Cynthia Salgado Design
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Common Obstacles to Innovation

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II started my journey as a freelance designer at the beginning of this year. It's been a dream of mine since I was a design student. I realized there was a lot for me to learn since I've spent the last 10 years being an in-house designer, which as it turns out, it is a very sheltered environment and that offers limited opportunities for growth, however, that type of environment is considered good for people who want to climb the corporate ladder and build a corporate career.

Being inside a big, transnational company is for sure a great learning opportunity, even if the experience is not 100% satisfactory. For instance, we can learn from their mistakes and try to apply the lesson to our careers.

Some companies motivate their workers to stay and grow by providing benefits; other companies don't use any motivation at all and run with the philosophy that the employee is lucky to have a job with them; other companies -especially in creative fields- misunderstand what the motivations of designers could be: yes, I agree is fun to have free coffee and videogames, but most people would prefer to have some sort of flexibility and to feel they can control their own life, also working for an innovative company is sometimes motivation enough, but being innovative is not reinventing the wheel, but some companies think it is.

I worked in a company that offered a lot of "candy with ants", as I heard a designer call this tendency brilliantly: the problem is that it was mostly smoke and mirrors and what was behind was a lot of disorganization. You can read more of my experience there here.

The company wanted to innovate their way out of creative blasé and seemed willing to do it by throwing around buzz words like "UX", "wireframe", "flat design" which is good if one understands that building a truly great user experience requires more than flat design and a couple of sketches. Here is when one starts to realize that being innovative is more than using the word of the week and requires a lot of teamwork. These are some examples of obstacles that I found while working there:

  1. Egos and Power Structures. They were huge and needed to be appeased every day. There was a lot of competition between departments, so many times people had to choose teams, to keep happy whoever was in charge that day. Thanks to that a lot of groupthink were happening, and meetings were just a bunch of people agreeing on everything. It sounds like a good thing, but it's not. There were too many bosses and they were rotated constantly, so there was no time to adjust to the new boss' way of work. In the last 2 years I was there I had a new boss for which I was very excited, as people were talking about him as a leader and innovator. He happened to have the biggest ego I have ever seen. He wouldn't accept new ideas. He would make people work and give them no feedback. People also weren't allowed to talk to him, only his "team". His assistant would be the one communicating his orders or whatever. I worked for a full year designing a website and redesigning one of their brands, I had no feedback at all. When I got tired I went to ask his assistant if she knew anything about the project. They took all my work and send it to a friend of his, who redid all my work. That was beyond demoralizing for me and the main reason I left that company.

  2. Individual people. The thing is, to make innovation happen, in my opinion, teamwork is essential. One person can have a brilliant idea, but will always need the help of others to make it work. I've always thought that designers are surrogates and no design belongs to us, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks fondly of their designs and want to see them "grow", but I digress. Having an idea can't be a monopoly. The big ideas can't only come from one source: the boss, which makes the rest of the group feeling inadequate, and I don't think to have sad people working is beneficial for any company. I am a person who likes novelty, I'm curious and like to experiment, I can't help but think I spent too much time in the wrong place.

  3. Mindsets. Being open-minded is a great quality, and this means being open to new ideas, including, surprisingly, the gender gap. I am sure I am not the only woman who has been interrupted in a meeting, or has her worked not taken seriously. When I started at that company I thought the big bosses were all women, as that was all I saw. My immediate boss was a woman, the CEO of my branch was a woman, but that quickly changed and they were replaced by men, who were in no way more capable or qualified. Denying opportunities to women is so entrenched into some mentalities that they don't even realize how much they are hurting their business by not allowing these women to express their ideas freely.

I am now working on my own, and back to school refreshing my design ideas that were so out of date thanks to my sheltered 10 years as an in-house designer. My favorite new concept is "desisgn thinking": I am applying these principles on my designs and I can't be happier. We will talk more about how design thinking can pave the way for innovation in another post.