March 27, 2020

How to Create a Safe Space to Think Creatively

Designing Experiences

By Allison Yu

Why is Creative Confidence Essential?

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m just not the creative type”? How many times have you been that person?

We often hear this mantra when we engage faculty, staff, and students in a design thinking process that is meant to extract core truths from the abstract, but oftentimes it feels unconventional and uncomfortable for them. Everyone wants to do “design thinking,” but no one is telling us how to do it. In order to implement change in the higher education space, we collectively must think outside the box. Doing so involves us being intentional, thoughtful, and empathetic with how we frame and solve problems.

Library staff members, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Kennedy Library (Photo: Hannah Travis/Kennedy Library)

Students can usually jump into the process as quickly as the next. But faculty and staff may shy away from them, asserting that these processes are “too creative” and require “too much conceptual thinking.” Many faculty assert that they aren’t naturally creative — instead they are analytical, mathematical, data-driven.

The problem with this mindset is that it stops the ideation process short. Very quickly.

We once held an open-invite workshop where we asked faculty to provide us with their vision for the future of their institution through vision cards, i.e., a range of colorful and unrelated images like railroad tracks, a sprouting plant, a light bulb. Many of them took one look at the vibrant cards and expressed hesitation. A person with a PhD in their field, the best and the brightest, was intimidated! “Oh, I’ll pass on this one. She’s more creative than me,” as he offered up his co-worker as sacrifice.

Visioning card activity

Creativity is perceived as an elusive, intrinsic gift that some people have and some people don’t. But since when did creativity become a rare talent, rather than an ability anyone can hone? For some of us, there was a moment when our wildly creative spark faded into the background of the everyday static as we faced critiques, evaluations, constraints, and regulations throughout our lives. As we faced rejections and failures, our creative light dwindled.

As children, we all had the imagination to create worlds, people, and ideas that were far beyond reality. This unbridled imagination has led to small- and large-scale innovations that have impacted human-kind for generations. For instance, take Frank Epperson, an 11-year-old boy who in 1905 created Popsicles® from accidentally leaving a slurry of soda water out in freezing temperatures. He had the courage to pursue this wonderful accident, and let his ideas be seen by the world.

Without this creative confidence — the fearlessness to pursue any idea — Frank wouldn’t have been able to establish this frozen treat as a mainstay on hot summer days.

But being an adult is a different story. Our jobs are constantly providing us frameworks and preconceived ways of working that put our thinking into boxes. We follow those norms for efficiency sake. The natural creativity is blocked when we fear the rejection and the harsh criticisms that seem like an unfortunate fact of everyday life and work. We lack the courage to pursue new ideas and jump into the unknown outside of comfort zones. We were told at one point or another in our lives that our assumptions and assertions should be analytical and fact-driven, which is completely true… when we want to make a case or logically present our findings. But the courage to present our ideas in the first place is where creative confidence comes into play. And even before we arrive at our ideas, when we are in brainstorming mode, that’s when creative confidence is key.

Instead of shying away from the creative process, lean into it. During any generative brainstorming process — virtual or in-person — find those moments when you are excited about something.

It might be felt in your gut, deep in your gut — lean into it, and let it come to the surface. There is no judgement and no evaluation during the brainstorming process.

Connections activity with Harvard Library staff

Methods and Tools to Inspire Innovation and Best Practices

If you are designing a workshop for participants who might be wary of imaginative, abstract thinking, ensure that you are fostering a safe space by setting a tone of “no judgement” in the beginning of the workshop and using other tools such as warm-ups to get the creative juices flowing. The way you implement these methods may differ between virtual/online facilitation vs. in-person workshops but the core concepts are the same.

Safe Spaces

A safe space is an environment in which a person can feel confident that they will not be judged for showing up as they are. Many times, safe spaces are especially important for marginalized or minority groups who often face discrimination in other environments.

In our case, creating a safe space allows participants to feel safely vulnerable in their ideas, which serves as a foundation for trust. They can trust that this workshop is an open space where ideas of all types are welcomed. To nurture a safe space for creativity, set the tone from the get-go. This may include leading by example. Be open and vulnerable as a facilitator, which could tangibly translate as establishing an environment of constant learning (e.g., be open when you don’t know something, and show that that is okay!). It can be as simple as introductions by name and role to start to form a space where they can communicate without judgement. Sometimes, you can say along the lines of, “Today, we will build on each other’s ideas. We should encourage each other to think boldly and loudly. I am here to give all of you the creative license to let your wildest ideas free.” You can even print out physical cards to symbolize these licenses so that people are constantly reminded that they can speak their thoughts freely. And if you’re engaging in a complex and highly collaborative activity, be explicit about setting ground rules and norms for participants, as we do with a blocking and stacking activity when we do space design workshops.

Blocking and stacking activity

If the workshop is not with the type of the audience who would find handcrafted props comforting (e.g., leadership, steering committees, down-to-business people), then I suggest cultivating trust in the group through a shared collective idea. It could be highlighting the mission of the organization. Or the shared vision behind the product idea. This collective idea should resonate with everyone as the driving force for all of them to be in the room in the first place. Ask them, “What does this organization’s mission mean to you?”

By bringing people closer through a shared mission, they may feel more emotionally connected with one another, and therefore, more trusting that they can be vulnerable and open.

A good measure of a creative workshop in which participants feel open and trusting of one another is when we see them pulling out their phones to take photos of their collective work. I frequently see this happen with future journey maps, where participants can imagine an ideal future, which both inspires and motivates them to keep the ball rolling as a cohesive team.

Another general way to set the tone is to preface that the process they are about to engage in might be messy and might require them to be brave and daring with their ideas. And that is completely okay. In fact, the best creative ideas often come from piles and piles of generated ideas that everyone has a hand in making, and that’s precisely what we’re looking for.


Now that you’ve verbally set the tone with your group, it is definitely worthwhile to engage them in a “warm-up.” Warm-ups are amazing ways to spring people into action — into that “do something” mindset. It helps them cross the threshold from being told to be vulnerable and trusting each other, to actually being vulnerable and trusting each other.

Creating a focused prompt that encourages rapid generation of ideas without confines or strict rules can help people break out of a systematic way of thinking or strategic mindset that is precisely evaluative and prescriptive.

There are a million and one different types of warm-ups out there. Agnostic of industry, here are a few of my favorites because not only do they get people talking, they can sometimes lead to brilliant design ideas that can be returned to down the road.

Yes, BUT vs. Yes, AND
This warm-up socializes the mindset of generative thinking, getting people to build on each other’s ideas. In Round One, small groups will plan a party and start the conversation by saying, for example, “I am planning a party and I would like to bring confetti.” The next person builds on top of this idea, but uses “yes, BUT” as a conjunction. So for example, “Yes, but confetti can get really messy.” Continue for a couple of minutes. For Round Two, switch to using “yes, AND” as the conjunction and see how much more laughter and smiles you get. Ask the participants to compare the two conversations and see just how important building on top of each other’s ideas are.

Another prompt can be, “We’re going on an adventure…” (Image credit: Digital Literacies)

I read this one in the book Gamestorming, coined by Mike Bonifer. This warm-up serves as an improv method that reveals tacit layers of our physical communication and subtle verbal tones. Small groups of people will take on predetermined roles and goals in a given scenario (maybe ordering coffee at a café in Paris). They have to act out the scene without using words and can only use — you guessed it — gibberish. It evokes a lot of laughter and brings everyone on the same playing field, especially those who feel self-conscious about speaking in large groups.

Favorite “somethings”
In a large group, ask participants to share their favorite “somethings.” Opening up about a favorite “something” doesn’t require expertise or authority. It’s completely subjective and personal. For our workshops, we ask people to share a memory of their favorite spaces because it helps them reflect on how spaces impact experience and in return, can surface some valuable guiding principles. But more importantly, it helps them hear relatable, sentimental, or interesting stories from their peers. Another example could be “favorite hiding place during hide and seek.” You get a sense for how people view different places as safe and secure.

Squiggle Birds
This exercise helps people warm up their visual thinking muscles. Have each person draw 1-2 squiggles on index cards that don’t look like anything at all. Then have them pass the card to their right, so each person has a new squiggle in front of them. Instruct everyone to try to transform those squiggles into birds: a beak, two feet, and eyes, maybe even a worm if they’re feeling generous.

Finished masterpieces (Image credit: Dave Gray from Gamestorming)

Sketch Your Neighbor (online or in-person)
Individually assign a person’s name to each participant (via private message if online or by passing out slips of paper at random if in-person) and have them sketch each person’s face on the Mural app (more on that below) or on a piece of paper. Then everyone takes turns guessing who is who and who drew who based on the beautiful drawings. This warm-up gets everyone familiar with each other, opens up a space for vulnerability, and is a good way to have each person vocally chime-in. (A completely in-person version of this game is called Trading Cards from Gamestorming.)

Mural Warm-up, Sketch Your Neighbor

Online Facilitation Warm-Ups and Energizers
In light of this wild COVID-19 reality we’re living in, a lot of our in-person workshops have been transitioned to virtual workshops. Mural is a company that provides an online platform that facilitates remote collaboration and offers a bountiful list of possible warm-ups you can engage your participants in 100% remotely.

Regardless of the warm-up you choose, the main objectives of these intro activities are to 1) get the collaborative and open energy flowing in the room 2) ensure everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s ideas are taken into account, and most importantly 3) give participants the confidence to contribute their imaginative ideas without the fear of judgement holding them back.

Visioning Workshop at the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College

Facilitate Experience Design Workshops with Confidence

While we know how important creative confidence is in any workshop, it can be a challenge in and of itself to cultivate this courage within given time-constraints. It can take people months, if not lifetimes, to cultivate their creative confidence, let alone a two-hour workshop. If you’re able to, send them a pre-read or an introductory video ahead of time that outlines the importance of creative freedom in innovation. Unfamiliarity amongst workshop participants and with you can also widen the gap between fostering trust and creating a safe space to be vulnerable. Keeping these variables in mind, workshop facilitators and leaders should remember that they need to practice what they preach. Be bold — tap into your own creative energy — as you take a step into the sometimes messy, sometimes fuzzy world of design thinking workshops.

If we don’t nurture our creative confidence now, our ideas might melt before ever becoming a Popsicle®.


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