Since I began the Practice Profile series (which was motivated by a nagging desire to instigate more dialogue about the subject of creative practice!) readers of this blog have been able to take a peek at the creative practice of other professionals. This month I am pleased to feature Kevin M. Hoffman, who has a stellar reputation for creativity in the fields of information architecture and design strategy. (Kevin’s colleague, Jessica Ivins, is among those who have also shared their point-of-view in the Practice Profile series.)

When asked “How would you describe your personal creative practice?”, Kevin replied:

“I would describe it as synthesis. Synthesis of research observations, synthesis of models from different verticals, synthesis of the old and the new. Very rarely can something be created from thin air. More often than not, for me to be creative means finding parallels between seemingly unrelated things, and then finding evidence that those parallels actually make one of those things better. Better could mean easier to use, more aesthetically pleasing, or any number of things. Just because two things are similar doesn’t mean that it helps you understand them better, necessarily.

In the general sense of the word “creativity” there is little that has not been done before. I try to be aware of what has been done before, understand what value it provides, and assess that value in light of the never-ending flow of new information. That new information could come in the form of new devices, new human interaction models, or just new insight into what people really want or need to do with information and the other people with which they collaborate.”

Kevin’s response offers a reminder that all ideas begin with an antecedent. As an undergraduate student I took a psychology course that examined the subject of creativity. It was clear by the end of the course that the feeling we equate with the “a-ha moment” is the culmination of prior thoughts and ideas about a subject; the moment typically follows a necessary period of gestation, during which those ideas can be explored and recombined. This endless loop of collecting data coupled with synthesis of data has also been labeled “combinatorial creativity”. (Maria Popova delivered a fantastic Creative Mornings lecture on the subject of Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, which can be found here.)

When asked how this informs his professional practice, Kevin is clear that he doesn’t make a distinction:

“I don’t see my creative practice and my professional practice as separable. With regards to the core digital design and strategy work that I do, I am consciously on the lookout for a better metaphor (strategy) or a better mousetrap (tactic). It’s not something I can really turn off. I find the best way to keep that engine running, however, is by aggressively applying yourself to work and life. Ask as many questions of people as you can. Learn what motivates them. Learn about the world. The more you have bouncing around in your head, the more likely one of those synapses is going to draw a dotted line between two (or more) seemingly disparate concepts.

There are many aspects of running my own business to which I don’t consciously try to apply “being creative.” I try to make things like invoicing, project plans, etc. as straightforward as possible. When I have time, I try to ask myself if that stuff can be better, but there are many cases where the simple, conventional approach is also the best. Like I said, a lot of things have been done before.”

Kevin credits his ability to consistently produce creative outcomes to at least one factor: co-design. He describes the significance of collaboration in this way:
“My approach to projects is strongly rooted in a philosophy of co-design. In a nutshell, that philosophy dictates that there is not a single individual that can design something as well as an integrated, collaborative process between diverse perspectives.

An important part of good collaboration is making sure one person is tasked with facilitating that process to a beneficial end — a better website, for example. In my research on the topic of facilitation, I’ve come across models that were around long before the internet, but still have tremendous applicability in design processes that support the kinds of design processes we use to build the internet.

I’ve integrated those facilitation models into modern design process in ways that have made my clients and my peers very happy. I continue to share those models and my iterations on them, and one of the things I hear that makes me very happy is when someone who has attended a lecture or a workshop I’ve given on the topic of design facilitation has learned a tactic that has become part of their modus operandi. ‘That thing I learned in your workshop? We do that all the time now.’

That’s a nice way of looking at creativity: it’s the ability to create new, positive change and growth (in companies, in interfaces, or in whatever) from pre-existing knowledge.”

                                                          ___________________________________________

As a strategist, educator, and information architect, Kevin M. Hoffman has been making great web design happen for 15 years. He did his hard time as ye olde “webmaster” in public libraries and universities as a team of one, designing and coding his way through microsite after microsite and redesign after redesign. While leading web communications teams the University of Baltimore and MICA, he also taught a younger generation of web designers in both BFA and MFA design programs, introducing them to web standards before browsers introduced those same standards into their codebase.
While at Jeffrey Zeldman’s own Happy Cog he directed the user experience design practice for nearly four years, overseeing all aspects of project definition, information design, and content strategy. He collaborated with fantastic clients like Harvard University, Nintendo, MTV, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to find innovative but realistic approaches to their web and mobile experiences. His ideas transformed the way in which work got done at Happy Cog by introducing visual facilitation, full-day design kickoffs with clients, and a more “agile,” sketch-based approach to the design process. Kevin continues to share ideas about meetings and meeting design all over the world at conferences like SXSW, UX London, UX Lisbon, the IA Summit, and UI. You can read his thoughts about designing better collaboration at A List Apart, UX Booth, .net Magazine, and Happy Cog’s blog, Cognition.
Today Kevin provides strategic consulting and workshops to both clients and agencies alike, helping them move their web presences into this newfangled, device-independent, software-as-service digital world and do so collaboratively. He appreciates your valuable time, and he’ll thank you personally if you contact him at kevinmhoffman.com.

© 2013 Kira Campo

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