Why you don’t need to be a creative to do creative work

This post originally appeared on the Minds Behind Dropbox Paper publication on Medium.

Photo showing a worker using Dropbox Paper

Remember your first creative projects as a kid? When you felt free to make a mess of reds, blues, greens, and oranges, and didn’t think twice about going outside the lines?

If we could spend entire afternoons taking pictures, playing songs, or writing stories when we were young, what makes so many of us hide our creativity when we grow up?

That instinct to create, the impulse for self expression, isn’t limited to artists. It’s in all of us. But somewhere along the way, we’re taught that there are two types of people in the world: creatives and non-creatives. Right brainers and left brainers. Artists and accountants. You’re born one or the other.

So you put away your paintbrushes, pottery, and notepads, and let those pursuits slip away, no matter how much joy they gave you — because there was no practical reason to pursue them.

“Creative” is a way of thinking, not a job title

As a product designer, I see evidence every day that you don’t need to be an artist to contribute creative ideas. Being creative isn’t a personality type or a job title or a degree you earn in graduate school. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of working. It’s a process. Anyone can participate. And everyone who does, can contribute something valuable. Here’s how I know.

Before I joined the design team at Dropbox, I worked on the Discovery team at Pinterest, helping users explore their interests. We looked at research to learn how we could suggest related things that might spark their curiosity.

Through that research, we discovered that, for many people, the feeling of being creative can come just by collecting. They don’t have to redecorate their living room or start gardening. The simple act of collecting inspiration and thinking about those things you may one day do can be just as powerful as the physical act of painting or digging in the dirt.

That insight — that anyone can feel creative though simple acts — has become a foundational part of how I think about designing products and has been an important concept to build upon while designing Dropbox Paper.

Over the past few years, we’ve been building a collaboration tool that’s more than a blank canvas. It’s a flexible workspace that is designed to make your ideas look beautiful from the first keystroke.

The goal is to make it easy for anyone to communicate an idea, a concept, a narrative, a vision, without needing to get their hands dirty (so to speak). So how did we do that?

Focusing on the idea, not the format

I think one of the biggest barriers to creativity is the feeling that you need to make something look perfect. So many people hesitate to share their ideas, because they think it has to feel finished first.

But what if you could remove a lot of that anxiety by making the ideas look instantly — and automatically — beautiful? Would people feel more comfortable about sharing their ideas earlier?
I think if we have those conversations at earlier stages of the creative process, it makes the ideas better. And it lets you evolve those ideas in a more thoughtful way.

When I first started using Dropbox Paper, the first thing I noticed was how clean and focused the experience is. As a designer, that’s something I’m personally drawn to. Having that clean canvas as a starting point reminded me why I love jotting down ideas on Post-it notes — there’s no commitment.

For our team, it’s less about features that are there, and more about features that aren’t there. If you look at other collaboration tools, they’ve all evolved from the old world of word processing, which was grounded in typewriters, and before that, it was the physical page, and handwritten manuscripts.

As a result, many formatting features are simply relics of the printed page. But the way people communicate with text has evolved over time. More features were added, but because a lot of products are anchored in existing workflows and product archetypes, they have to maintain an expected feature set or a certain number of people are going to be upset.

Take legal teams. They need to have total control over the formatting of their document — margins, colors, type sizes, fonts, etc. — because judges often require specific formatting of documents before allowing them to be submitted to the court.

The people for whom we’re designing Dropbox Paper, though, aren’t really concerned about the precise layout of the page. They’re more concerned about communicating an idea. During our user research, the Paper product design team discovered that having fewer formatting choices makes it easier to get into a creative flow.

So we made a conscious effort to strip away everything that slows down the brainstorm. The goal is to help people capture their ideas with as little effort as possible. So you can create something that’s instantly beautiful without having to fumble around with formatting tools.

Ideas get stronger when the entire team chimes in

Paper facilitates an approval process that’s not exclusively based on a team’s hierarchy. But we didn’t necessarily set out to design that kind of system. We noticed it’s something that happens naturally when everyone comes together to collaborate.

The collective goal is progress. So, any idea that helps move the project or idea forward is valuable — whether the idea is coming from an intern or the CEO. Everyone’s contributions should be respected and considered in the same weight.

In the end, the strongest ideas win out. Those don’t always come from the person who has the most seniority and Paper helps level the playing field by design. Because when a comment from our co-founders Drew or Arash is right next to a comment from an intern — and both are great ideas and valid input — it shows you how we’re all doing this thing together.

We think of Paper as a living view of the content. When you’re working on an idea in a Paper doc, it doesn’t matter as much who’s making the changes. What matters is what’s being changed to move things forward.

Transparency improves the review process and de-emphasizes the hierarchy

What does it take to create a better collaboration tool? A ton of collaboration, as it turns out. By using Paper to develop Paper, we became our own case study. As our team was creating the product, we noticed that the most valuable documents were the ones where a lot of people were collaborating and creating content together. So we thought: let’s push this further and explore more ways to reveal your collaborators within the document itself.

We began by adding profile pictures to doc headers and in list views so you could see the other people who were active in the documents and exposed attribution on each line so you know who contributed what to the doc. The team began to enjoy seeing who was writing each line. So we made the profile picture a more prominent feature in the document. Within the first few months, we found a new goal — making people feel like an equal partner to the content.

As a company, Dropbox really values openness. So we want to try to bring that into the workplace, and ask “Can you be comfortable with yourself and what you’re talking about in a way that really helps you build relationships and build empathy with other people you’re working with?”

When you can see how someone else is thinking, you have greater empathy and mutual understanding. By creating a common playing field where everyone understands what’s going on, we hope to help take away some of the anxiety around wondering if someone has seen a doc or not.

Managing feedback shouldn’t become a second full-time job

Ever notice how quickly project management can turn into relationship management? Part of the problem stems from the limitations of legacy tools. They often create extra work, especially in regard to review and approval processes.

Right now, most people do reviews by taking hand-drawn sketches, scanning them to create a PDF, then everyone annotates that PDF independently, and sends it back to the designer. Then they have to take the feedback from three or four different stakeholders, often conflicting feedback, then actually start doing their design work, then repeat that process over and over again.

That puts a lot of pressure on the person doing the creative work to manage the relationships between all these other people who’ve given conflicting feedback, then communicate back to the entire group. Plus, there’s no context on the visuals. Within an email, you can try to describe which visual you want to change and how it needs to change. But it’s incredibly time-consuming.

With Paper, you can put visuals in context next to content. It allows you to embed images to say “Here’s why I did what I did. Here are the visuals associated with that. Here’s the type of feedback that I want.” That way, everyone gets the same document and can see each other’s feedback.

Ultimately, the goal of streamlining the approval processes isn’t just about adding efficiency and making workers as productive as possible. Where most productivity tools are meant to make you slam 60 hours of work into a 40-hour work week, we want Dropbox Paper to help make those hours as enjoyable as possible.

If you feel like you’re generating more ideas, if you feel like you’re being more creative, if you feel more value in the work, you’ll be excited to come to work because you’re doing the things you want to do. I think that’s where Dropbox aspires to be and Paper aims to be a part of that.

David Stinnette is the Product Design Lead for Dropbox Paper, a collaboration tool that helps everyone—even non-creative types—enjoy the creative process. To learn more, visit dropbox.com/paper.

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