Last night I had the pleasure to attend a talk by David Smith, President of NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) at the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. The topic was “Why business people needed to think more like designers” and drew a packed house which was quite an achievement on such a cold wintry night.

After a brief introduction by Heather Fraser, David quickly went into his prepared notes. He started off by saying that this session was going to be more about him asking questions to the audience rather than telling the audience what he thought was the right answer, which aligned with his premise that “critical inquiry” was part of the hallmark of successful designers. I’ll get into this a bit further later.

One of his first questions to the audience was “What are the benefits of an Arts Education?” He proposed that a key attribute was being curious about how things worked and to then remain curious throughout life and not be satisfied with the status quo. He delved into this a bit deeper when he later asked the central question, ” Why do business people needed to think more like designers?” His answer came back to the ability to ask the right questions, not necessarily come up with the “Be-all and end-all” product. His rationale was that designers (and business people) who ask the right questions can come up with the right solution for this moment, but guaranteed at some time in the future that solution will not be the right one for all time.

After concluding the formal part of the talk, he took some questions from the audience. One of the first questions was around asking the right questions and this lead to a discussion of whether process was indeed more important than product as he submitted. (One group which really values process is the Government and we know how fast they move on things….)

While he admitted that the government does surround itself with process, process in this context is not the end goal. The key thing to remember is that while products may be right for today’s constraints and opportunities, as these constraints change, designers and business people have to be willing to go back and question the initial assumptions (in the process) to come up with a new “right answer” for the new constraints.  He insisted that the Apple iPod of today may be the Microsoft Zune of tomorrow and given the fast rate of change (especially in technology) this may be something to consider.

But if indeed creativity and artistic intent are valuable skills in society why are they arguably not as highly valued as business and technical skills? It all comes down to (in his estimation) the education system and how imagination in children is eventually supplanted by the ability to determine “right and wrong” answers and to be authorative on subjects.

So how do we then encourage creativity in business people? It really can be learned (I am an example of this!) by never feeling so comforable that “you think you know what you know.” (Or the often heard refrain, “Been there, done that.”) One has to be willing to think be curious about how things work and question assumptions to come up with a “right” solution for the problem at that time.