Does Cultural Diversity Really Produce the Best Creative Solutions?

By Ram Castillo

Ram Castillo made the following presentation to the staff at Herman Miller, which is outspoken about its commitment to Diversity & Inclusion.

To kick things off, I’d like to list some famous quotes and I’d like you to guess where they’re from:

  1. “There’s no place like home.”
  2. “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
  3. “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.”
  4. “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”
  5. “The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”
  6. “Be who you are and say how you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Here are the answers in the same order:

  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Harry Potter
  • The Little Engine That Could
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • The Cat in the Hat

These are some of the stories I grew up with, and it seems that most of you are in the same boat. You quickly recognized those references and where they came from. We’re not only aware of those stories, but they’re a part of our cultural identity, an upbringing that embraces imagination, optimism, and kindness.

I’d like to share with you my observations and reflections on why cultural diversity does, indeed, produce the best creative solutions.

My Story and Yours

You wouldn’t know by simply looking at me, but I’m from a little place called Australia, a country that has about 24 million people and the sixth largest land area in the world. (America, of course, has about 320 million people and a landmass that sits third on the list.) However, I was born in the Philippines, a Third World country with 100 million people and a staggeringly low rank (71) on the largest land area list. In other words, the Philippines has four times the number of people in Australia with three times less space.

Before the Beginning

When my family and I migrated from the Philippines to Australia, I remember... nothing. I was only eight months old. In the early stages of growing up, I never truly understood the depth of their struggles and challenges. My mum was the third child of five siblings, raised by a strong-willed mother and a father who, for the most part, provided from a distance. Her food for the day was usually a small piece of bread and, if she was lucky, a tablespoon of soy sauce. Constantly sick, this became the norm.

My dad was one of 11 siblings and when he was only three years old his father passed away, so he had to quickly learn the ropes of being a provider. He was short in height from carrying heavy bags of rice daily, but his heart could sell out a stadium.

What I Started To See

As a child, everywhere I went would be the same spectrum of cultures. A typical Sydney train ride would consist of conversations in a dozen different languages. A city strip would have every cuisine represented, and a drive around the suburbs showcased the sacred monuments of countless religions and denominations. So what I saw, heard, tasted, and felt in these environments were the very things I would produce. As these experiences expanded, I began to really fall in love with art and design because I had the cultural freedom to let myself do that.

After high school, I was offered a scholarship to study design at a private college. The grueling four-part selection process was based on academic merit, creativity, extra-curricular activities, contribution, and culture. I can still remember the final question in front of the judging panel. The head of the college was a stern and direct woman. She asked me “tell me about your parents and how you grew up.” My response was very similar to what I’ve shared with you now. And after delivering it, she smiled and offered me the scholarship, which I accepted.

Even though I completed the graphic design course under scholarship, it still didn’t guarantee me a job. I actually took a role in the mailroom of Ogilvy & Mather because I knew how difficult it was to get your foot in the door. But I was happy starting from the bottom, and I have my parents to thank for that. Although my salary at the time could only buy me a four-dollar sandwich for lunch, the currency of networking with over 350 people and the further cultural exposure became the springboard to kick start my entire career.

Awareness Is Free-Floating Gold

Now, 12 years on, here I am. Which leaves the question: how does a culture of multicultural diversity affect one’s approach as a creative thinker?

We all know that the foundation of such a role is problem-solving. So, if problem-solving is a process of experimentation, exploration, and testing, plus hours of research and collaboration, then the obvious answer is simply empowerment—being empowered with the opportunity to reach higher levels of understanding and executing broader sensitivities to a vast range of demographic perceptions.

To capture that in one word, I would say “awareness.”

Individualism vs. Collectivism

However, notice I said, “Empowered with the opportunity to reach higher levels of understanding.” I purposely put a spotlight on “opportunity,” because it all begins with the individual. In reality (and I’m sure most of you would agree), we all have the opportunity to exercise inclusion of diversity in our societies, our families, and our workplaces.

It would be incorrect for me say that cultural diversity in Australia has always been a part of the way I grew up. It definitely was not. It would be ignorant for me to say that cultural diversity is now thriving and doesn’t have much room for improvement. It certainly has a long way to go. But just like any great painting, it starts with one single brush stroke. And just like any great company, it starts with the actions of one single individual.

Perhaps it’s this acquired “awareness” that makes creative thinkers more open to the benefits of cultural diversity because, to a large extent, it’s unavoidable in the problem-solving process.

I’d now like to share one of the many projects I’ve been a part of where the creative outcome was enhanced through these insights.

Thanks a Million Campaign for Telstra

In this campaign, I was brought in by the company, Lavender, as art director and design lead. It took the team about five months to complete. We had to tailor the types of communication to the specific customer (i.e., advocates, detractors, pensioners, etc.) and consider what products they had (broadband internet, home phone, mobile, or all of the above), where they lived, and what age bracket they were in.

All emails, calls, letters, and in-store communication were informed by data to inject as much personalization as possible, 73,208 data variables to be exact.

The scope of work was enormous because the task was two-fold: to communicate to Telstra customers how much Telstra cares about them and to communicate to Telstra staff how much of an impact they’re really making in people’s lives. Telstra wanted both groups; its customers and its staff to feel valued and for them to know what service-based changes are being implemented to substantiate their “we care” attitude.

The idea was simple, disruptive, and overcomes all cultural barriers. To thank and be thanked was the overarching vehicle for this creative and strategic solution, reaching over six million customers.

If the team wasn’t globally informed with the culturally diverse audience we were targeting, we wouldn’t have pared down the message to this level of simplicity. More importantly, we wouldn’t have received such an overwhelmingly positive response. I mean, when was the last time your phone company went to this much trouble, not to sell you something or send you a bill, but just to say thanks?

At the center of this communication was really “acknowledgment.” That no matter what age, race, background, religion, gender, or status, you’re recognized as special and you’re appreciated.

The cherry on top was that it was chosen as a finalist for this year’s Australian Creativity and Effectiveness Awards, which added even more credibility to the impact it had on the community.

Last year I had a phone call with Herman Miller’s VP Gary Smith, and he said to me, “inclusion is the only way forward,” and I couldn’t agree more.

I hope that my story was able to spark not only how cultural diversity produces the best creative solutions, but also how it generates greater authenticity and meaning in our relationships between one another. The emphasis should be about embracing our differences and leveraging collaboration in an attempt to reach a far higher level of thinking and being.

For more, pick up a copy of Castillo's internationally and industry-acclaimed book How to Get a Job as a Designer, Guaranteed.