Open Environments Contribute to Creativity

Librarians get stereotyped. Old ladies. Hair Buns. Glasses on chains. Shushing. Always reading books. Libraries have their own stereotypes. Books, books and more books. Very quiet. Lots of bookworms sitting around reading. Finger puppet story hours. Maybe some computers for research. Kind of deadly dull. In general – the image suffers.

Words like excitement, novelty, learning and especially creativity, are rarely associated with the library. For those in the know, like the librarians who run the place, today’s libraries and their workforce tend to defy all those old stereotypes. Sure, there are still lots of books, but there are other spaces that community members are pleasantly surprised to find when they do finally visit the library.

Increasingly librarians want to position the library as a community space that contributes to personal and group creativity. Hence, the great interest in maker spaces. But there’s more beyond that and according to new research, the environment we design for community members can make a significant difference in stimulating their creativity. What matters most is designing a space that fosters a culture of openness in the community – in itself a rather unique experience these days.

Librarians who want to explore such possibilities may be interested in a new book, Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, author Eric Weiner shares what he’s learned about the connection between place and creative genius.

In his research about the places where creative ideas emerged throughout history Weiner developed the concept of a “genius cluster”. That’s a particular locale, where at a particular point in history, lots of creative ideas were brewing and the advance of civilization was sparked by the exchange of genius. Here’s one of his examples:

Look at Athens as an example in 450 BC. You had Socrates. You had Sophocles. You later had Plato and Aristotle. All in the same city at roughly the same period of time. Not a coincidence — and not just a Western phenomena.

What was the common thread that links together these clusters through time and space? In a word – attitude. But it was a particular type of attitude.

Weiner describes it as “openness to experience”. He says that this trait of being open to new ideas and experiences is the single most important thing in the development of a genius cluster. No doubt libraries, or some form of information/knowledge collections were also present where these clusters emerged, but to what extent if any they served as a catalyst is unclear. When you consider what institution, over the ages, is a source, nourisher and defender of openness in the community, it is the library.

Public libraries are open to everyone. Academic libraries, less so, but many welcome anyone who wishes to enter. Libraries are spaces where ideas are openly shared. They are, or should be, safe spaces for community members of all ages to access needed information without fear of privacy invasion. Simply by their nature of bringing together people and content together, they can lead to collisions of open discovery and idea exchange.

Librarians are emerging as architects and global champions of cultures of openness in the institutions and communities where they exist as evidenced by library leadership in advancing open scholarship and open learning.

If we believe there is value in Weiner’s ideas, then we should position the library and librarians as engines of creativity in the community. At the 2016 American Library Association Conference I attended a session on building trends. The architects who study and design library spaces emphasized the importance of open, naturally lighted spaces where there was a high level of intuitive way finding.

Those using them can easily see what they seek to find without barriers that cloud their experience. In other words, emphasize openness. Design was presented as a powerful tool to create spaces that ignite the spark of creativity in those who dwell in them.

Did Weiner discover any other contributing factors to genius clusters? It turns out that alcohol may have played a role. Shocking indeed! Wine and scotch are particularly notable as being present in those times and spaces that birthed great creativity. Perhaps that makes a better case for wine at the library – and not just for those occasional community events. Openness + wine = creativity? Now there’s a formula worth considering.

Taking Advantage of a Creative Insight

My first position as an academic librarian was in a business library. Much like the familiar liaison model of service delivery, each of us librarians maintained several subject specialties. As the newly hired librarian I had little choice. I was assigned the subjects that no one else wanted. No surprise then how accounting became part of my liaison package.

One of my responsibilities involved oversight of our Disclosure collection of microfiche annual reports and Securities and Exchange Commission documents. It was a huge tangled mess of content that no one really understood, leading to its lack of use. Initially I forced myself to learn how to file the microfiche so I could train student workers to do it so that I could then forget about it and go on to more important things. But something happened. I discovered a whole world of fascinating information in those documents. Devoting time to learn about the different SEC filings allowed me to better understand the relationship between them and how they could contribute to business research in areas such as mergers and acquisitions.

My intense interest in these documents and a realization that many business researchers were overlooking their value led me to want to learn more rather than less. Ultimately it led me to become the go-to-person at the business school for assistance and support in using the SEC documents collection. It helped to have a guide to a poorly designed, non-intuitive micro-format collection. The experience inspired me to share my knowledge to help others. That led to research guides and presentations. A published article in the library literature was followed by more presentations and publications and eventually a book. Without a creative insight into a service gap going unfilled none of it may have happened.

Not that I have any particular interest in baby products – or “gear” as it is referred to in Jamie Grayson’s story – but it caught my attention because it directly connects with my own experience at the business library as the accounting liaison librarian. It’s about getting caught up in something you thought was a boring waste of your time, but then your unexpected passion for it leads to a creative insight and a multitude of opportunities for new products and services. The gist of the story conveyed in this article is to understand how an out-of-work, single actor with no children became the number one go-to-person for information and advice about baby gear. It all happened because of a creative insight – seeing something that others didn’t and then capitalizing on that idea to build it into a growing suite of services and products.

Grayson, just another out-of-work actor, is desperate for a job to pay the bills until his next acting gig. With few options he replies to an ad for a position at a large baby products retailer seeking actors to demonstrate the products. Initially Grayson demonstrated one product only – an expensive stroller. The last thing Grayson expected was to develop a passion for baby gear. Bored with that one product he decides to branch out from strollers and endeavors to gain expertise in as many baby products as possible. He read baby blogs, follows product reviews and studies what parents say about the products. He even spent a year alongside midwives to learn about the birth and parenting experience. Soon enough Grayson was the expert.

Grayson also recognized that his acting ability gave him an edge. He had a true knack for demonstrations that enabled parents to choose the right products. The store owners gave Grayson even more responsibility, putting him in charge of all product demonstrations. Thanks to word-of-mouth parents began to seek Grayson out for his advice. They trusted his unbiased and honest recommendations. Things got really crazy for Grayson when he was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about finding the right baby products in different price ranges.

That’s when Grayson had his creative insight. He saw an unfilled gap for a product/service that no one else did.

That’s how he came to start the Babyguy Gear Guide, a compendium of news, reviews and information about baby products. From there it’s another success story. Grayson owes it to a combination of factors that include his acting ability, his position as an outsider who can be objective and critical of the products, building trust with his audience and maintaining an unthreatening presence with which moms and dads are comfortable. But it all started with the recognition of a service gap that needed filling.

The big takeaway for me in Grayson’s story is how that one creative insight led to a completely new service. It’s also provides a good answer to the question “What is creativity?” Grayson came up with a really good idea for something new or an improvement on past efforts, and was able to bring his idea to fruition. But it may have been more than that. At the start he fell into a job and then it got kind of boring. He was good at that one product demonstration, but he needed more. Creative endeavor requires more than just insights that lead to ideas. It must be fueled by an investment of hard work and time to make things happen.

Rather than quit and go on to something else, Grayson instead immersed himself in his work by learning everything he could about baby gear and gadgets. It all led to the realization that consumers wanted a certain type of expertise to guide them in making the best product choices. He also did the field research that led to the realization of the gap in services. He spoke to parents. He went to product conventions. He experienced the childrearing process from the parents’ perspective. He saw the patterns coming together: expensive baby gear; affluent parents; internet commerce; review-driven consumers; options overload; social media. Grayson’s creative insight is owed to much more than job boredom.

Grayson’s story may help us to understand how a creative idea and what follows happens, but what can we take away from this story to help us design better libraries? How would a library design a space that would encourage, inspire or facilitate community members to achieve more creativity? What services could librarians provide in a creativity zone? Is it even possible to design such a space? At the ACRL2015 Conference colleagues and I participated in a panel session titled “Turn Your Library Into an Idea Engine: Creating the Ideal Creativity Space“. We explored some basic ideas about creativity, how libraries have evolved over time as places where creativity can occur, how librarians can be intentional about designing a space that contributes to creativity and innovation and offered an example of such a space in a medical center library. When it comes to intangibles like creativity no one has all the answers. Our panel presentation demonstrated that the opportunity is there and that the campus or community library is a natural location to situate a space to bring together the many elements that contribute to creativity and innovation.

As colleges and universities, cities and corporations all place greater emphasis on the importance of creativity as a driver of innovation, entrepreneurship and the growth of new products and services, librarians may have an opportunity to support the effort to help community members discover their inner creativity. If we can learn from the stories and experiences of people like Jamie Grayson we may better understand how to help individuals tap their creativity flow. I believe creativity hubs would immensely add to the value libraries already deliver to their communities.

You might even be asking yourself, as a librarian, what are you doing now that seems like a dead end, but may ultimately turn out to be your next great new service. What’s your microfiche documents collection? It’s there just waiting for you to have a creative insight. Be sure to take advantage of it.

Sharing Designerly Advice

When commencement time rolls around we are suddenly inundated with reports of all the wise advice for future success that college graduates receive. Whether it’s celebrities, politicians, newscasters or scholars, all seek to impart some wisdom on this year’s crop of graduating students. What happens when experts are asked to give design advice to graduating design students? Some potentially useful advice for librarians who have a passion for (or even serious interest) design is what happens.

In the article “9 Top Designers On What Every New Grad Should Know” we learn what the experienced designers think is the best advice for the new designers. Learn to code? Hire on with a top design firm or go out on your own? How to apply what you learned? Some of that to be sure but also some basics that we can all appreciate.

For example, Tim Brown, the president and CEO of Ideo, recommends paying attention to organizational culture. It won’t matter how creative you if you fail to understand how the organization behaves. He advises approaching organizational culture as one more constraint with which designers must work.

Gadi Amit, president and principal designer of New Deal Design, also has some basic advice about complexity. Use design to bring about the clarity from within complexity. Use the constraints to create “one magical experience of physical and digital design.” Likewise, Kate Aronowitz, vice president of design at Wealthfront, advises grads to keep it simple and be intentional. Don’t wait for luck to shape your career with a big surprise.

Jessica Walsh, partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, advocates for new designers to take risks. Worry less about a big paycheck than understanding what type of work ignites your passion. Also, be nice because no one wants to hire a-holes or egomaniacs. Definitely advice we can all use.

Maria Giudice, vice president of user experience at Autodesk, believes it’s important to think of oneself as a leader or future leader. She believes that everything that students are learning in design school today, from design thinking to learning how to execute, is what is needed to be a great leader. As always, don’t wait to be asked to take a leadership role.

Aron Shapiro, CEO of Huge, says that it’s important to keep the focus on what products do as a way to inform what they look like. The future of products and services is to design so that people’s needs are anticipated and decisions are made for them. Understand that and the opportunities are limitless.

My takeaway from all this advice is that a passion for design, a desire to help people find clarity when confronting confusion and paying attention to people’s needs are a large part of what designers need to do to be successful. It helps to work well with others and believe in yourself, but it’s important to understand the constraints of the workplace and our projects if we are to make the most of our talent.

And yeah, learn to code – says Irene Au, design partner at Khosla Ventures.

Libraries Could Use An Experience Design Hub

I never thought I’d be writing a post that points to something McDonald’s is doing, but I recently discovered they maintain an Innovation Center that allows the fast food company to study and potentially improve the McDonald’s user experience. It’s an idea worth exploring. I have had an occasional experience at McDonald’s, usually when there are no other options. For example, two years ago I was visiting a library and needed to take a break for lunch. Given the location and the time available there was not much else to choose. I ordered a salad (pre-made) and a cup of coffee.

As one might expect the experience was about convenience, speed of delivery and low cost. The most significant barrier to having a good customer experience at McDonald’s, I think – and there probably more than a few from which to choose – is the limited options and a “take it this way or go elsewhere” design. If I wanted a little milk for my coffee instead of the standard creamer packet I would need to buy a bottle of milk. For the customer, convenience comes at a cost.

Times have changed and McDonald’s is struggling to grapple with its longest sales decline in company history.Competition on one end of the spectrum from cheaper fast-food restaurants and on the other end from healthier restaurant options is putting the squeeze on McDonald’s profits. As many other organizations do, when competing on price or product alone isn’t working, look to improve the experience. That’s the gist of this article that was reprinted in Sunday newspapers around the country. To that end McDonald’s has run an Innovation Center since 2001.

What’s changed is that instead of simply finding ways to cut ten seconds off the time it takes to fry, package and deliver a burger, a diversified staff now works to improve the service experience. “The focus is really on what customers are looking for” said Melody Roberts, senior director of experience design innovation. I was looking for a small container of free milk for my coffee. Who knew that McDonald’s employs a senior director of experience design?

What I thought was interesting about this article, and I’m sure McDonald’s is not alone in developing such a facility, is the idea of creating an entire replica of the store and setting it up to maximize the testing of customer service options and the collection of data about customer experiences. Just imagine having the capacity to make on-the-fly modifications to experiment with a minor change and the ability to bring in real people, not paid actors, to engage with staff and the environment for the purpose of studying actual customer transactions.

Now imagine some type of design hub for libraries. What if we could create a working model of a library where we could invite in people to have service interactions, use the study spaces or work collaboratively, and openly capture information about how the library is being used. A lab-like setting could also allow for experimentation with new types of services. The people using the library could be instantly polled about their likes and dislikes, and we could ask them to try the service again after having made user-centered adjustments.

Harvard University operates the Library Innovation Lab, and the intent is to experiment with new ideas that could prove beneficial to libraries and their member communities. Most of the innovations tend to be technological in nature, such as new software to enhance the discovery process. It’s a lab that experiments with innovations that could be useful to all types of libraries. Have the folks who run it ever thought about using it as a hub for researching the library user experience? I doubt it’s set up to tackle that type of work.

Chicago’s public library received a Gates Foundation grant to explore new innovations and configurations that would improve the library experience. The Next Library 2014 Conference invited librarians from around the globe to learn more about service innovation. These two efforts are steps in the right direction, but they fall short of providing the library profession with a true experience design hub. The value of these initiatives is that they demonstrate we can put resources into experimental labs where the outcomes can benefit all librarians, not just those working in a single sphere of the profession.

I’m not suggesting that creating such a hub would be an easy thing to do. Creating, organizing and staffing a mock library innovation and experience center would be no simple task. It would require some sort of national effort and funding to set up, staff and maintain the operation. Perhaps it could be set up within an existing library and staff from different regional libraries would be tapped to participate in various experiments and service testing.

What’s learned could give librarians better insights into what community members are looking for from their library. That information could help libraries of all types to improve the customer experience, whether it was service at a desk, by virtual modes or through websites. Who knows what else could be accomplished with an experimental service design hub?

I would like to know what our community members’ “milk container” request is. What’s that minor but crucial element that could make the difference between a decent experience and a truly great one. Do we, as a profession, have the desire or grit to create a library experience design hub? I’d like to know what you think. Crazy idea or something worth pursuing?

Exploring IDEO’s Design Kit

If you are a librarian who is embracing design as a methodology or strategy for giving your community members a better library experience, you owe it to yourself to spend sometime exploring IDEO’s Design Kit. This totally free package of resources mixes text and video to deliver support and instruction to non-designers who want to incorporate design practices into their work. There are also ample case studies to help you understand how the design techniques are put into action.

I just finished reading Tom and David Kelley’s latest book Creative Confidence – lots of great ideas and insight into what contributes to creativity – so I was curious to see what David Kelley had to say about creative confidence in under two minutes. Kelley’s video introduction into methods for building your confidence in your own ability to be creative, did a fine job of sharing the book’s key points – quickly. Every design kit video I watched was under two minutes.

One of the design processes that serves as the core of the kit is HCD – Human Centered Design – defined as a creative approach to problem solving that starts with people and ends with innovative solutions that meet their needs. It means designing from the perspective of the people you are trying to help. HCD consists of three phases: Inspiration; Ideation; Implementation.Libraries are getting into “making” activities in a big way and that’s an important part of the HCD process because you have to make things – that’s where prototyping comes in – to find out if the inspired ideas can lead to workable solutions. Above all, the people with the problem are the ones who have to embrace the solution. The important thing to know about HCD is that anyone can practice it. You don’t need to be a designer. You just need to start with the people.

There’s a lot to the toolkit site and you learn how to navigate it by poking around and exploring different areas. You might find it easiest to start with the three main areas: mindsets; methods; case studies. Drill down and explore in each one. This will give you a better idea of what the kit has to offer and how it’s delivered. But no matter how you tackle it, you can’t go wrong. No matter what path you follow in the toolkit you’ll be gaining lots of new ideas to share with colleagues.

And if your HCD process takes you into some ethnographic research, well there’s a new and free “Simple Introduction to the Practice of Ethnography and Guide to Ethnographic Field Notes It’s a good starting point for familizing yourself with the practice of ethnography.