CMU innovation

Reinventing design


We think of design as being a process by which products are developed to certain physical, emotional, and psychological specifications. Design might incorporate certain product characteristics or features that are required or desired. Design might be the first thing you notice, or the last, about a particular object or device. But, whether we are aware of it or not, design is everywhere around us. Design is part of every object that we use – computers, cars, toothbrushes, teapots, spoons. We live intimately with and surrounded by design because every product has been designed.

This post is part of an “Impact of  Carnegie Mellon University” series that Babs has created about CMU-spawned innovations. The series was created at CMU and was sponsored by Larry Jennings, trustee.

What design means to designers, engineers, marketers, and consumers might be very different interpretations. Do you notice the look of something first like a doorknob? The feel of it in your hand? The dynamics of it as you turn in one way or the other? Why are most doorknobs almost the same? Is a doorknob only a doorknob? Could it be perceived instead as a means of separating two worlds? In fact, doorknobs come in many shapes, sizes, materials, and they have varying features like locks, plates, opening/closing mechanisms, etc. But, fundamentally, it seems like doorknobs have been the same for many years and they don’t seem about to change. Or are they?

Welcome to the world of IDEO, one of the most innovative and impactful design firms in the world. Founded in 1978 by Carnegie Mellon alumnus, David Kelley, IDEO has been at the foundation of major inventions like the mouse (both for Apple and Microsoft), the Treo (for Palm), first laptop (for Grid Systems) and the first portable defibrillator. IDEO has won more recognition and awards than any other design firm:

  • Included on Fast Company’s list of the Top 25 Most Innovative Companies
  • Ranked as one of the most innovative companies in the world by Boston Consulting Group (BusinessWeek)
  • Ranked #16 on Fortune’s list of 100 top MBA employers (where students say they’d most like to work), compiled by research firm Universum
  • Awarded the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s National Design Award for Product Design
  • Winner of more IDEA awards than any other design firm, 38 Red Dot awards, and 28 iF Hannover awards
  • Featured in an episode of ABC’s Nightline, which followed IDEO’s redesign of the shopping cart over the course of four days

IDEO founder and CMU alum, David Kelley, is a thought leader in the field of design. David has been interviewed by dozens of national and international press and media; he has been featured on two Ted Talks (in 2002 and 2012) plus on the Ted blog in 2007. He is interviewed in Objectified, a feature-length documentary film examining the role of everyday non-living objects, and the people who design them, in our daily lives, directed by Gary Hustwit. Objectified premiered at the South By Southwest (SxSW) Festival in March 2009. David is not just a designer, he is a design thinker. He has reinvented design – what it means, how to do it, the effects of design on people, and how design interacts with users.

David’s philosophy.  In his late 50s, David looks like a cross between Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. Easy with a joke, friendly to everybody, David embodies the warmth and compassion that is recognized as a key part of his firm’s culture. David is focused on the people side of design – human-centered design he calls it. He has taken the words “innovation” and “creativity” to new highs with the care and humanness that surround his products. As he says,

“There is no excuse for bad design. Design should perform for people. A chair should be a perfect sitting experience.”

David has fostered the idea of designers being thinkers about design. Fast Company’s 2009 article about David and IDEO quotes David as saying, “…we moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers… What we, as design thinkers, have, is this creative confidence that, when given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that unlocks their creativity and enables people to create breakthrough ideas.” David doesn’t believe that creativity is something magical that happens only in certain conditions or to certain people. He knows that creativity is universal and that you have to unleash it from within yourself. He knows this because it happened to him. David was not always a leader, a creative person, an entrepreneur and a designer. He discovered those skills in college. At Carnegie Mellon. And it was not easy.

CMU connection.  David came from Hometown USA, the heartland of America, the small, working-class, tire building town of Barberton, Ohio, about 100 miles west of Pittsburgh. In high school during the late 1960s, David was good at mathematics and science. He was a self-admitted geek. Like something from a Woody Allen movie, David tells me that he lettered in math as a senior. “But,” he continues, “I couldn’t wear my letter on my jacket like the football guys did; I would be punched.”

David aspired to attend a top university in engineering, like Carnegie Mellon. His high school guidance counselor told him to drop that dream, that a place like CMU was too lofty an ambition for a middle-class kid from Ohio. He told him that he wouldn’t get in. David disagreed. To this day, David doesn’t know how he mustered the gumption to go against his counselor and apply to CMU. But he did, and he was accepted.

David was thrilled and entered CMU in 1969. That year was the first year of the Vietnam War era lottery draft in the US. David drew a low number and, but for his college deferment, we might not be reading this story right now. At CMU, he chose electrical engineering for his major, or EE. He tells a funny story about how unprepared he was for the rigor of CMU:

“I didn’t really know what EE meant. I mean I was so parochial that I was sitting on the curb at towards the beginning of classes and an upperclassman came along and said, ‘Hey David, you are an EE; I am an EE too.’ I thought he was talking about my ‘e’ in Kelley, that it’s not spelled Kelly. So I said, really, your name is Kelley too?”

The major wasn’t the best fit for young David. He admits that he was a bad student. Even some of his engineering professors tried to talk him into changing majors; he just didn’t seem happy. Where he found happiness was in the classes offered at the College of Fine Arts (CFA) and in Humanities and Social Sciences, (H&SS, now the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences). And he had a non-class experience that changed his life:

“It was Spring Carnival [which happens every year]. Fraternities and sororities put up these fabulous booths. I became booth chairman for my fraternity and kept the position for three years. This ‘booth’ experience affected my whole career; I learned about leadership, that people would follow me. I had this talent that had been hidden but it was the ability to paint a picture of what things would look like – the booth. People would sign up to help me build that vision. And we won first prize at least two out of the three years.”

The idea of IDEO.  The booth experience gave David the confidence that he could do something interesting in his life. But, it was too late to make an immediate change. David didn’t really know that design existed as a discipline or even a major. In fact, he discovered the CMU design department only after graduation. He had accepted a job at Boeing and wanted to outfit his van for the trip across the country to Seattle. When his fellow traveler, a CMU art alumnus, told him about the table saw in the design department workshop, he realized that maybe he belonged there instead of EE. But, this idea was repressed as David started his career at Boeing. The story that the highlight of his time at the aerospace company was his design of the “Lavatory Occupied” sign for the 747 is well documented in the press. David left Boeing for National Cash Register (NCR), but didn’t last long there. A dissatisfied engineer, David decided to return to school to reinvent himself.

That happened at Stanford. Since David’s grades from CMU were not stellar, he was accepted into Stanford’s master of science and engineering program on the basis of his portfolio and experience with the booth at CMU: “I didn’t have a stellar career as an EE but had a fabulous career as a booth builder!” His mentor at Stanford, Bob McKim, a pioneer in using experiential psychology in design, helped David realize that he would never be happy in corporate America. It was clear already to David that contributing to one quotidian sign would never satisfy his creative ambition and drive.

At Stanford, product design was and still is part of mechanical engineering. This facilitated David’s realization of the importance of the intersection of engineering, design, product development, and end-use. The idea behind IDEO was born. David learned that design was about problem solving; he saw synergy between engineering and design. He saw design is a way of thinking that might have something to contribute. “I found my calling, what I was put on earth to do.” He graduated from Stanford in 1977 from the program that he now runs, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or more colloquially known as the Stanford d.school.

David actually started in a PhD program to do interesting things in design. He had fallen in love with teaching, and still embraces the concepts of learning, doing, teaching. He did much of the course work for the PhD and was going to write a thesis involving robotics. But then, he had an epiphany:

“I was doing research for the VA hospital and was going to adapt a robotic arm to a wheelchair. But then I realized that I wanted to build things with my hands not do research. I decided that the PhD was not for me. I decided to form my own design firm. Since I still wanted to teach, I was given an adjunct professorship appointment – we call it consulting professor today. So I started teaching at the same time that I formed the precursor company to IDEO. I have ridden my bike back and forth between offices for 34 years!”

The birth of IDEO.  David’s desire to start his own company gave him the opportunity to paint a picture to co-founders and supporters of his vision for a new kind of design company. David is design thinker, not just a designer, and he formed his firm to embrace that philosophy. He recruited his classmates and friends to join him, including his mentor, Professor McKim. In 1978, the company was born. It went through a few changes and names before it became IDEO. In 1991 David merged his firm with two others – one was Bill Moggridge, who had designed the first laptop computer, and the other was Mike Nuttall, whose excelled in technology products visualization and design.

The name IDEO came from searching through the dictionary for a word that was close to “idea.” The word “ideology” surfaced and it was shortened it to IDEO – easy to spell, easy to remember, hard to say (pronounced “eye-dee-oh”). David had a co-founder partner, who left after the first year, and three others, all of whom are still with the company.

David recalls how he knew that he was doing the right thing with creating IDEO,

“I had the confidence that I could prototype concepts that people would gravitate towards. That’s what the booth [at CMU] did for me. I didn’t have to act like a boss; I knew that if I encouraged a meritocracy, then the best ideas would always win. I didn’t have to be the best designer in the company. I wasn’t hammering in all the nails. But I had to be the leader to say, ‘Let’s build something.’ I knew if I did that, I could create design that was truly innovative and creative.”

Growth of IDEO.  IDEO has changed over the years, but the focus has remained on human-centered design. IDEO is still at the forefront of innovation, a term which David defines as breakthrough ideas about the future. He does not believe that design is a linear process; he embraces a holistic approach to solving human needs.

“You have to engage in a constant designing process. First it’s about understanding the problem, then about solving it. You have to find different attributes of the solution. What about materials? How will people connect with the product? Use it? All of these are essential questions in the act and art of design.”

Having developed a systematic approach to understanding and solving those needs, IDEO has found that customers seek out the firm because they are frustrated with the same old traditional approach and want new thinking. David tells a story of one company that hired IDEO because, “They knew exactly what they would get if they hired the typical firm; they went with IDEO because they had no idea what they’d get. They wanted new.”

IDEO has been successful because they find creative ways to solve problems: “We are far enough out to do that, but not too so far out that we scare them.” IDEO perfected a methodology that is different and much more focused around behavior – use of the object is paramount.

“We re-frame the problem. If you hire us to design a toaster you might not get a toaster, but you might get an information appliance for your kitchen. We’re not trying to enact a hair-brained idea, but our customers want impact, and something that they can sell in the marketplace. Something new to the world. That’s what we sell. I sell our customers on the idea that magic will happen if you hire us. I might not say this out loud, but that is what really happens.”

But getting early clients was not easy.

“It was really hard. I’d get in to talk to a CEO and I’d tell him, ‘I’d like to design a chair for you,’ and he’d say, ‘Show me your other chairs.’ We had not only no specific designs for chairs but we had no other projects!”

The success of the Apple mouse and the firm’s other work with Steve Jobs and Apple put IDEO on the map. Their track record opened doors of companies looking for something new to distinguish themselves in the crowded marketplace. IDEO has done thousands of projects ranging from solving K-12 education in Peru, to helping the Social Security Administration figure out how to get more people applying for retirement benefits online, to helping design homes for disabled US military veterans. “I’m the luckiest guy alive,” David exclaims! “It’s like saying ‘I love waterskiing more than anything else,’ and I get to go waterskiing every day.” As you would expect, IDEO counts many household names as customers: Kaiser Permanente, Marriott, Ford, and the US government, among others.

To fulfill the promise of revolutionary creativity and innovation, David had to build an interdisciplinary team. In IDEO, he has created a culture of “radical collaboration” where he can put a mechanical engineer, anthropologist and physicist together to create something original. And David takes some flak for his firm’s broad focus.

“I go to a dinner party and people expect that you design in a narrow area. It sounds arrogant to say that we design everything, but that’s what we do. People expect my firm to specialize but we don’t.”

In IDEO, everybody is a designer. Everybody designs and everybody is constantly designing. A team surrounds each project and designers are categorized into business, technical, and human, the three core values that each team (and the firm) embodies. The teams are cross functional and the size will range based on the scale and complexity of the project.

Having started above a dress shop in Palo Alto, IDEO now has 10 global offices. Many design firms never get bigger than 10 people, but today IDEO is more than 550 people. David is proud of the fact that IDEO has remained vital throughout this growth and change.

IDEO is starting to experiment with startup ventures, including Faraday, what David calls the ultimate electric bicycle. An avid bicyclist himself, David is enamored of the Faraday bike:

“It’s like the wind is at your back all the time. You think you are really good at pedaling. The electric part that is helping you is in the background; it’s not obvious. We developed the bike to enter into a contest in Oregon. And we won.”

d.school at Stanford.  David has implemented many of his IDEO philosophies and ideas at Stanford’s d.school. Although he started as an adjunct, he now has tenure as the Donald W. Whittier Professor and is head of the program. Preparing the design thinkers of tomorrow earned David the Sir Misha Black Medal for his “distinguished contribution to design education.” He has also won the Edison Achievement Award for Innovation, as well as the Chrysler Design Award and National Design Award in Product Design from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and he is a member of the National Academy of Engineers.

David today.  A few years ago, David turned the CEO reins over to longtime employee, Tim Brown, a fellow thought leader in the design field. David’s brother, Tom Kelley, author of several books on design (The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation) is general manager. David is married to Kc Branscomb, a former CEO of IntelliCorp, whom he met through their mutual friend, Steve Jobs. He has a beautiful daughter. And he has cancer, stage-four squamous cell carcinoma, diagnosed in 2007. While David happily is currently in full remission, the cancer caused him to evaluate what he could do to create maximum impact in the time he had left. He had created and built IDEO around his ideas around design. Now he wanted to take those ideas to the world. And that’s what he has done. Through his speaking engagements and constant encouragement of students and others, David is evangelizing his ideas about creative confidence in the hopes of reaching as many people as possible.

The future of design.  David believes that the problems that need to be solved through design are getting more complex. They require intuitive leaps in addition to an analytical approach. He sees the world heading into a creative age. But he knows that you can’t bottle creativity and innovation. His latest concept, which he elaborates upon in his 2012 Ted Talk, is about what he calls “creative confidence.” David believes that we are all creative but we allow creativity to slip too far inside and then it becomes difficult to tap. He cites the work of Albert Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford, and the fourth most-frequently cited psychologist of all time. Dr. Bandura became well known for using snakes to prove that people could confront and remove their fears and phobias. David uses the story to illustrate how we can exercise our creativity and therefore have it as part of our toolbox to use when and how we like. As people become more confident about their creativity, they will use it more, hence his theory of instilling “creative confidence.” And, David says, “Once you have that, creative confidence, then you have confidence in other things. Creativity pervades everything.” David’s first episode of creative confidence of course stems from his own experience with the booth at CMU.

David’s view of the importance of the user is exhibited in a quote from the documentary about design, Objectified:

“Bad design is where the customer thinks it’s their fault that something doesn’t work. So if you can’t make your GPS device work in your car — I mean, there should be a riot because they’re so poorly designed! Instead, the user thinks, ‘Oh, I’m not very smart; I can’t make this GPS thing work.’ People should demand more from the things they own, they need to demand that things work.”

David has lived this philosophy that objects should work for us not against us. And he created a firm that has perhaps impacted more humanistic objects than any other design company. David’s path is not the typical one for a CMU alum, but it exemplifies the sort of interdisciplinary approach embodied throughout the university. In his life and his accomplishments, David is truly a design thinker!

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