The idea that the world is divided into the creatives and the non-creatives is hogwash, according to brothers David and Tom Kelley. 

The Kelleys are famous for their work at IDEO, a global design and innovation consultancy. With their recently published book Creative Confidence, the Kelleys have set out to convince us all that human kind is creatively predisposed. The brothers spoke Tuesday night to a crowd of about 340 people at an event hosted by INFORUM, a division of the public affairs forum called the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

“Think about kindergarten. Everybody is wildly creative,” David said. “I have a picture in my kitchen that my daughter drew of a chicken with four legs. Totally proud of that picture of the chicken. But by the time they get a little older -- by the time they hit the fourth, fifth grade -- teachers are saying, ‘that’s a terrible chicken.’ And so people opt out of thinking of themselves as creative.”

So what does it take to get your creative side out? The brothers used two helpful anecdotes to outline how perspective plays a big role in being creative. 

You have to have empathy to be creative.

David Kelley co-founded IDEO in 1978. The company now employs more than 600 people worldwide, including Tom Kelley, who is a partner there. 

At one point, David, now a Donald W. Whittier Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, addressed design jargon. Moderator Robert Sutton, also a professor at Stanford, asked David to define “design thinking,” a particular methodology used at IDEO and by other designers. 

“Design thinking is: let’s try to understand what people really value, what’s really meaningful to people,” David said. “And then we’ll take the technical and business risk that we can come up with something that satisfies that need. We call it need finding.” 

The key to this approach involves having deep empathy for people, David added. 

Tom illustrated the point by telling a story about his friend Doug Dietz, principal designer at GE Healthcare. Dietz spent two years creating a new MRI machine, and when it was finally installed in hospitals, he couldn’t wait to see how technologists interacted with it.

He spent some time using the new MRI with a technologist, and by the time Dietz was done speaking with her, he was thoroughly convinced that he and his team had done a great design job.

That is, until the moment he walked out of the room and a crying little girl walked in to get a scan.  

“He asked the operator, and she says, ‘Oh Doug, you didn’t ask me about this. Your machine scares the heck out of kids,’” Tom said, re-telling Dietz’s story. 

Dietz suddenly experienced a personal crisis upon realizing that he had failed the children who were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of the machine. He took some time off. Then he went to a design thinking workshop to look for some inspiration. 

After collaborating with others from different disciplines for a week, he emerged with an idea. He knew he couldn’t redesign the MRI, but he could redesign the experience. 

“They covered the machine with decals and graphics that turned the machine and the whole room into an adventure. In fact, it’s now called the adventure series,” Tom said. 

Everything from the room decorations to the technician’s lines, telling them that they’re about to enter a rocket ship, is meant to make children feel that the experience isn’t that scary and that it can actually even be fun. 

Don’t be afraid to drop the ball.

Another topic of conversation: Creative confidence comes when we’re no longer afraid to own our crazy ideas. But that fear isn’t easy to overcome, since humans are so sensitive to failure and rejection.  

David talked about a time he wanted to learn to juggle, so he used the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz to teach himself. 

“The first half of the book is all about the drop. It’s all about desensitizing you to dropping the ball on the floor,” David said. “If you think about it, that’s what’s keeping you from building the coordination -- your constant fear that you’re going to drop it.”

After you learn how to drop the ball on the floor for about an hour, then the juggling part is actually pretty straightforward, he said.