A few days ago our CFO messaged me asking how much time my design team spends on open-ended brainstorming that wouldn’t really be published. My honest response? I said that they spent significantly less time than I wished they could. Personally, if my design team was able to spend ten percent of their time on open ideation while still accomplishing all of their official tasks, then I think we’d really elevate our game.
These kinds of questions pop up now and them from upper leadership whenever bottom-line conversations are happening - like budgeting or growth strategy. Designers might be annoyed to get these questions but they are perfectly sensible. It’s natural not to want staff wasting inordinate amounts of time on things that will never go public. At the same time, everyone understands that there is some amount of intangible value to unassigned creative exploration. Massive companies like Google even made personal projects a core aspect of their innovation pipeline. This all begs the question: Can we identify concrete benefits to open-ended ideation that will better inform bottom-line decisions?
The answer is yes.
The first thing to understand is that there are different layers of ideation, which each serve a purpose in the overall objective of design. Let’s look at each kind and try to understand the various benefits that connect ideation to the bottom-line.
This is the most obvious form of ideation. You get a team together to come up with ideas. The benefit of dedicated brainstorming is cross-pollination. Designers get access to ideas from other teammates. No one really ever thinks that brainstorming is a time-waster, although it is often done wrong.
Whenever a designer gets a new project, there is usually a phase in which they need to test out different directions. This step tends to get overlooked by non-designers, as if a brilliant solution just pops into the designer’s head first go. It’s not the case. Often there are many discarded bits of design strewn along the way with their relation to the project barely perceptible. Rather than viewing these as wasted time, think of them as the R&D behind the best concepts.
Every artist out there can tell you about the flow state. This is like a super concept exploration, where new ideas are building on top of each other to form a grand image rather than being discarded along the way. It’s a state of mind where a lot of ideas are coming and they are all good. Time is not a factor here. I can be in the flow for several hours without realizing it. That might be scary for leadership, but remember that these are the most productive hours you can provide as a designer.
The truth is that design concepts are never really locked in. During the process of refining a design, new avenues tend to appear that weren’t apparent during Concept Exploration. These can solidify the concept, improve the concept, or even highlight a weakness in it. Refinement is a test of quality control, more than a matter of tweaking the details.
Surely, if a designer is taking company time to work on something completely unrelated or purely personal, that’s bound to be wasted time… right? Not exactly. The problem with assigned work is that it tends to rinse and repeat a lot of the same design solutions. Your business needs are never going to tap 100% of a designer’s creative mind, nor will they provide the inspiration to explore new ideas.
Now imagine you had to pay for a creative seminar to delve into those areas and “inspire creativity.” It would be expensive and fail to adapt to each designer perfectly. However, designers with time on their plate to explore the personal projects that inspire them will ultimately find new creative solutions and bring them to bear on their assigned projects. In that sense, personal time is a time and money-saver. Unless your company enjoys burnout, that is.
One of the most challenging aspects of working in design is translating its subjective nature into measurable results. Leadership often has to contend with design as a “black box” which is clearly undesirable. Often, the resulting approach is to squash creativity by limiting work to just the requested tasks. However, armed with these insights into the benefits of ideation, its definite connections to the bottom line are much clearer! Now it is only a matter of time budgeting - how many hours of open-ended ideation can you afford your designers without jeopardizing profitability? Like all things, it’s only wasted time when it gets out of proportion - but in the right amounts it is the bread and butter of success.