Welcome to the Conceptual Age. So Long Information Age.

a whole new mind book jacket

A Whole New Mind

Let me start off this blog post by challenging one of the myths I have encountered recently. A creative solution was perceived as a strategy and thus a person assumed that creative and strategy are one and the same. They could not discern the creative presentation from the strategy behind it.

Creative and strategy require different types of thinking. In user experience you need both types. This doesn’t mean two people or roles. This means the application of different kinds of thinking.

Creative thinking is coming up with ideas. Brainstorming is one aspect of it. Another aspect could be the creative output or conceptual model to describe that idea. The conceptual idea is not the final design but a vision of what it could be like or a metaphor. The purpose is to communicate the idea visually so that it can be understood and evaluated by non creative people. Ideally the creative process should create as many ideas as many as possible. It is unconstrained and is the merging of ideas which have not been merged before to achieve a positive business outcome. From a user experience perspective this should create a positive emotional experience. The ability to consistently and quickly come up with lots of creative ideas is a good indication of how creative some one is.

Strategic thinking reduces information down to exact values based on unique insight. It is an essential part of critical thinking to judge whether a specific situation or piece of information is right or wrong, based on its ability to help achieve a positive business outcome, or solve a business problem or issue. A definition of how strategic some one is could be based on their ability to evaluate, analyse and judge multiple alternatives at once and to consider a range of scenarios and make strategic choices

Conceptual thinking requires both.

This is whole brain thinking. This is being able to create ideas, evaluate them and make strategic choices.

Daniel Pink expanding on this idea in A Whole New Mind (2005) defines Economic Development as:

1. Agriculture Age (farmers)
2. Industrial Age (factory workers)
3. Information Age (knowledge workers)
4. Conceptual Age (creators and empathizers)

Pink identifies winners as designers, inventors, counselors, ethnographers, social psychologists, and other right-brain folks, while lawyers, engineers, accountants, and other left-brainers will see their jobs migrate to Asia. We are coming out of an information age and in the early days of a conceptual age.

Creativity is the most crucial factor for success, giving companies a constructive advantage and setting the company apart from the competition. This new brain thinking is critical for innovation.

I recently had a conversation with a web designer who said “he can’t see himself ever winning a web design award”. I couldn’t help but think how short sighted and faulted his thinking is. A lot of clients want awards. These are not the visual design awards of years ago. These are now awards based on innovation and solutions. Being innovative and seen to be a leader in the industry is the core values of a lot of organisations. The awards are in recognition of that and carry a lot of prestige. If that is his attitude he might as well give up.

If you are not driving innovation and creative in a field such as user experience you are doomed to fail. UX is at the heart of generating fresh solutions to problems.  Ultimately everything comes down to a user problem. The convergance of social media, mobility and digital access is driving change at a warp speed. It is no longer enough to apply the rules of usability, accessibility and best practice. So many people seem to be still caught up in the pixel pushing.

Companies recognise the need of constant change to create new products, processes or services for a changing market. This is part of the intellectual capital that gives a company its competitive edge. Creativity is a crucial part of the innovation equation.

The left brain gave us processes. The conceptual age will be ruled by empathy, creativity and artistry. Empathy with end users and clients works by understanding and balancing the needs of both. Creativity and concpetualisation is a core competency for ux practictioners and one of the best ways to set yourself apart from delivery. This is a straight value proposition. Being able to do the research to measure the user experience will ultimately prove the worth. The actual design and execution will be done in the delivery stage and yes this will still largely be processed driven.

But one of the biggest misunderstandings I have encountered seems to be that UX is the same as UI. It is not. Saying that devalues what we do. UI is only one component. UX is more pervasive now.  Delivery is about deliverables and quality assurance is about execution. Focus on the creative aspects only. The deisgn will come later.

Of course it helps if you have a great design eye. Being creative and also design challenged is not going to help you communicate ideas. But visual design is not creative.

Looking at HP’s guide for innovation & creativity as a starting point I have reworked it for how I work.

  • Work collaboratively in small teams
  • Have belief in what you are doing and focus on the value
  • Work quickly and visually
  • Share and collaborate
  • The customer and end user will have the end say
  • Invent
  • Resist the temptation to re-use – throw out the templates
  • Embrace change
  • Tolerate ambiguity
  • Radical ideas are not automatically bad
  • Consistenty improve
  • Update new tools and ways of working


While working on the concept forget for the moment that creative is about deliverables, more specifically execution (in the design sense).  In the beginnign it helps to scribble, sketch, explore ideas and create cartoons rather than going straight to wireframes.

Fostering an environment for creativity and innovation means confronting the old mindset.

 Thanks for reading please share or leave a comment!

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