Creative minds for innovative design

04 May 2021

Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) has helped businesses implement design thinking for 175 years. Sarah Steed, NUA’s Director of Innovation and Engagement, explains why creativity remains vital to innovation.

Our Victorian founders set up the original Norwich School of Design in 1845 to support the industrial revolution in the city. Their aim was to help engineers and scientists turn their ideas into practical products by applying creative design thinking to the challenges of the time. That same attitude and approach informs our teaching today and helps define our place in the region’s innovation ecosystem.

We’ve come a long way since then, gaining university status in 2013 and now offering 19 undergraduate and 9 postgraduate courses specialising in art, design, architecture and media. Our reputation for excellence goes well beyond our region too. In 2020, NUA ranked in the Top 50 Creative Media & Entertainment Schools and Colleges in the World.

Our students learn the principals of structured design thinking and how to apply them to industrial processes and innovation. They and our lecturers work with businesses across the region, ranging from life sciences and technology to manufacturing and financial services. We not only help clients to improve their thinking around the physical design of new products but also to develop effective communications that bring the ‘how and why’ of the innovation story to life.

Public resistance to new ideas is often the biggest obstacle to developing and commercialising innovative products and services. It’s not enough simply to have great science or clever technology; you need to be able to communicate the benefits to your public to bring them onboard. By applying design principles, we can help start-ups and established organisations explore the potential pitfalls as well as the opportunities.

Making creative connections

A good example of this is some recent work we did for a global insurer. They were having problems with delays in their claims workflow. We treated it as we would any design brief: we took the process apart.

We used visualisation tools to draw every step in the process. We interviewed employees in different countries to understand their interactions, motivations and workflow contributions. As a result, we found out that the problem wasn’t operational but cultural, reflecting how different people dealt with challenges.

This demonstrates how our creative skills are as much about facilitating conversations as generating and testing ideas. We help people make surprising connections to free up innovation; it’s not always a logical linear process. We are now looking to roll out what we learnt on this project to other businesses, with support from the New Anglia LEP and UKRI’s Connecting Capabilities Fund.

The benefits of working with our lecturers and graduates include their ability to look at the world differently. We believe that industry needs more creativity, not less. Innovation demands radical thinking from people who are not confined by academic silos but free to explore and challenge assumptions.  

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