IDEO Designers Share the Best Creative Advice They've Ever Received

IDEO Designers Share the Best Creative Advice They've Ever Received

Getting advice can be tough, but it can also be transformative
Ali Cottong
Samantha Peacock
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Creativity often isn't the work of a single, solitary genius. In fact, it's usually when a set of diverse perspectives come together that we're able to see new possibilities for solving problems. That's why creative collaboration is crucial—and it's also why creative mentorship is so important. Sure, you can (and dare we say should) work through these 10 exercises from Creative Confidence to hone your individual chops, but creative mentorship is what allows us to push ourselves and our work forward. This got us thinking: What else could we learn about creativity from the people we work with every day? What have they learned from their mentors?

We asked IDEOers across a diverse range of locations, teams, and roles—even ones that aren’t typically thought of as creative—to share the best creative advice they’ve ever received and how it’s impacted their work. We hope you find their responses as inspiring as we do.

Trust your unique perspective

Coming to IDEO as someone who wasn't from a "creative" background (large emphasis on the quotes there), I had a ton of concern about how I would show up on teams with people who were so fluent in the things that seemed to be what IDEO was "really about"—the creative stuff.

Early in my time here, I was on a walk with another organizational designer, mid-existential crisis when she said to me, "Your job is to be thinking about what no one else in the room is thinking about." She helped me see that I didn't have to immediately have every answer or every iota of expertise; I just needed to be using my lens on the world to make our collective design richer.

IDEO touts its cross-functional team structure, and I am a true believer in that element of our work. Unlocking my creative process has been so much about believing in the value of what I bring to the table and understanding its unique contribution to what we are all building together.

– Natalie Osterweil, Senior Organizational Designer, Cambridge

Schedule time for creativity

Martin Bone (an IDEO design director circa 2008) once told me about how he organized his schedule to carve out large blocks of time for doing deep design work of his own. Each week, he would make a long calendar appointment (often an entire day) to be his design time, and would decline any meetings or calls during it. This allowed him to get to a deeper level of work that only a non-distracted state could achieve.

Paul Graham calls this contrast in methods of working maker's schedule vs. manager's schedule. He points out that even a short meeting scheduled in the middle of the day is enough to disrupt or demotivate deep craft or thinking work. In order to maintain my own personal craft alongside other work responsibilities, I've found it effective to put similar calendar blocks on my calendar and to completely disconnect from email, phone, and Slack during these times. This focus also takes discipline beyond a calendar event, but with practice, it can really lead to better work and growth as a craft-oriented designer, even as management responsibilities increase.

– Gian Pangaro, Creative Director, IDEO CoLab, Cambridge

Disconnect from your ego

I’m an executor. I like to get shit done and make an impact. That’s how I think many of my friends, family, and colleagues would categorize me—and I agree! When I came into IDEO, creativity wasn’t a value of mine, nor did I see myself as a creative person. When it came to brainstorming ideas, to me it was all about having the best idea, and having the best idea meant it was feasible, viable, and could have an impact right away.

I learned quickly I was wrong. Virginia Martinez, our Talent Director in San Francisco, helped me when I was having a hard time engaging with IDEO’s brainstorming process. Instead of trying to show my competency through my ideas, she told me, "To get to great ideas, you need to have lots of ideas as a group. And the best idea is not always the most realistic or easy to implement. The fun and crazy ideas can be just as good to drive teams to think more creatively."

Something so simple never occurred to me! I realized that I was attaching my ego to my ideas, that my ideas and my input reflected my competency—but no one else was looking at it with that lens. I realized the diversity of ideas that led to so many possibilities was creativity—something I never saw as an important part of our Learning and Development work, which I'm focused on. That also helped me feel more excited and comfortable in brainstorms because I was walking in with an open mind rather than ready to prove my point.

It has changed my approach to the work, my approach to how I design programs, and my approach to collaboration.

– Jen Casimiro, Talent Lead, San Francisco

Stop and smell the roses

My mom has always told me to take the time to smell the roses. It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized how lucky I was to have a parent who taught me at a young age that it wasn't always about getting to the end of the race first. Enjoying the journey was just as important.

"Smelling the roses" has taught me to pause and take in my surroundings, being inspired by the seemingly mundane artifacts that I might otherwise have missed—curiously shaped gum stuck on the sidewalk, fine wood grain patterns in furniture, and the intriguing strangers I pass on the street. Each elicits ideas for new stories, inventions, or adventures. If I ever feel stuck or need inspiration, I know I just have to pause and take a look around me.

Michelle Lee, Play Lab Portfolio Director, Palo Alto

Make your work visual

The best creative advice I ever received came from Mike Stringer at the beginning of my first project at IDEO. This was when IDEO's data science discipline was still young; I was navigating the challenge of working with designers of other disciplines.

Mike came to my project space and told me to "put stuff on boards and share." While this might be something natural for any other designer, some data scientists are very attached to their laptop, scripts, and simulations. In more traditional data science positions, I normally wouldn’t put data science on boards (the most I shared in my previous job was a decision tree on a whiteboard).

Mike suggested I make my work visible to the rest of the team to make data science more transparent, spark curiosity in my team, and start new conversations. I created a variety of hand-sketched data visuals and made them a prominent part of the project space to serve as a catalyst for brainstorming and discussion. Sharing my sketches with a variety of designers from a broad spectrum of disciplines (interaction, research, software, business, and more) made my work more transparent and helped establish a common language, allowing data science to grow organically within the team. I now make that approach part of my work style, and I share it with other data scientists whenever I see the opportunity.

– Fra Valsecchi, Data Science Design Lead, Chicago

Pull a card

I regularly seek advice from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies card deck. They compiled it in the early 1970's to help overcome creative block in the studio. When you feel stuck, you draw a card and do whatever it says. For example, "Ask people to work against their better judgment," or "Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them," or "What would your closest friend do?" Often the advice is a bit unclear, but the vagueness prompts new ideas.

– Michael Hendrix, Global Director of Design, Cambridge

Embrace the Sharknado

A bad movie is better than an unfinished movie. As a filmmaker, there's this temptation to keep working on something or tweak it infinitely. However, there's a power in seeing something fully through, and then starting something else new that you can build and learn from. Also, it's so rare that your finished product is truly "bad." What would that even look like? Worst case scenario, you miss your mark but you learn something. Best case scenario, Sharknado.

– Sephora Woldu, Senior Leadership Coordinator, San Francisco

Accept your failures and iterate, iterate, iterate

The best creative advice I ever received was a good walloping. I was 28 and had landed an assignment from Alex Heard at the New York Times Magazine, an editor known for his unsparing red pen. I was to write a short piece about an alternative film festival. I interviewed the founders, thought up a clever lead, and submitted a draft. This is good, I thought. Funny.

The next day, Alex called and read the article back to me, word for word. "Are you kidding me?" he said. He was indignant. It was like I'd made him drink toilet water. When the call was over, I cursed myself and cried. I’d failed, and he’d dropped a grenade in my lap so I’d suffer no illusions that my work needed anything less than a good and brutal pulverizing. I called an editor friend, enlisting him to give me honest feedback. Then I sat down and rewrote the piece 103 times. When I finally ginned up the courage to send it in again, Alex called me immediately. "You did it,” he said. ”I'm proud of you. I’ll run it this Sunday."

Find someone who’ll give it to you straight, then iterate, iterate, iterate. Keep at it until your hand falls off. That's how I learned to write.

Shoshana Berger, Senior Editorial Director, San Francisco

Remember ideas aren’t worth a single penny

"Ideas aren't worth a single penny." These are the words of wisdom that a colleague at my previous job gave me a couple of years back. He was the type of creative director that I only expected to find in fiction: almost always late to work, usually hungover, wore a Dumbledore style beard, and always ready to mutter out the most unexpected and astonishing ideas. When brainstorming, he would always kick-start the session with the most hilarious, intoxicating fantasy concept. He was known in the industry as the ultimate idea man.

That was why his advice struck me as a surprise. He told me that he would willingly give away any of his ideas for free, because that’s not what we’re being paid for as professionals—it’s the execution of the idea.

I look back to this whenever I find myself too attached to an idea, or when the team is stuck in a rabbit hole of conceptual debates, picking ideas apart one by one. Anyone can come up with the same idea sooner or later; our job is to not just come up with the idea, but to bring it to life, and that is what we should be proud of. That is where true impact lies.

– Daisuke “Dice” Yukita, Senior Interaction Designer, Tokyo

Focus on the story

The advice that still rings true to me today and on the path to become a designer is never lose focus of the story you want to tell. Every single experience, physical thing, or digital product you create is based on a sequence of decisions you make during the design process. It’s essential that every decision has a purpose—that’s how you get the most potential out of your design. A memorable, human story is the groundwork to purposeful design.

– Susanne Duswald, Industrial Designer, Munich

Invite others to the party

Several years ago, I ran into film director Frances Ford Coppola. Because we were both speakers at the same event, I managed to spend a few minutes alone with Coppola backstage, and one of the things he said that day has stuck with me ever since: "When you are working with creative people, you don't tell them what to do. You invite them to the party."

I have used his advice many times, including right now at D4V (Design for Ventures), IDEO's Tokyo-based venture capital firm. We invest in promising Japanese start-ups and then invite the design team here to "join the party," using creative tools to help the young companies thrive.

Tom Kelley, IDEO Partner

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Ali Cottong
Ali is a content strategist with roots in telling stories for deep tech. She originally earned her nerd cred as a former world-class Quidditch player and has competed in the Quidditch World Cup twice. Ali currently lives in Oakland and has traded in her broomstick for a bike.
Samantha Peacock
Design Lead
Samantha Peacock—Pea for short—is a visual designer focusing on food, sustainability, and modernism. She's passionate about transforming our relationship with the natural world—creating a more harmonious and regenerative future for all.
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