In the autumn issue of Strategy + Business Magazine, editor Art Kleiner interviews Tim Brown, CEO of the legendary design firm IDEO. Kleiner tells about IDEO’s first great protoype, which was created when the company consisted of eight scruffy designers crowded together in an upstairs studio on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Douglas Dayton and Jim Yurchenko affixed the roller ball from a tube of Ban roll-on deodorant to the base of a plastic butter dish. Before long Apple Computer was shipping its first mouse.
Brown is a proponent of Design Thinking – every problem, in his view, is a design issue and can only be solved with Design Thinking. He says, “I want to challenge designers to transform design practice. There will always be a place for the artist, the craftsman, and the lone inventor, but the astonishing pace of change in the world demand new approaches to design: collaborative, in a way that amplifies, rather than subdues, the creative powers of individuals; focused but flexible and responsive to unexpected opportunities. . . The next generation of designers will need to begin looking at every problem – from adult literacy to global climate change – as a design problem.”
He recently published a book called Change by Design. Reading the book reminded me of my own brief encounter with IDEO two years ago.
As a Stanford undergrad Deb Meisel worked a summer at South Mountain as an intern. She did some great work helping us develop a manual of information and company practice for new employees. When she left she was looking forward to an exciting opportunity: working at IDEO.
Not long after I was in Palo Alto and Deb took me for a whirlwind tour of IDEO. It was unlike any other company tour could possibly be.
The Palo Alto offices (there are now additional offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, London, Munich, and Shanghai) are a campus that has developed over time in a sprawling set of old commercial buildings and back alleys near downtown, the ultimate “low-road” facility. Outside they are unimposing and unremarkable. But open any door and watch out!! Walk in and it’s truly psychedelic. Everywhere you look there’s stuff you want to examine, touch, read, explore. It’s like a carnival, a bazaar, and a museum rolled into one. Overwhelms the senses.
Here there’s a glass cylinder piled full with crude foam prototypes of computer mouses. Then there’s a graphically beautiful poster meant to hang in a hospital room that says “Here’s what’s going to happen to you while you’re here and here’s what it’s going to be like” and elegantly explains each step and tells you all the things you never know in hospitals until they rudely happen to you. Bikes hang everywhere on cables up in the high warehouse-like ceilings (One of the IDEO designers, years ago, got tired of tripping over all the bikes clogging the passageways every day. He invented a cable system to raise and lower them, built it that night, and the next day bikes began to hang from the ceilings). There’s a beautifully appointed employee eating and gathering space. A curving glass showcase displays the various iterations – about thirty of them – of Palm Pilots.
We walk into buildings, out of buildings, down alleys, and into other buildings. We come to the Toy Lab. This is the only place at IDEO where people are not working on projects for clients. Here, a team of creatives spends all their time making new toys. The Toy Lab is out of this world. I want to take a picture. Not okay.
And then to the Kitchen, where test cooking is done and food products and packaging are developed and on to the shop. Oh, the shop. Huge, cluttered, and organized. Rows of Bridgeport Millers, bandsaws, and every imaginable kind of metal and woodworking tool. This is where prototyping happens, where people make things over and over, trying different versions, experimenting.
It’s 6 in the evening, and all the buildings are semi-occupied and busy. Deb says people work at all hours. They work when they want. People look purposeful. At the same time, they look relaxed. Some have their feet up on their desks. Some are munching. Some are hunched at computers; others are engaged in animated conversation.
All this happened in 15 or 20 minutes. I kept wanting to stop and spend an hour or two here, there, and everywhere.
It’s an intoxicating place, a collaborative Mecca, the reflection of an ethos that knows, as Brown says, “that all of us are smarter than any of us.” The long-term global transformation ahead will require more than political will and appropriate investment; it will also require collaboration, the kind Tim Brown refers to, but possibly of a type and scale heretofore unknown. We will need new tools, new abilities, and new ways of working together. New forms of governance and business.
I read a few passages from Change By Design at the most recent meeting of our Design Group. I am convinced that the future of our industry – and our business – is the fusion of Tim Brown’s Design Thinking and Stewart Brand’s Planet Craft (see Whole Earth Discipline). Seems like a vast virgin forest of opportunity . . . and necessity.