This edition of Creativity at Work features Dr. Liz Gerber. Liz and I taught together in the early days of the Stanford d.school, where I witnessed firsthand the big ball of energy she brings to any learning environment. A truly gifted teacher, Liz has a unique, inspiring point of view on how to shape the classroom experience to build students’ creative confidence. And her research on how crowdfunding and prototyping promote innovation and leadership is hugely timely.
Liz is the founder of Design for America, a network of students and practitioners using human-centered design to create local impact and the Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Bleed Junior Professor of Design at Northwestern University.
Here’s her take on making creativity work.
How do you design your classes at Northwestern?
When I first started teaching, my students told me they wanted to learn how to innovate, but were too nervous to take the necessary risks required for innovation. So I made assignments that required them to fail. I told them that if they don’t make mistakes, they aren’t trying hard enough. Since then, I’ve revised the assignment several times. The assignment is a prototype, like everything in my classes.
How is Design for America helping people believe that they can be creative, that they can be innovative?
Creative confidence comes through practice, yet higher education leaves little time to foster this much needed skill. A typical education program gives students well-defined problems that we know they can solve, depriving them of the experience of dealing with the messiness of authentic real-world problems. As a result, they gain false confidence in their ability to innovate. But none of them will graduate into perfectly packaged problems and painlessly derived solutions. Design for America (DFA) aims to fix this.
How does DFA work?
We pull together local teams of volunteer faculty, students, and professional mentors from our 2,500-person network to work on projects with local challenges that scale to make big social impact. DFA doesn’t give students problems to solve; it guides them to walk around their local community to find problems they believe are meaningful such as literacy and obesity.
Once DFA volunteers identify problems we give them mentoring and a five-stage process to solve these problems driven by the needs of people rather than the capabilities of technology. The process begins with understanding the community, generating ideas, and rapidly building and iterating solutions with the community.
When did you first start making things?
When I was 4-years-old I built a booby trap out of wood blocks to surprise my sister when she walked into my room. The next year, I built it out of LEGO. By age 10, I was using electronics.
What were your biggest creative influences as a kid?
My mom and Mr. Rogers.
My mom was professional photographer. When we lived in Hong Kong, I followed her through the Chinese markets, as she took pictures of old men playing mahjong and women skinning animals to sell for dinner. I learned that there are many different people in the world and ways of living a fulfilling life.
When we returned to the States, Mr. Rogers became my muse. Every morning, he created a land of make believe where anything could happen, and he let me know I was responsible for making my own day, singing “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive. It’s such a happy feeling: You’re growing inside. And when you wake up ready to say, ‘I think I’ll make a snappy new day.’” Finally, he took me to manufacturing plants, where I learned that products don’t just appear—they’re made.
Your approach to teaching, design, and life is very entrepreneurial. You’re not afraid of bold strokes. Is there one thing that has enabled you to do all that you do?
Curiosity. I love to close the gap between what I know and what I want to know. And when I get to the other side of this gap, I see something or someone else I want to know.
That’s it for my interview with Liz Gerber. What are ways you’re inspiring creativity in your workplace?
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(Image by Lisa Beth Anderson)