Creative mind games

Matthew Valentine tries to get his head round the latest ideas in right brain and left brain thinking and finds out how design groups can find a balance and create better results.

The concept of thinking with the left or right side of the brain is a familiar one. Armchair neurologists the world over can recite the basics – that, in the broadest possible terms, the right side of the brain controls the more creative, intuitive functions while the left side handles logical and organisational ones. Generally, one side dominates the other, resulting in right- or left-brained thinkers.

Many design consultancies have applied this knowledge, whether consciously or not, in their work. It is no secret that a balance of right- and left- brain thinkers within a team can lead to more effective design and problem-solving. By no means are all designers right-brained.

Clients, it seems, are now increasingly aware of the benefits of efficiently harnessing the creative ability within their organisations. More and more they are approaching design groups for advice not just on design, but on how thinking techniques employed by designers can help them capitalise on their own existing resources.

The Partners, inspired by a long-running conversation about creativity with client 20th Century Fox, has commissioned research on left- and right-brained thinking. The aim is to provide clients with a framework for finding out which staff think with which side of their brains, and to use them more effectively.

A questionnaire, created by psychologist and business consultant Dr David Lewis, was used to find which category staff fall into, and the data broken down by age, gender, business sector and geographical region.

“We were looking at what made relationships with clients more or less creative,” says managing partner Aziz Cami. The research also has the benefit of trying to provide a simple scientific explanation of creativity and how it can be of use – a valuable tool if clients resist the need to change their ways.

What the consultancy has found, perhaps predictably, is a wide difference in the number of left- or- right brained thinkers in different industry sectors. According to The Partners’ figures, 75 per cent of workers in creative industries such as design or advertising are right-brained. The media is similarly dominated by the more lateral thinking right side of the brain, with only 30 per cent of staff left-brained.

But in the pharmaceuticals sector 69 per cent of staff use the more rational, logical left side of the brain. Other industries, such as the service or financial sectors have a split closer to 50/50.

Perhaps more surprisingly, clear differences were found by geographic region – in the North 59 per cent of respondents fell into the right-brained group, but in the West just 46 per cent, and in the Midlands 47 per cent, were found to be right-brained. But, both low-scoring areas are traditionally associated with the UK’s engineering industries, which in their prime were often considered extremely innovative.

The Partners is now to start promoting itself as a consultancy which offers Third Brain Thinking, the term it has chosen to describe the way a left-dominated brain working in tandem with a right-dominated brain is worth more than the sum of their parts.

The next stage will be to develop a more complex and sophisticated system which can be used for recruitment and team-building processes to create rounded working groups, according to Cami.

In a booklet the consultancy has produced, it uses a tale about a right-brained fox and a left-brained badger combining their skills to obtain honey from a beehive to illustrate its point. When a design consultancy claims with a straight face: “As well as being a pack of foxes… we also have in-house badgers,” something must be going on in the industry as a whole.

“We detect a huge interest in creativity, irrespective of where it comes from,” says Dragon director Dorothy MacKenzie. “Clients do ask us to help them become more creative.” As clients compete ever harder for custom there “is increasingly recognition that value is not just about price or quality, but about innovation and creativity. Companies are open to this sort of approach”, she says. “They’re not just looking for quantitative analysis. They want vision.”

Others agree. “We have clients approaching us, asking us to arrange brainstorming sessions,” says Richard Watson of Global Design Register. And a mix of creative and analytical thinkers is generally requested, he says.

Mac Cato, founder of retail specialist Cato Consulting says: “I’m a big believer that people store so much emotional content in their right brain… it has a lot to do with how brands work.” He says many senior client staff are left-brained, as they tend to be promoted on the basis of logical thought and perceived dependability. This explains a reluctance in many to embrace new ideas, he says.

He too has seen an increase in requests from such clients for help arranging brainstorming sessions between groups such as retail marketers and product manufacturers.

As many bigger design groups attempt to move further and further towards being seen as overall business consultants, the acceptance of design consultancy-style thinking by client companies could be just the shot in the arm they need to help them on their way.

But acceptance of more left-brained, quantitative thinking to prove it works is likely to be the price. If the theories hold true, both sides stand to benefit.

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