Creative Code: A workshop to grow creative confidence

A new learning experience addresses creative confidence through facilitated, real-world problem-solving

The d.school designs experiences to help individuals learn design thinking so they might discover and grow their creative confidence and help others do the same. The more individuals across sectors and areas of expertise able to think creatively — both individually and in diverse and inclusive teams — the greater the opportunity to solve problems for which there are no pre-existing solutions.

I developed ‘Creative Code’ to help people apply the design thinking process and mindsets to their personal work and project challenges in a bounded, experiential learning encounter.

The workshop’s secret is relatively simple: give people ample time to focus on the challenges that are front-of-mind, to share those challenges with one another, to broaden their perspective and to prototype a solution for someone else. Participants provide fresh, creative eyes to another person’s challenge and benefit, in turn, from their partner doing the same for them.

(You can download ‘Creative Code’ here.)

Why was this workshop developed and when should it be led?

‘Creative Code’ was developed as part of the Speakeasy series of events held in 2015 and 2016 at the d.school. The goal of the original exercise was to help professionals who identified as creative to further explore and enhance their creative capacity. The workshop was heavily facilitated at each stage with slightly different exercises on each page.

That version was eventually pared down into a more streamlined exercise, with four distinct phases of work:

  • The heads-down phase: Participants outline their current challenge.
  • The group discussion: Participants share, in a group what they have learned about themselves.
  • The paired synthesis: Participants dive deep with a partner to learn more about their personal challenge.
  • The prototype & test: Participants design a prototype for their partner to help them “crack the code” on the challenge they face and, perhaps, give them a new path to follow in their work.

This version of ‘Creative Code’ is meant for no fewer than four people. It is recommended that there be more than one facilitator so that participants benefit from multiple perspectives throughout the process. This is in line with the core philosophy of teaching, facilitation and instruction at the d.school.

‘Creative Code’ works best in groups of working professionals who are juggling multiple projects or challenges at a time. Freelancers, middle managers, creative professionals and executives are ideal participants. The cohort of participants should be as diverse as possible to allow for both radical collaboration and active inclusion.

The space

The space should be set so each person has a table at which to sit comfortably and write. Unlike traditional d.school workshops, this starts as a heads-down activity. Participants should be able to sit comfortably for up to an hour. There should be enough flexibility in the space so that tables can be brought together and accommodate groups of four to convene, discuss and take notes and for groups of two to separate off. Finally, all participants should have materials and a flat surface on which to create a prototype.

The materials

You will need the following materials:

  • One worksheet per participant printed on 11x17 paper (legal sized works in a pinch.)
  • One discussion Q&A guide per participant printed on 11x17 paper (legal is okay too)
  • Low-resolution prototyping materials (markers, construction paper, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, glue, dollar-store toys)
  • Sticky Notes
  • Pens and/or markers

The start of the workshop

As with most d.school workshops, it’s best to start off with an activity to adjust the energy in the room and help everyone get a sense for who is in the room. Confluence exercises are not recommended. The goal is to get participants thinking alongside one another but independently.

I recommend beginning with any of the following activities:

Greet your neighbor/Long-lost friends: Participants mill about the room, making eye contact and saying “hello” to everyone with whom they make eye contact. The facilitator instructs: “When I tell you to stop, greet the person closest to you as if they are your long-lost, best friend.” Once they have done so, have participants resume milling about the room. Then have them greet one another as if they think the other person might be a celebrity and, finally, in the third round, as if they just had an awkward date the week before.

Alphabet Soup: Circle up the group and have everyone go through the alphabet, with each letter said by one participant at a time. The first person shouts “A”, and individuals pop in, each with the subsequent letter. If a letter is shouted out by two or more people at once, the group starts over. The goal is for the group to get through the entire alphabet and then see how high you can get with numbers.

Category, Category, Die: Everyone circles up, and the facilitator shouts out a category (phone companies). Going around the circle, participants shout out an item or entity in that category. Once someone can’t think of one or repeats another one, they’re out. Keep offering new categories until everyone is out.

Worksheet Facilitation

The following is a step-by-step facilitation guide for ‘Creative Code’:

Facilitator: “The saying goes ‘two heads are better than one’, but sometimes it can be hard enough to know what’s going on in your own, one head. This is your time to spend exploring a real-world challenge you are facing — starting with what’s happening in your head, then creatively exploring your challenge with others.

Turn the page and chart down the high and low moments on more than one and less than four projects you are working on. They may be personal or professional. The goal is to think about the high and low moments on each project.”

WORKSHEET PAGE #1 — “What you’re working on”

Facilitator: “Take a moment now to consider not what you’re working on, but how you work on it. The next sheet has a series of questions on it. For each question, grab a sticky note and write down your answer. Keep your answers short — you can expand on them later as needed. But, for now, write down the headline answer for each question. Remember: there are no wrong answers.”

WORKSHEET PAGE #2 — “How you work

Facilitator: “Between home and work, there are challenges around each corner. Now that you’ve had a time to think through some of them. Let’s take a moment to think about who you are, the nature of your work and where the two overlap. When describing yourself, try and use only nouns and adjectives — when describing your work, try to use verbs and adverbs. In the overlap, you may use combinations of either.

Turn the page and fill in the Venn diagram.”

WORKSHEET PAGE #3 — Who you are vs. what you do

Facilitator: “Alright, we’re at the last page. Take a moment here to consider your aspirations. No one is perfect. So, given that, answer each question with a headline answer as to how you might want to change. Once you’re done, set down your pens.

WORKSHEET PAGE #4: How do you want to change?

Facilitator questions for the full group:

  • How did that feel?
  • What other questions do you now wish you had time to consider?
  • What did you learn about yourself in going through these questions?
  • How might you think of your work differently now than you did prior to this exercise?

What other questions do you now wish you had time to consider?

What did you learn about yourself in going through these questions?

How might you think of your work differently now than you did prior to this exercise?

GROUP DISCUSSIONS

Have everyone in the room count off, “1, 2, 3, 4” so that the entire cohort is split into teams of four. Groups of four are ideal so you can later pair people off in 2’s.

Allow each group to find a space to talk. Participants should feel free to move chairs and tables to create their own semi-private discussion space.

Tell each individual to take notes on what they learn about themselves and other members of the group. Guide them to think openly about what may serve as an applicable or useful “insight”. Each group should address three questions:

  1. What was each person surprised to learn about themselves?
  2. How does each person feel about the differences and similarities between what they currently do and who they aspire to be?
  3. What challenge does each person want help addressing going forward? Write it down!

Bring the cohort back together an debrief with the full group. Remind each person to write down the challenge they want to focus on and that they will need it later.

Facilitator questions:

  1. How did it feel to hear from other people about their challenges?
  2. How do you feel about your challenges in the face of hearing about those of others?

Now have each team of four count off “1, 2” — pair the ones together and the twos together. Hand each participant a “Crack the Code” worksheet. Send each pair off to discuss their partner’s challenge.

Facilitator: “Your goal from here on out is to make and to place your partner at the center of the design of what you make. Talk to your partner about the challenge with which they need help. Practice the elements of a good interview: observe, listen, ask open-ended questions and approach their challenge with the mindset of a beginner. Your goal is NOT to find a solution. Your only goal in this conversation is to learn more about your partner and their challenge. Take notes while you speak with your partner and remain engaged in the conversation.”

Announce the partner switch after 10 mins. If this seems long — it is. The goal is for participants to dive deep rather than remain on the surface.

PROTOTYPING

Bring the cohort back together and instruct participants to begin prototyping a potential solution for their partner. The solution can be conceptual — it does not have to be an actual product. The goal is to bring their idea into reality in a low-resolution format and do their best to help their partner think differently about their problem. This process is meant to address three areas:

  1. Challenge the perfection/performance instinct
  2. Highlight the value of radical collaboration
  3. Push to adductive reasoning (jumping from observation to theory to find the most likely explanation)

Once individuals are done prototyping, allow them to share their prototype with their team member and get feedback.

Provide five minutes for iteration before sharing with their partner one more time. Then, instruct everyone to place their prototype around the room. If you are working with a small group, have each person share the prototype they created and their partner share what insights they have gained about their challenge.

Here are some questions to guide the final presentations in a larger group:

  1. Is anyone particularly proud of or excited about a prototype their partner created for them?
  2. How did it feel to go through this process? What might you do differently when you go back to your work on the challenge you addressed here today?
  3. How might you go about working with teams and partners differently going forward?
  4. What role did conversations in groups play in your experience?
  5. What role did speaking one-on-one with your partner play?
  6. What was the most challenging part of this process.

Relate your findings back to the larger concepts you want participants to walk away with:

Focus on human values: Design is as much self-exploration as it is exploration of another. Empathetic connections are powerful, as are opportunities for group synthesis.

Embrace experimentation: Resist the urge to plan, and, instead opt to show, not tell.

Adductive reasoning: Shorten the distance between an observation and a theory, and be prepared to change that theory often based on future observations and inputs.

Radical collaboration: Often great insights come from people with seemingly unrelated areas of expertise.

Creative confidence: Rather than fear the wrong answer, confidently keep asking until you find the right question.

Empathy, Define, Prototyping & Testing: The four phases of process we addressed in this session.

That’s it! Enjoy your time running and participating in Creative Code, and feel free to tweet your feedback using the hashtag #CreativeCode.


‘Creative Code’ was created by Emi Kolawole as part of the Stanford d.school Media Experiments Project, a collaboration between the d.school and Knight Foundation that ran from 2015–2016. You can download ‘Creative Code’ here.