to design and innovation than you can.

Finally, I do buy into the authors’ worldview — that creativity is something that can be developed in individuals and organisations, and that we can use them to tackle difficult problems. In the 20th century, technology allowed us to solve some “easy” problems, automating manual processes, and reducing barriers of communication. In the 21st century, in order to tackle more difficult societal and institutional problems, we will need approaches involving empathy, experimentation, and constant iteration to keep up with these problems as they evolve. If you’re interested in an introduction to thinking about the world in this way, then this book serves as a good starting point.

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