Archives For experience design


I’m a big believer in the value of internships, that’s why IDEO runs a substantial program every year. As well as getting experience working on real design projects, our interns are tasked with a series of conceptual projects so they get the most out of their time with us—and vice versa. One of those activities is the Summer Intern Design Challenge, run out of our San Francisco and Palo Alto offices. Interns are asked to team up, tackle a design brief, then present their final prototypes at an exhibition. The Challenge not only gives interns a chance to collaborate with each other, but they leave IDEO with work they can share publicly.

This year, we decided to try a little time travel. Nearly 20 years ago, I participated in a project along with a team of other designers at IDEO. The brief: design a series of light switch prototypes for an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Our submissions explored unconventional materials like satin, fake fur, and rubberized Lycra, but their overall forms—panels mounted on walls—were relatively traditional.

This year, we tasked our interns with the same brief, but boy were the results different, a sign of how much design has changed over the intervening decades. While some of the interns focused on material explorations and the physical experience of a light switch—like my team and I did in 1995—others went much further afield. From a collaborative game called Smile Switch that converts facial expressions into light, to Brighter Moments, a fixture that plays meaningful messages for loved ones when they turn on the light, to a social impact service called Let It Shine that helps families in developing countries pay for energy, the idea of a traditional light switch was explored from every angle.

The diversity of approaches to this humble, often overlooked object shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, as I mentioned in a recent post, a design career is much more open today. In 1995, my prototyping team all came from industrial design and engineering backgrounds. This year, in addition to ID and engineering interns, we had interaction, business, environments, and org designers along withdevelopers and other folks joining in the fun.

The experience reminded me of a few things I’ve learned from these and other interns over the years.

Interns ask “why.” Because they’re new, interns don’t know what’s been done before. When they ask why you’re doing something a certain way, you have to explain yourself, which can reveal long-held assumptions—and force you to rethink them.

Interns energize a workplace. The best interns are eager to roll up their sleeves and jump in headfirst. Their enthusiasm is infectious and can help unlock even the most stuck teams.

Interns don’t just learn from you, you learn from them. The assumption is that interns will leave your company smarter for it, but I’ve found the learning is definitely two-way. Whether it’s beautiful wall murals, hacked knitting machines, or teaching pasta-making classes, our best interns have given back as much as they’ve been given.

When I see the caliber and diversity of the interns that spent this summer with us, and the creative approaches they took to a challenge as mundane as a light switch, I’m hopeful about the future of design. Thank you, interns, for a Master Class in optimism.

What have you learned from interns?


Photo by Ali Guichard / IDEO

Many people think of business travel as a chore. I see it as an opportunity. Not to generate new work, necessarily (though that’s nice, too), but to exercise my curiosity, think about problems in new ways, and get inspired.

Sometimes that inspiration hits as soon as I step off the plane, like it did when I first flew into Vancouver. Airports are welcome mats for the places we’re visiting, but all too often, they’re pretty unwelcoming. Not so at British Columbia’s hub, where on my walk to customs I was immersed in a wonderful and unexpected introduction to the sights and sounds of the Pacific Northwest. It made me wonder: How might we design the experience of arriving in a place in ways that acclimate and delight the road-weary? That applies to airports, but also to hotels, and even to new modes of travel like Airbnb.

On my first trip to India, I was struck by an unusual practice of the small convenience stores on every street: The shopkeepers never throw anything out. As you venture further into the store, you find layer upon layer of old advertising posters and products in vintage packaging. In the US, the old stock would signal a badly run business, but in Delhi it gave the stores an incredibly rich sense of history. I thought: Could Western retailers increase customer loyalty if they showcased their history in some way?

One final story. Early one morning in Beijing, I noticed a food vendor on the street. She had just finished making breakfast for some nearby construction workers and was stashing her cookware — including a large vat of piping-hot oil — on her moped. It was an elaborate and dangerous process that begged the question: how could better design improve conditions
for the working poor?

Such A-ha! moments are everywhere — even on a business trip — but you have to train your eye to look for them. So, wherever work takes you, make sure to get out of the hotel and watch everyday people living their everyday lives. Even if it’s just for an hour, I guarantee you’ll find more inspiration than you ever would inside a windowless conference room.

What everyday sights have inspired you on your travels?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

linkedin space 3 580px

Project teams and small groups need to easily congregate—and then just as easily wander into private spaces for design iterations, coding sessions, etc. The mix of project rooms, smaller conversational nooks, and individual phone booths makes this possible. Our studio also allows for the high percentage of casual transient spaces needed to let folks easily collaborate.

This is a photo (above) of a corner of our San Francisco studio. The space is meant to enable the fluid nature of creative work at IDEO.

Individual IDEO-ers reserve a new desk space every week—meaning you never know who you’ll be sitting next to. This constant flux makes it easier to get inspired by colleagues in other disciplines. You never know when you’ll be sitting next to me!

At IDEO, we continue to create new spaces and work arrangements that invite inspiration, collaboration, and serendipity. Our spaces are ever-evolving prototypes.

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

The future of the book

September 21, 2010 — 6 Comments

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

Some folks in the New York office of IDEO have been thinking about the future of the book and how it shows up as an experience on tablets. They would love to get your reactions to the ideas.

It is interesting to think how a media morphs as it transitions to a new technology platform. In this case is this really about the ‘book’ or is it something entirely new? There is a conversation going on over at IDEO’s Facebook page.

Local Design

July 31, 2010 — 2 Comments


I don’t generally travel to rural Oxfordshire, the place in England where I grew up, for design inspiration. History, beauty, friends and family – yes, but design – no. That is at least until I discovered Giffords Circus on my trip this summer. Giffords is a family circus that spends the summer months traveling around Oxfordsire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire performing to small crowds in fields behind pubs and other such local landmarks. This is a tradition that has gone on in England for a century or more and to be honest most of these circuses are tired and a little sleazy – not so this one. From the beautiful and vibrant graphics of the program and map that shows the locations of performances; to the rigorous application of the ‘corporate identity’ on every vehicle the visual design of the circus is stunning. Beyond this the performance is delightful; a cross between Cirque de Soleil and vaudeville with inspirational music, amusing plot and loads of humor. The final touches include homemade cakes and drinks at the interval and even the option of a three course meal made from the best local ingredients with the performers at the end of the evening. A UK food magazine describes it as “one of the most enjoyable and memorable restaurants imaginable”.

This delightful experience is owned and delivered by Nell Gifford and her husband Toti (a landscape designer). It shows what can be achieved with the combination of imaginative design, enthusiastic entrepreneurship and talent.What would happen if our local school districts, city councils and health authorities exhibited the same imagination?