A few weeks back I wrote about how leaders and teams that can think like designers are the foundation of agile, empathic, problem-solving cultures. These cultures are learning cultures and their ability to learn is interlinked with their ability to imagine and use their right brains.

In a world of   VUCA (an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), one area where thinking like a designer becomes a huge advantage is in your attitude towards knowledge, learning, and information.

Simply put, designers love knowledge. Not for its transactional power, or intellectual prowess, or even geekiness. Designers love learning because knowledge feeds your imagination. 

You imagine the future based on what you know today. Everything you learn becomes the building blocks for what you can imagine tomorrow. And for knowledge to be transformed into the stuff of imagination, you need a certain, design-ful attitude towards learning. 

I call this the "Animal Kingdom of Design Learning". Each is inspired by an animal to explain the four habits of learning like a designer.

1. See Like A Bird.

Have a problem to solve? Look at the big picture.

Try to see the whole, not just the parts. Change your viewing angle until you start to see new patterns. Notice the things at the periphery or around the edges. Look for and learn from outliers. Use the big picture to be inspired by the potential relations between things previously not connected. Use this distance also to create a healthy detachment from things you might care deeply about (like your own ideas, products and services) to think more objectively.

Inspiration: Watch Powers of Ten, Ray and Charles Eames' film, about the relative size of things in the universe, to understand how seeing the big picture literally changes what you see.

2. Pollinate like a bee.

See each challenge is an invitation to go out, get, and bring back inspiration. 

Complex problems are daunting. You tend to only see the burdens and feel crushed by the weight of it all. This is when you need to get out under that weight and look for parts of the solution in different places, like a bee collecting pollen by going from flower to flower. When you don't know what the solution is, you intuit it by collecting diverse information and feeding your unconscious with inspiration.

"Nothing is more to the point than a good digression." Ralph Caplan, author of By Design and recipient of the 2010 Design Mind Award​ by Cooper Hewitt Design Museum

Hint: Trust your instinct as your gather inspiration. When something you learn or discover excites you, trust that your unconscious is making connections even if your conscious doesn't know it yet. 

3. Extend your tentacles, like an octopus.

Curious Octopus. That is the twitter handle for Paola Antonelli, senior design curator for the Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA), who explains, "I'm like a curious octopus--I go in all directions."

In a world of   VUCA, being an octopus is the perfect antidote. Be ambiguous and uncertain about what to learn. Go in all directions. Let your tentacles for information reach far and wide. Have your mind bend and form-shift with elasticity (one of Antonelli's most powerful design shows for MoMA was called Design and the Elastic Mind). 

Hidden advantage: The curious octopus touches many things. The more you touch the more you learn, for your immediate needs and for projects yet to come. The more you know, the more you can share too. 

4. Learn like a sponge.

Once I was called a sponge by one of our clients for my ability to suck up information and the name stuck. Being a sponge for information is a superpower. There is an urgency and speed to your rate of absorption that is important. You need to be efficient in how you absorb information. As well as how you ascertain what is useful, versus what is garbage to be filtered out. 

Hint: Empty out your mind every so often so that you can absorb again. How? Take a break. Go on vacation. Meditate.

Think differently about information, like a designer. Information is a novel way of connecting the dots, seeing unexpected patterns, finding inspiration in unexpected places. It is not learning for learning's sake but learning to fuel your imagination. 

Published on: Nov 29, 2018
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