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Meet the practitioner

In Conversation with creativity expert Kath Simpson

 

Businesses must think and be creative to solve problems and stay ahead of the competition. But where is creativity useful? And where can it be a hindrance? That’s the question that keeps innovators on their toes. Fortunately, Kath Simpson, Creative Director at Creative Switch, is on hand to help teams activate creative thinking! Kath is a creative specialist with 20 years of experience in design and . Working as a Senior Designer at Macmillan Cancer Support and other well-known charities helped cement her belief that design has the power to help transform lives. Kath has worked with an eclectic mix of organisations like Imperial College London, Wellcome Collection, Design Council, Rewilding Britian and Family Action. Ahead of Kath’s Innovation Methods and Mindset short course at STEAMhouse, “Solve Business Problems with Creativity”, we talk to Kath about what innovation means to her, the importance of thinking creatively and her advice to businesses who want to innovate.

 

Hi Kath, it’s great to meet you! To set the scene, would you be able to tell us about your background in the world of innovation and what you’re currently working on?

Well, I’m a graphic designer and creativity consultant with a small creative studio called Creative Switch. I’ve been working in the creative field for 20 years with experience at design agencies, and in-house for national charities. These experiences helped cement my belief that design has the power to transform lives. Since 2016, I’ve been lucky to collaborate with some fantastic organisations like Imperial College London, Wellcome Collection, the NHS, and Rewilding Britain – to name a few – on branding, campaigns, creativity and design-thinking training, and creative strategies to influence new services, processes, and products.

At the moment, I’m juggling a few exciting projects. I’m working on a brand refresh for a national charity, putting together a summer campaign, and collaborating with a digital healthcare company to conduct design research and create a set of personas. These personas will support an innovation project aimed at improving healthcare staff to view patient records more holistically, enabling them to make the best decisions for patients care. It’s a diverse mix of projects, but I love the variety!

 

Variety is great! Innovation can be a bit of an abstract word sometimes, especially across varied work… so what does innovation mean to you?

For me, innovation is all about creating something that’s not only new but also useful to the world. It doesn’t necessarily have to be ground-breaking on a global scale, but it should be novel within its specific context. I remember working with a London hospital where they set up a roof garden for patients with brain injuries. The patients could visit the garden in their beds, and it was designed to enhance their recovery and well-being. Now, roof gardens aren’t a new concept, but for a hospital to embrace such an open and radical idea – that’s what I call innovation.

 

So, what inspired you to get into the innovation field?

I actually see myself as being more in the creative field, which I believe is a crucial component of innovation. My journey started when I was working as a design manager for a UK charity. I realised that the core skills and training I had as a designer – curiosity, empathy, asking questions, generating ideas, accessing ideas, and understanding the problem were things that people in other parts of the organisation could benefit from. Fundraising managers, service managers, and HR – they all needed to solve problems and think in new, creative ways. It’s not always easy, but it’s a skill that can be learned.

So, I started delivering workshops and creativity training sessions outside of the creative department. That’s when I got hooked – some people close to me may have called it obsessed – on understanding the creative process, figuring out what innovation truly means, and exploring what we need to make it happen. I wanted to dive deeper, so I decided to pursue a master’s in innovation management at the London art school Central Saint Martins.

 

Now that’s a deep commitment to creative and innovation! So that’s why you got into innovation, but why is thinking creatively so important in today’s world? What promise does innovation hold?

In my opinion, there’s no future without innovation. As humans, it’s in our nature to constantly improve, solve problems, and make things better. However, in today’s business world, there’s often a strong focus on efficiency, streamlining processes, and being the best in the field. While that’s important, it can sometimes lead to an inward-looking perspective. Innovation, on the other hand, is about keeping an eye on the future – anticipating people’s needs and even envisioning what they might want before they even realize it themselves. It’s a delicate balance that businesses have to strike, but I believe it’s crucial to always have one eye on the horizon.

Amy Webb, a renowned futurist, advises us to keep an eye on the artists and the people on the fringes of society – they are the ones who are really shaping the future. It’s important not to overlook something that piques your interest, even if it seems unconventional at first glance. In a business context, it’s easy to dismiss ideas that seem too wild or radical, especially when you’re caught up in the day-to-day. However, if you don’t pay attention to these emerging trends and ideas, you risk being left behind.

Ultimately, innovation holds the promise of creating a better future. By constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and exploring new frontiers, we can tackle the complex challenges facing our world today and create new opportunities for growth and progress. It’s not always easy, but the rewards of embracing innovation are well worth the effort.

We can all work towards a better future! So for people looking to innovate better, what do you think the biggest myths around innovation are?

There are quite a few myths out there, but I think the biggest one is the idea that innovation is all about disruptive, Uber-and-Airbnb-style breakthroughs. That kind of innovation is actually quite rare, and it can make people feel like they aren’t really innovating if they’re not turning an industry on its head. In reality, innovation is about doing something new within your own specific context. One of my favourite examples is from 1987 when a manager at an M&S food hall in Edinburgh started making ready-made sandwiches in-store. It was a novel concept at the time – people made sandwiches at home, but they didn’t really buy them pre-made. Fast forward to today, and it’s an £8 billion a year industry! The idea of paying for something you could easily make yourself seemed ridiculous to many people. Even the manager himself thought at the time it was a bit ridiculous. But he had the vision to transform a stockroom into a mini production line, and the rest is history. I love this story because it embodies a few key principles of innovation: being willing to give new ideas a go, connecting seemingly unrelated concepts, embracing your uniqueness, and scrappy prototyping to bring your vision to life to learn quickly.

 

So if these are the key innovative and creative principles, what do you believe are the essential qualities or skills for someone looking to innovate? (apart from ready-made sandwiches!)

When it comes to innovation, I believe there are a few key qualities and skills that really make a difference. First and foremost, curiosity is essential. You need to have that drive to ask questions, explore new ideas, follow a hunch and challenge the status quo. Alongside curiosity, I think creativity is crucial (which is the focus of the course). Being able to make unexpected connections and come up with novel solutions is what sets innovators apart. Picasso summed this up nicely when he said “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”

Another important skill is having and enabling others to have psychological safety. Innovation often involves trial and error, facing setbacks and learning from them. It’s about having the courage to be vulnerable in many aspects and the persistence to keep going forward even when things get tough.

And to do all those things we have to do it together. Innovation rarely happens in a vacuum – it’s often the result of diverse perspectives coming together. So, being able to work well in a team, communicate and listen effectively, and be open to other’s perspectives, experiences and ideas is really important.

 

Thank you so much Kath for your time and insight. One last question… What one key bit of advice would you give to people, teams or organisations looking to innovate?

If I could give one piece of advice to anyone looking to innovate, it would be this: focus on the purpose and the process, not on looking good, being the hero, or even which team or department gets the credit.

In the business world, there can be a lot of pressure to achieve quick wins or always getting it right. Teams and departments might compete for recognition or resources. But when you’re so focused on looking good, boosting your own ego, or promoting your own team, it can actually get in the way of real innovation.

So, my advice would be to keep your ego in check – I am always checking mine – set aside team bureaucracy and stay focused on the bigger picture. Remember why you’re innovating in the first place. What problem are you trying to solve? What impact do you want to have? Let that purpose guide you, and trust in the process.

When you approach innovation with that mindset – with a focus on learning, growing, and making a real difference – that’s when the magic happens. Be willing to take those leaps of faith. That’s how real innovation happens – when we all work together towards a shared purpose.

 

 

Thank you so much Kath! That was really insightful and inspiring!

If you found this insightful too, we now delve into the thinking behind Kath’s Innovation Methods and Mindset Short Course, Solve Business Problems with Creativity, and how this affordable, one day masterclass can help organisations and teams think creatively, and learn how to create ideas informed by real world insights and prioritise the right ideas to work on.

You can read this second interview here.

Alternatively, if you’re feeling readily inspired, you can sign up for the short course here.