Reflections on Digitalization’s Impact on the Creative Process

By | March 29, 2021

My previous post seems to have triggered deeper reflections and responses than expected from a rapidly written rant on the loss of vocabulary. Are the gaps in my memory simply the signs of growing older, which indeed I must have done in the 16 years since I began this blog, or are the recent blank spaces in self generated cognitive tools a sign of a deeper problem with digitalization of everything?

The last 12 months, to be exact, can be said to be a moment of stasis as our communities, societies, and geographies experienced variations of locking down and other restrictions to movement and contact. Well documented is the fact that this accelerated digitalization – initially to the great joy of bureaucrats working to transform the civil services and other key sectors of our society. Today however as we repeat the same contextual experience of this time last year, it is difficult to ignore the complete takeover of daily life by digitalization and its tools.

Heart and soul of creativity – an illustration by Jeroen Meijer, JAM visueldenken, Amsterdam, November 2012

I am contacted by an old time reader – one who claims to have been following my writing on design since December 2004 and thus must be given his due for sheer sisu in having stayed the course through all the ups and downs of the past century ;p (Are there more of you out there? Do write me an email or comment, for old times sake) – who asks me to reflect upon the impact of digital saturation of our daily life and work above and beyond what was already discernible at the start of 2020, today – a year after living with the pandemic’s digital disruption. I paraphrase his request with stylistic flourish to capture the sense of his tone whilst constrained by the need to communicate by digital text alone:

Do not write about design or innovation but pick up the threads of your search for the magic of word song, inspired by the Kalevala, and ask out loud the questions that arise when one reflects upon thinking and writing – as pleasurable activities – in context of the changes wrought by the overnight need to digitalize the vast majority of our daily life.

What are we losing without recognizing the losses as losses that they are? Your last post lamenting your loss of vocabulary and your loss of your own ability to retrieve memorized information or learned knowledge sent an electric shock through me when I read it. What was I missing in my mental abilities and my intellectual capacities, having lost them without even knowing, in my tumultuous rush to adopt digital tools for remote working as the emergency decreed?

And, more painful to ponder, what are we losing in our innate and developed capacities for creativity, if we have always believed that the magic of design and innovation – of creation – lies amidst the conversations held between the members of the team? You once said the Eureka moment occured in the heart of the iterative process of product development as multidisciplinary teams brainstormed together, surrounded by post its and photographs as tangible artefacts of their research and explorations.

“… one person’s search for understanding the “eureka” moment, which, if one were to actually think about, is that moment in which innovation occurs, i.e. a new idea is born. Taking it a step further, the act of creation if you will, with words forming the power to give shape to the concept, to outline it’s boundaries, to begin shading in the nuances. […]

I further posit that, then, if the above is true, the indefinable “magic”, the unknowable “eureka”, are the actual moments when the brainstorming session begins, and the collaborative voices of the design team, talking back and forth to each other, shaping and tweaking each other’s verbalized prototype thoughts and concepts, brings to life innovation. So while design, alone, may not be the whole answer, design, however is a significant part of the answer.

As in chemistry, the catalyst, design in this case, or designers to be factual, trigger the eureka process. Hence, it works when designers alone are working together on a problem, and it works even better when design teams collaborate with their client’s teams, hybrids, if you will, to act as the catalyzer in the mix of ingredients for the chemical reaction to begin. And that is why, many directors of design (that we’d interviewed for a forthcoming article on core77) at client firms emphasized the need for “the right chemistry” and building relationships. It is as simple as having faith in the vendor to deliver the promised goods. With the word “promise” being key.” ~ Is design the answer? October 13th, 2005

What happens to the Eureka moment now, my dear, what will happen to the field of our shared endeavours – visualizing the fruits of our imagination inspired by each other and by all that we observe and absorb from our environment – what will happen to all of that creative magic?

The balance of this post is my attempt to craft a reply to his passionate outburst, and the timbre of fear I sensed lay underneath his written words. No greater fear could ever strike at the heart of any designer or maker or innovator than the very idea of the loss of imagination, of inspiration, of the ability to spark innovation or surface creativity. Indeed, I had to agree with him, who were we but soulless husks without the beating heart of the creative at our core? Organic machines responding to stimuli and levers of persuasion and action by the carefully crafted design of the immersive digital experience?

I will begin by reframing his question as ‘Is our saturation in the digitalized world – accelerated by the pandemic – sucking the life out of our creative souls, as designers and innovators?’ I could add the caveat that this question might only apply to those of us from a particular generation or older. That is, Gen X might be the cut off point for those of us experiencing the indefinable sense of our losses in daily life as the pandemic’s systemic shock transforms our world. Or, these issues might only apply to those who make and build tangible artefacts in the physical world, and is not a matter of concern for the design teams active in the digital sphere.

Missus showing me the clay oven she makes each year after the harvest season. Rajasthan, India. January 2009

I can only speak from experience as an engineer and a product designer, not a UX or UI specialist, where the hands on shaping of a foam behavioural prototype was as important part of the process as the CAD render. I cannot make the leap of experience that the generation gap implies of those who have learnt to sketch only using their computers nor can my innate spatial intelligence or kinesthetic sense begin to perceive the functionality or usability of an object seen only on the screen. I must touch it and feel it and walk around it and watch it operate before arriving at any judgement of its utility and ergonomics.

As I ponder these words, it strikes me that there are at least two conversations happening here – one touches upon the evolution of design, engineering, and manufacturing, taken together as a systemic whole; and, the other touching the aspects of generational changes in education and expertise as relating to the concurrent changes in practice. Is the shock of the impact of the digitalization experienced more by us olds or is it a function of our disciplines and practical application areas? I will leave the philosophical discussions of the meta transformation of industrial production and manufacturing for another time, and narrow my focus to consider only the cognitive impact of the digitally intermediated experience of attempting to recreate online what one has always done in the real world.

Remote insights analysis workshop facilitated by video presence, September 2020

I suffered during the struggle of attempting to brainstorm remotely via video presence with a young team of trainees in design thinking and innovation facilitation last year. The frustration of not being able to reach out and draw on the whiteboard or rapidly move post its around in the flow of the team’s give and take during analysis was deeply felt. Easily it added another 30% to the cognitive load and to the time taken for one idea or concept to emerge visibly on the board due to the combination of the team’s inexperience with qualitative design research data analysis and my inability to communicate with tangible action. We were ultimately successful and I have never been prouder of a team that I’ve worked with.

But this is not the way it should work nor is it the way that one can facilitate a team’s experiential knowledge of how to post-it – the core of the design process, in my long established opinion. I cannot go through this again with another team whom I would have to nurture from scratch. I cannot read the room, I can’t discern their body language or facial expressions, I have absolutely no way of knowing if the novel concepts and methods I was sharing with them were being received with understanding. Continuously, I felt I was working blind – unable even to step back and see the pattern of the keywords on the post its – without which this entire exercise is moot.

I could only hope that the patterns were being recognized, that insights weren’t being overlooked, and the narrative that emerged captured the user observations they were based upon. I can feel again the physical hurt of distance and isolation I felt on the day that this screen cap was taken, unable to absorb and respond to the creative energy of the young people in that room. Ouch. Without the chemistry; without the energy; what was there that could be called magic in this alleged moment of ersatz eureka?

Dear reader, I leave you here now, as I must go and walk off the remembrance of that terrible empty experience. I have no neat conclusions to offer you, only the painful memory of feeling my creative spark trapped by technology’s barriers of time and space, unable to break free.

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