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Reflections on Design Thinking in Asia

Would you consider yourself creative? Most people have an image of “that kind” of zany, out-of-the-box, creative person. They’re the person who probably comes to work with pink hair, learned how to play the guitar at 7, or instinctively knows how to sketch. The truth is, everyone is creative, because everyone has had to come up with solution to solve a problem at one point or another. Often, having creative confidence or simply being confidently creative means being comfortable enough in one’s one skin to fail. Yes, true creativity is often the product of having failed repeatedly and yet wonderfully.

The following is an excerpt from design thinker and educator Helen van Baal’s essay “Reflections on Design Thinking in Asia” from the book Rethinking Asia: Why Asia is Hopeful, published by the Acumen Publishing under the Center for Asia Leadership. A visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and the programme lead at the HPI School of Design Thinking (d-school), van Baal shares about her experience teaching design thinking and leadership to high school students who joined the Asia Union Leaders Summit in Korea in 2017.  

Building Creative Confidence Also Means Building Personality

What I love most about my job is seeing young people grow and guiding them to become more confident, creative, and passionate individuals. At the AULS, I was very fortunate to work with some of the most intelligent, courageous, and passionate young people I have ever met. Even though we had only a few days of workshops and lectures, working with a group like that allowed me to push far beyond the standard DT workshop.

This boundary-pushing manifested itself in two ways. First, it happened on a content level, teams developed feasible product ideas with fleshed-out business models in only a few days. Second, on a much larger scale, there was a shift in the students’ mindset and approach toward a more open, more innovative, and more creative way of working. The prerequisite for this mindset is building a safe space, where students are comfortable with allowing their ideas to fail, by making mistakes and learning from them.

Oscar was one of the youngest students in the group, and one of the loudest. He knew he was smart, and he was constantly looking for ways to be one step ahead of everyone else. At various points in the process, I asked each team to partner with another team, pitch their ideas, and receive feedback. Often, when students are asked to do that for the first time, their pitch becomes a sales pitch where they want to make sure the other team likes their idea. It usually takes a few rounds of sharing for teams to understand that it is much more valuable for them to receive constructive feedback than to convince others of their idea.

On day two, it was Oscar’s turn to share an idea with a partner team. There hadn’t really been enough time to prepare for this pitch, but Oscar was confident that he could improvise and convince everybody of their ingenious idea. Nevertheless, the pitch didn’t go well and the other team, prompted to give feedback, questioned some of the core aspects of the game that Oscar’s team had come up with. At the end of the workshop, when all the other students had left for dinner, an unusually quiet Oscar stayed behind. “I’m sorry our presentation wasn’t good, Miss Helen,” he said, shuffling his feet. I smiled and explained that the aim of the presentation wasn’t to showcase the idea but to find ways of improving it. I reminded him that his team had learned a lot from the presentation. His face lightened. “So we did well by not doing well?” He said that as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

For me, this was a powerful moment: I was able to take some of the pressure off him and let him to allow himself to make mistakes. Later on, this led to his whole team developing a certain lightness, which reflected in a sensible and well-thought-out idea. One that didn’t need a great sales pitch but won over their audience naturally, thanks to their hard work and the genuine feedback they received from testing it with others. Of  course, the idea itself wasn’t what I was proud of—what pleased me was the mindset and attitude that the team had adopted.

Allowing yourself to make mistakes is a skill that takes a lot of confidence and courage, but it also will help you grow into a better designer, better leader, and better individual. The idea of “doing well by not doing well” is the first lesson that any educational system should convey. Unfortunately, in many educational institutions, especially in Asia, embracing this idea will require a lot of work and a dramatic change in mindset.

By Helen van Baal