Creative design is a big part of what makes or breaks a new product. The reason is simple: People are more likely to buy products that are well-designed, whether you're talking about smartphones, sofas, or shiny new cars. But many new products fail—at least 40% of them, according to one estimate. So companies need designers who come up with ideas that actually sell. What qualities make the best, most successful designers?
That’s the focus of a new study in Creativity and Innovation Management. Researchers JaeHwan Kwon, Moonkyu Lee, and Hae-Ryong Kim looked at how traits of designers, as well as their environment, influence creativity in product design. For the study, they assessed four factors: analogical thinking ability, self-confidence, experience, and team climate.
Past research suggests these qualities would be critical for a designer’s creativity, so the researchers explored their effects in a trial with 164 undergraduate industrial design students from Samsung Art and Design Institute in Seoul. The previous semester, the students had created designs for new products, ranging from headphones to humidifiers to pens. The researchers used photocopies of the student’s designs as "new products" in their experiment, and outside judges rated the designs for creativity. Kwon and his team then tested each of the students for the four qualities named above, and compared them with the creativity of their designs.
From their experiment, the researchers discovered that all four of these factors play a crucial role in creative product design. Here’s an explanation of each one, and why it matters:
Analogical thinking ability (ATA) sounds confusing, but it’s actually quite simple—and something all of us can do. It’s a person’s ability to connect ideas from unrelated subjects to invent a new concept. One famous example of ATA in creative design: combining the concept of a beetle and a car gave us the Volkswagen Beetle. Other examples are, say, a new cell phone made in the shape of a sports car, or a house built in the shape of a mollusk shell.
ATA is believed to play one of the most critical roles in creativity, and Kwon’s study supports this theory. In the experiment, he and his team measured each student’s ATA and found that it positively correlated to product creativity: Students with a higher analogical thinking ability invented more creative product designs. And this makes sense because ATA is a form of creative thinking—if someone is skilled at this type of thinking, she'll likely generate more successful design ideas.
We’re not talking about general ego here—rather, it’s self-confidence specific to creativity. The researchers define it as "the belief that one has the ability to produce creative outcomes." They explain that designing new products is high-risk—even the best designers have ideas that flop. Self-confidence is key because it pushes people to persevere, even in the face of failure. Plus, you have to be willing to put your ideas out there, even if others shoot you down. "People’s most common response to a creative idea is extremely negative," explains Kwon, an assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University. "So you have to be very confident about your idea and your creative ability." This is exactly what Kwon saw in his study: The researchers found that people who scored higher for self-confidence designed more creative products.
This one’s probably obvious: People who’ve worked longer in the design industry make more creative products. But Kwon and his team were specifically interested in how someone’s work experience interacts with the two other factors mentioned above, and how this interplay affects a designer’s abilities. So in the study, they asked students how many years they had studied design and worked as a designer (participants had between three and eight years of experience), and then compared this with the measurements for self-confidence and ATA.
The researchers found that if someone had stellar analogical thinking abilities, this boosted their self-confidence (which in turn helped them design more creative products)—and the positive effect grew significantly as people accumulated more years of design experience. The researchers don’t know the exact mechanism behind this effect, but they think learning and increased productivity might be the cause.
The previous qualities involve designers’ personal traits—team climate looks at the influence of environment on creativity. Since designers often work in teams, Kwon and his team thought the group mindset could have a significant effect on individual creative success. They asked the students questions about the team dynamics of their design projects, and evaluated whether students had worked on a team where they had autonomy in the creative process, or one that emphasized a collective effort among designers.
The researchers found that people who worked on autonomous teams did significantly better creative work. This means that even if a designer herself is very creative, she’s less likely to come up with creative designs if she’s part of a group-oriented mindset. "A cohesive team encourages employees to engage in group conformity," regardless of someone’s individual creativity, the study authors write.
The researchers also followed up their experiment by interviewing nine successful designers—a mobile phone designer, a cosmetic packaging designer, a consumer electronics designer, and others. Kwon and his team talked in-depth with each of them about their creative process. The designers brought up ATA, self-confidence, length of experience, and team climate in their interviews, and the researchers found that the pros’ creative experience reflected the results of the undergrad student experiment.
The study authors note that there are, of course, other factors that influence creative design ability, such as other types of creative thinking, the ability to communicate with others, and resourcefulness. But the researchers think the four qualities above are among the most important for creative design.
Their work offers insight into what makes some designers more effective than others, and also shows that successful design depends on context. "When you’re hiring a designer for your company, you have to think not only about their ability," explains Kwon. "The creative outcome is an interaction between the team and the individual." The study can also help companies and designers appreciate how and where creativity thrives, and take advantage of that knowledge. "We need to understand where creativity comes from—is it a personality we need to hire? A method that we need to train? Is it organizational structure?" says Katja Holtta-Otto, an outside expert in product development. "Whatever we know helps creativity, we can use that."