Drawing creativity out of the senses

Light bends differently underwater. The speed of sound moves faster than in the air. When the body is submerged, the eyes lose their focus — hearing becomes muffled and spatial awareness alters. Natalie Nixon floats in this medium to expand her perceptions. She swims to gain stamina.

“When I’m underwater, different aspects of my senses come alive, from what I touch to what I see,” she says. “I’m alert to different things.” Swimming has become a meditation for her, even in the methodical counting of the laps that strengthen her body and build her endurance. “It has this uncanny ability to energize me and calm me — there is an inner hum inside me after I swim.”

That inner hum becomes a stabilizing force in her teaching of design thinking at Philadelphia University, where she is director and developer of the strategic design MBA program.

Nixon is a proponent of chaordic systems thinking, the idea that chaos and order (or, randomness and structure) can exist in harmony. As she swims, she embodies both the randomness of her sensations as they become slightly disoriented under water, and the steady structure of laps as she moves up and down the pool.

Swimming suggests one model of the way we might live with the ambiguity pervading this current age, where a massive tech boom has been dragging along the surface of a persistent economic downturn.

Ambiguity is not going away, Nixon says, but we can use it as the raw material for design. We can unpack it through prototypes, rough drafts, early mockups, and the testing of ideas in small iterative steps.

But first, we must accept the ambiguity.

“The competency to sit with ambiguity is a learned behavior,” Nixon says. “It’s something that is hard to do in a society where we expect an answer yesterday. A big learning outcome for us [at Philadelphia University] is that our students get comfortable with the in-between spaces, with the knowing and the unknowing.”

Design thinking involves processes that distill ambiguity into something concrete. Paradoxically, it relies on the intangible sense of intuition, a feeling that a pattern exists somewhere in the fogginess ahead. Moving on one’s intuition takes time and self-trust, Nixon says: “The application is when you mull on your intuition a bit, let it marinate, and then you actually have to act.”

Design thinkers proceed from intuition to action with a constant “framing and reframing of the questions before going down a rabbit hole.” The questioning must also be self-reflexive, which Nixon says is challenging for traditional business students who have difficulty receiving feedback on their work. Design students, on the other hand, “do a better job at separating themselves from the idea.”

When our questions demand information, we often turn to big data, Nixon notes, but we cannot ignore the data right in front of us, the kind that comes from conversations, encounters and storytelling. The kind that sometimes dies away in obscurity inside cubicles or mind-numbing organizational tasks.

To notice relevant data, observation is essential, she says. Acute observation “exercises our whole sensorial package,” which is why she values the all-encompassing sensory experience of swimming; it awakens her responses by shifting them into another register.

The slower habits of mulling, observing, questioning, and sensing demand surprising amounts of stamina, Nixon points out, and the endurance to stay with the process to the end. Stamina comes from the physical dimension of being human: “We have to have a space in our lives where we practice that physicality, and it parlays into our work, the way that we show up at the office.”

Nixon says that we often overlook physicality when we talk about creativity. But creativity undergirds the entire design process: “We tend to leave creativity at the mental level, and clearly it has place there, but there’s also a physical level that affects the way our minds work.”

Like swimming, creativity has moments of floating and moments of moving from point to point. But it is not haphazard, Nixon stresses, it needs boundaries.

Creativity requires attentiveness, stamina, and flexibility. It pulls a loose structure from randomness under the constraints of time, space or form, and highlights a pattern that your intuition told you existed all along.