Healthy Start Stories |
Milene Gonçalves

Youth and Creativity: ‘Can ‘design’ methods and creative techniques help harness young people’s ideas effectively?’

Initiatives to boost young people’s civic engagement become more common. That’s essential, as this allows them to contribute to shaping their own future. However, youth participation can be complex. How do we reach a diverse range of young people, and how do we ensure they feel free to share their ideas? This is where methods and techniques from the world of design can play a vital role, says Milene Gonçalves, an assistant professor at TU Delft, and co-lead of the ‘Youth Engagement and Participation’ initiative within Healthy Start.

“We live in an era filled with complex challenges, from the urgent climate crisis and increasing social inequality to the immense pressure on healthcare and the decline in young people’s mental well-being. Due to their complexity and the fact that there are no clear solutions, they are referred to as wicked problems. At Healthy Start, we believe in the power of young people to contribute to finding solutions to these issues. Young people can generally come up with surprising and creative solutions. I want to know how we can better utilize the voice of young people and make the most of their creativity. I use my experience in the world of design for that purpose.”

Everyone possesses the innate ability to be creative;
sometimes, we convince ourselves otherwise

Innate creative ability

“Creativity has always been a significant part of my life. As a child, I loved sketching, and I received many compliments about how creative I was. That boosted my creative confidence, so much so I thought about becoming a sketching teacher. That changed when I started studying design at the university in Lisbon. During my studies, I met so many creative designers. This confronted me with uncertainty. It seemed like I was the only one who lacked inspiration sometimes.

In hindsight, these doubts marked the beginning of my academic journey. For my PhD research, I wanted to understand where designers draw their inspiration. Based on my empirical studies with novice and experienced designers, I discovered that inspiration often comes when you look for information that is not too close but not too far from the central topic. To design a new generation of headphones, we should not only focus on existing and traditional headphones. It provides limited inspiration. After my PhD research I continued to study creative processes and discovered that creativity and opinions about it always go hand in hand. Many people convince themselves into thinking they’re not creative. It’s a shame because everyone has an innate creative ability. In fact, we engage in problem-solving throughout the day, a fundamental part of creativity.”

Methods and techniques from the design world
are applicable to the entire research process

Fostering creative confidence in youth

Within Healthy Start I contribute to the research project ‘Youth participation and involvement’. The aim of this project is to get young people more involved and helping them being able to participate in tackling complex societal problems. We also expressly want to reach young people who would normally not be involved in scientific research. My design background comes in handy within this project. Innovative ideas are needed to solve complex problems. And that requires creativity. That is why I focus, among other things, on the ‘creative confidence’ of young people. If we want to make the best possible use of young people’s input, it is important that they feel free and confident to share creative ideas. I do this, for example, with visualization assignments in which young people draw their ideas. It’s not about it being something beautiful. Sketching is one of the many ways available to stimulate creative thinking.

Visualization is just one of the design techniques I use. Methods and techniques from the design world are applicable to the entire process of conducting research. From formulating hypotheses to approaching target groups and from collecting data to giving meaning to data. I also explore how researchers can reach unheard youth. We often think that these are young people who come from a lower social background or a disadvantaged neighborhood. But is that really the case? This is just a so-called ‘frame’ from which we think. Using design techniques, I try to break through these stereotypes so that as researchers we do not rely on our own limited experiences or gut feelings, but rather reach the right target groups in a thoughtful manner.

'Healthy Start is far from an ivory tower; it's a place of connection

A different perspective

“Within Healthy Start I get the opportunity to work with all kinds of different people. From cognitive and social psychologists to medical researchers, policy makers, youth workers and of course young people themselves. I find that extremely enriching. Healthy Start is anything but an ivory tower, but rather a place of connection.

At the same time, I realize that my background sometimes gives me a different perspective on conducting research. Yet I hope that I can show how important it is to also use methods and techniques from the design world within scientific research projects. I am mainly thinking of ways to stimulate creativity. Not only is creativity essential in every phase of scientific research, but I am also convinced that our society as a whole can benefit from more creativity.

In my view, more attention should be paid to this in primary and secondary education. Encourage children’s creative abilities in a fun way. If they develop this skill, they will be better prepared for a job later in life. Moreover, I expect that children and young people who are creative will dare to think about social issues with more self-confidence. After all, they have learned the necessary skills to tackle complex problems.”

Milenes Healthy Start Perspectief
“I’m very happy to be involved in Healthy Start. I have always found it important that my research has societal impact, and that is possible within Healthy Start. Moreover, I now work together with different disciplines, and we learn a lot from each other. Of course, collaboration does not always go smoothly. But I notice that the knowledge and skills I bring, like creative processes and visual thinking, often facilitates alignment and creates connections between different people. Most importantly, I hope that my research contributes to the development of young people in becoming more creatively confident”

Milene is co-lead in the ambition ‘Youth participation and involvement’.