Why play is more important than talent for creativity

Rei Inamoto (left) and Ian Spalter (right) at a recording studio in Tokyo
Rei Inamoto (l) and Ian Spalter during a podcast recording session in Tokyo in 2022

Ian Spalter (Ian Spalter), the man behind the design of Instagram, cited this quote when I caught up with him not too long ago in Japan.

Last fall, I started a new podcast called “The Creative Mindset” in Japanese. Ian, an old friend of mine from 20 years ago when we were both fledging designers at R/GA, was my first guest.

This podcast was initially for the Japanese audience but there was such a strong demand for the English version since many of the guests would be English speakers. From here on, we will release an episode every two weeks for the English-speaking audience.

A few years ago, Ian led the redesign of the Instagram app as well as its brand identity at the Head of Design at the company. That process was well documented and Ian was featured in a Netflix special called “Abstract: The Art of Design.” Since then, he moved to Japan with his family to head up the Instagram business there. He’s now leading design at Meta for its metaverse initiative, still residing in Japan, where we recorded the episode.

In my conversation with Ian, there were three key takeaways that stood out and can be helpful for, not just designers, but those particularly in a position to manage others:

1. The permission and the freedom to be wrong is essential to creativity.

Ian uses simple activities and games in meetings with his team in order to create what he calls the State of Play. These games might be something as simple as drawing for people who are not typically used to drawing. He says that play is useful in getting people out of their comfort zone and letting people be wrong without, or at least with less, fear. Eliminating the sense of fear is essential to cultivating creativity, especially in a corporate environment, according to Ian.

2. Humility is underrated.

One of Ian’s hobbies living in Japan is to go visit shokunin, craftspeople typically engaged in making traditional daily tools and objects such as sandals, bowls, baskets, buckets, etc., oftentimes painstakingly by hand. Having visited quite a few of them in various towns, he observed that they all have something in common: a commitment to humble excellence. This kind of humility is underrated, he says, and he witnesses that it makes such a big difference in the final product.

3. Representation matters.

When he started his career in NYC, one of his first managers was Omar Wasow, a co-founder of BlackPlanet.com in the 1990s. At R/GA, Ian worked under another colleague of ours who was from the Dominican Republic and a person of color. The fact that his bosses were minorities back then and how they reflected on Ian himself wasn’t lost on him. As a Black designer, he felt and still feels that how he does would reflect on other people that look like him that would come after him. I heard a sense of duty in his voice as a leading yet humble designer who happens to be Black.

If you are curious about my conversation with Ian, please listen to this episode “Why Play, Not Talent, Is More Important for Creativity” wherever you get your podcast:

And if you like it, please subscribe to the show. It’d mean a lot to me.

Categorized as UX

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