Breakthrough Thinking: A Q&A with Thomas Vogel
In the business world there has been a lot of buzz about “design thinking,” “innovation,” “creative thinking,” and more. The rumor is that it’s only the newest fad in business and soon, it too, will fade away in to obscurity and become non-applicable to the average businessman. This belief is held by many outside of the business world as well, not because they agree that creativity, design thinking, and innovation are fads, but because the concept is so complex and foreign to analytical thinkers.
Business professionals often view the creative and design process as a sort of magical event as designers take a whole bunch of data and condense it down into one seemingly magical product or communication strategy that is so obvious that you wonder why you didn’t think of it before. However, this entire process is just the work of constantly flexing your creative muscles and viewing the world from different positions – breakthrough thinking if you will.
Thomas Vogel, author of Breakthrough Thinking
In his new book, Breakthrough Thinking, author Thomas Vogel tries to shed some new light on this mysterious land of design & creative thinking and helps everyone—from analytical business minds like myself to the graphic designer who designed his book, and everyone in between—harness the creative power of thinking differently. From solo exercises to group think sessions that will help you run your next brainstorming session more effectively, Vogel’s book has something that allows everyone to be the creative individual they aspire to be.
Today Thomas Vogel joins us to discuss his book, creative thinking, and more! Welcome Thomas!
Q: So Thomas, there’s been a lot of talk in the media about creative thinking and design thinking being the next big must have skill for new designers and businesspersons entering the job market. Your book, Breakthrough Thinking, attempts to help all individuals recognize their own creativity and generate unique and innovative ideas. How would you define the skill of breakthrough thinking?
A: Creativity is a complex topic and many factors can influence successful creative achievements in design, communication and business. Designers and other creative professionals often have been taught the “craft” of design, architecture, film, advertising, music and other creative disciplines. Yet, many have not had any formal training in creativethinking and problem solving. The book, Breakthrough Thinking, provides a holistic framework that describes the main dimensions responsible for creative productions. Readers can learn about how to assess and improve their own individual creative thinking, but will also see different creative processes, such as Design Thinking and the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) model by Osborn and Parnes. The book also describes how the physical environment of a company can influence the creative output of a whole organization. Interviews with creative executives of some of the most creative advertising agencies in the US provide their insights about how to manage for creativity. I define breakthrough thinking as a skill when a person distinguishes between divergent and convergent thing, applies a creative process either individually or as a group and is aware of how the physical and corporate environment can influence the creative output of an organization, and ultimately solves problems in the most original, innovative and useful ways.
Q: What was the process of writing Breakthrough Thinking like? Did you employ any of the techniques you mentioned in the book on your own journey as an author?
A: Developing and writing the book has been a long journey that started many years ago. I applied many aspects of the different themes presented in the book and the use of a creative process and some specific thinking techniques such as ‘reverse’ or ‘random access’ have been most helpful. Design Thinking and CPS (by Osborn and Parnes), my two favorite creative processes, have been crucial when I developed the core concept and content structure, and wrote the various chapters. At times, I had way too many ideas that would never have all fit into one book. Converging thinking and the concept of simplifying helped me cut several chapters in order to focus on those aspects I consider most important and valuable for the reader.
Q: I’m sure your journey in writing this book was definitely an interesting experience as writing a book is no easy feat – especially since it’s your first. Did you find anything that you weren’t expecting as you wrote this book and pulled together the case studies?
A: The book represents a good example of the fact that we can develop many ideas but that we must also implement ideas and turn them into a final product, if we want our ideas become reality. For many years I have developed multiple ideas for a book that focuses on creativity and creative thinking. Yet, the longer I thought about the book and the more ideas I had developed, the more complex my book concept had gotten. Then, I noticed that more books started appearing in the market place and I realized that I had to stop my divergent thinking and not develop any further ideas but to apply convergent thinking and narrow down one concept that I believed in. Consequently, it took a lot of focus to start writing small aspects and individual chapters of the book. I had to cut out many activities out of my daily routine and started writing regularly on a daily basis for weeks and months. After a while the pieces came together and seemed to make sense. Then, I realized that re-writing, editing and re-writing became another phase in the long process of writing a book. The case studies are a ‘last-minute’ addition that happened very late in the project. I got the idea based on some random thinking and a feeling that I need to illustrate how people use the concepts presented in the book and apply them in the real world.
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Q: This book references a lot of design studios and design professionals—as well as your own students—as a means to communicate the importance of creative thinking and how it plays an integral part in an organization’s success. Is it equally as important for businesses to embrace this kind of thinking? Why?
A: Yes, I believe that creative thinking skills will gain a greater importance in business as well. Professionals in general businesses (outside the design and communication industry) are not only manufacturing goods and materials, and providing services. They are solving problems as well. Yet, much of the training of business skills has traditionally focused on quantitative, analytical and strategic thinking. In today’s hyper competitive and global world many professionals must apply problem-solving skills regularly and very few businesses can afford not to be innovative and not to think of alternative business models. Internet technologies have changed and will continue to disrupt traditional business models. Individual creativity and creative thinking skills of employees are prerequisites for innovation. In order to be more innovative and better at implementing innovative, original and useful ideas, breakthrough thinking skills will provide an additional dimension that can help businesses maintain or develop competitive advantages.
Q: There is a huge tendency for a lot business minded people—number crunchers like myself if you will—who tend to think that they are not creative individuals. What advice would you give them? Is there an exercise you think they should start with to help dispel this myth?
A: We are all born with creative thinking skills. Possibly, not everyone possesses the same strong creative thinking skills but based on my work during the last twenty years with more than a thousand students and employees, I believe that every person can develop and improve his/her creative thinking skills over time. By training this specific [creative] skill set anyone can become more imaginative and creative, and become a better problem solver. I believe that ‘creating’ things is a basic human ability, possibly even a human need. Everyone who believes already in his/her creative abilities can and should practice in order to improve those skills. Someone like you, who might not believe in your own creative abilities [yet] has to start engaging in creative activities that can range from solving mind puzzles to creative crafts such as drawing, photography, design, film, music, dance or many more activities. You can also follow other creative people’s work or collaborate with creative minds. Developing and improving your own creative skills will require regular exercise and training. Many of us are familiar with physical exercise, maintaining a healthy diet or playing a musical instrument and are engaged in those endeavors regularly. When it comes to creativity and creative skills we have to develop similar regular exercise routines or training schedules for our mind. One exercise will not be able to do the trick, but I encourage you to start with the first exercise in the book and then practice all the others over a certain time, possibly daily or weekly. Over time you will see change and improvements.
Q: If you could give our audience one piece of advice when it comes to breakthrough thinking what would it be?
A: Breakthrough thinking can be [hard] work. It is not always easy but by engaging in creativity, creative problem solving and breakthrough thinking regularly you will experience a rich life.
Thomas Vogel is a specialist in strategic communication on the internet, online usability and branding on the internet. He has been a Professor of Media Design at the Department of Media Management at the University of Applied Sciences Wiesbaden, Germany where he served as the Founding Dean from 1993 – 1999.
He is an active public speaker, author, panelist, consultant, and is involved in special projects for internet, advertising and multimedia. His current research focuses on the strategic design and usability aspects of interactive media, developing efficient experience design and online communication. He is also a founding partner of mediaman, a German based communications agency specializing in integrated communication and advertising with a special focus on interactive communication. Formerly he has worked as Art Director and Creative Director in New York City at Grey Advertising, Lois GGK, J. Walter Thompson and Communication House.