CEOs Are Going to Art School to Think More Creatively
Courtesy of RISD EE.

Courtesy of RISD EE.

In the past decade, creativity has increasingly become a highly coveted quality for employers hiring at the top levels.

Well aware of the wide-ranging applications of creativity, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) launched a continuing education program in 2016 aimed at today’s global leaders. At its core, the program—known as RISD Executive Education (RISD EE)—enlists designers, experts, and faculty of the Providence, Rhode Island, art and design school to teach industry leaders, entrepreneurs, government officials, and C-level executives the principles of design and creative education.

Workshops are built on methods that designers traditionally use when conceiving ideas, like Design Thinking, which incorporates experimentation and considerations of empathy in order to develop innovative solutions to problems.

“We saw an opportunity to engage professional audiences in the ways that design and creativity-based processes can help them think about how they approach their work, as well as learn new methods of working that might be more effective and productive,” says RISD EE associate director of executive education and professional studies Lizzi Ross.

Courtesy of RISD EE.

Courtesy of RISD EE.

One of two initiatives of focus is the Institute for Design and Public Policy (IDPP). Originally conceived in collaboration with the U.S. State Department, the program offers immersive, five-day workshops on the RISD campus for cohorts of 20 to 25 professionals. During these cooperative and collaborative experiences, participants are taught fundamentals of human-centered design and design processes, and then apply them to case studies of salient, contemporary public policy issues, like “The Democratization of Energy.” The workshops run through bespoke exercises that see participants work in small groups (armed with plenty of colorful Post-Its) to apply design principles like Network Mapping, Propositional Thinking, and Problem Framing to real-world problems. Participants are primed to feel comfortable with uncertainty and to experiment freely.

IDPP participants have included government officials from Rhode Island, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as leaders from Harvard University and the fashion brand Kate Spade. The diversity of fields is intentional, engineered in order to foster cross-sector brainstorming and collaboration. In the most recent IDPP workshop, titled “Designing Participatory Cultures: Civic and Government Futures,” leaders considered what it means to be civically engaged today, in fields like healthcare, education, and urban planning.

“These are complex challenges that many leaders across diverse sectors are facing and have to address,” Ross explains, “and so the intent of this is not necessarily to have these folks leave with packaged solutions, but rather to engage them in a different way of thinking about how they might approach that challenge.”

RISD EE’s more recent initiative, Design for Manufacturing Innovation (DfMI), is a certificate program developed with a local focus, in collaboration with economic organizations Commerce RI and the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association. The coursework was developed for leaders of manufacturing businesses in Rhode Island, particularly those that are engaged in defense manufacturing; it was initiated through a a U.S. Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment grant for defense manufacturing given to Commerce RI.

Courtesy of RISD EE.

Courtesy of RISD EE.

The roughly nine-month-long curriculum combines on-site weekend and evening workshops and independent online coursework, applying design methods to challenges these businesses face, from expensive product investment to inefficient operation practices.

“They are looking for different ways of thinking about their work and their companies, and learning new methods for how they may catalyze innovation or be able to visualize or seize that next phase of growth,” Ross explains.

Clearly the principles of design thinking and creative problem-solving are effective, but why the surge in demand for creativity over the past decade?

“I think companies and organizations are seeking people who are able to work across disciplines and roles,” Ross offers, “so that they’re not defined by ‘this is my job and this is my company,’ but they’re actually always seeking ways of tackling challenges in creative ways and then are able to suggest new ideas or solutions to those challenges.”

She notes the importance of understanding creativity as an innate ability. “It’s within all of us, we all have the capacity to be creative, but we practice it to different degrees,” she explains. “Our role here is to engage folks in some of those skills—critical thinking, collaboration, prototyping, ways that creativity may facilitate thinking through the complexity of challenges—and then create new understanding, solutions, and ideas.”

Casey Lesser is an Editor at Artsy.