Archives For design culture

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If you’re reading this post on LinkedIn, then you already understand the power of communities working together to create new possibilities. But as we head into 2015, it’s worth underscoring the importance of community collaboration.

When Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank, his innovation was not so much the idea of lending small sums of money to poor villagers in Bangladesh; it was the idea of lending to small groups of women who could help each other make the best use of the loans and ensure repayment. The community was the big idea.

Communities have long been the key to building things that an individual or family might find beyond their resources. Think about the barn raising tradition. Communities came together to help farmers build over a few days what may have taken months to do individually. A modern example of barn raising can be found atLocal Motors where automotive enthusiasts come together in micro-factories to design and build off-road vehicles faster, and at a fraction of the price, of conventional manufacturers.

Two years ago, I wrote about the importance of making others successful at IDEO. We have found that for our own brand of design thinking, collaboration is essential. It’s the only way we can tackle the kinds of complex challenges that we think most need solving. At IDEO at least, better together is a fundamental business strategy.

This basic insight — the power of collaboration — led us to create OpenIDEO, our online community that enables anyone to use design thinking to address pressing global issues collaboratively. We have been blown away by the passion and commitment of the community that has participated in more than 25 challenges. And we’ve learned that the idea of community collaboration is especially valuable in three different ways.

  • Better understanding of users. By involving a broader community in the research phase of a challenge, everyone gains a more complete understanding of all the stakeholders and variety of use cases. For example, an OpenIDEO participant from Uganda assembled a team to interview parents and educators in rural villages to get first-hand insights about the most pressing needs for early childhood development.
  • Relevant place to prototype ideas. Rather than designing in a vacuum, working with communities in need adds that magic formula necessary to come up with solutions that directly affect those who will benefit from it. You’ll also have a readymade place to try out and improve your ideas. For example, after realizing the need for safe recreational spaces for women in Istanbul, participants of OpenIDEO’s Women’s Safety challenge tested their idea through a prototype in that community.
  • Built-in motivation to implement the idea. New ideas need lots of prototyping and work before they’re ready for launch. If communities are collaborating to solve their own problems, it’s much more likely that they’ll be motivated to carry the idea forward and to implement the ideas. What’s more, the idea might be picked up by an entirely different group – maybe even in another part of the world – than the one who created it. For example, college students in New York City worked with an NGO in Nepal to develop a new project that helps low-income women support each other in Kathmandu.

If you want to see how some of these ideas are playing out, or contribute to one yourself, check out the latest community-based challenge on OpenIDEO, the transition to renewable energy.

This challenge is relevant to just about everyone on the planet. How can your involvement in this community push the effort to the next level?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

tb_big_ideas_2014Some say the world is divided into humanities people and science people; artists and geeks; intuitive types and analytical types. You’re either one or the other, and our culture, education system, workplaces and news media do their level best to reinforce this divide. But throughout history, it’s been proven over and again that if you want to be truly innovative, reaching across the divide between the sciences and the arts is the starting point for triggering the boldest ideas.

From Leonardo Da Vinci to Frank Gehry, some of our greatest achievers have balanced that territory between art and science, or, as Steve Jobs repeatedly stated, the intersection between technology and liberal arts.

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful new book, The Innovators, in which he charts the 150-year history of the computer revolution. Among one of the many important insights he has about this collection of technical pioneers is that many of them also embraced the arts. The very first of these, Dame Ada Lovelace (1815-52), was passionate about mathematics and poetry (she was the daughter of Lord Byron), and it was these combined passions that led her to see the real potential behind Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the predecessor to the first computer. In letters between Lovelace and Babbage, she explored some of the basic concepts that would drive the development of computers, including the idea that machines could be programmable and that computers could go beyond calculation and act on anything that might be represented symbolically.

Lovelace received a rigorous education in both mathematics and the arts, which was unusual for that time. More than 150 years later, this idea seems more important than ever, if we are to realize the potential of science and technology in the interests of our own and other species.

There are signs that attitudes are shifting. In response to the need for more creativity in engineering, Sir John O’Reilly argued in a recent lecture at the U.K.’s Royal Institution that engineers should embrace the arts. Similarly, John Maeda, formerly the President of the Rhode Island School of Design and now a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, has been arguing that a focus on STEM (science, education, engineering and math) education should expand to STEAM to include the arts.

For me personally, I was considered to be a difficult student in high school because I was equally interested in physics and art. I made the choice to pursue industrial design partly because I saw it as a place where technology and art played together. I remain convinced that many of the most interesting artistic breakthroughs come at the frontiers of new science, and that the most impactful technical breakthroughs occur because they have been elegantly considered, not left to happenstance.

If your passion is science and engineering, do not ignore the arts. Embracing them will equip you with the creative skills that are absolutely vital to great innovation. Equally, if the arts and humanities have captured your imagination, do not ignore the sciences. The sciences are often majestically beautiful in themselves (think of the cosmos or the wonders of genetic code) but they are also the keys that can unlock new artistic possibility.

How will you experiment with your other half, artistic or scientific, in 2015?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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One of the most important choices I made in my career was one I didn’t even realize I was making.

When I graduated from design school, I was pretty sure about what I wanted to do with my life. I was fascinated with industrial design, and was happily imagining spending the rest of my career developing skills and creating products that would have lasting impact. I hoped to emulate my heroes, iconic designers like Dieter RamsEttore Sottsass and Philippe Starck, whose bodies of design work have spanned everything from timeless furniture to spectacular architectural monuments.

While I did stay on a design career track, it followed a path I never anticipated. Rather than diving deep into the single discipline of industrial design, I accidentally discovered the joys of working across disciplines. Thanks to my mentor, the co-founder of IDEO Bill Moggridge, I quickly added other design work to my arsenal: design strategy, user research, interaction design, service design and ultimately, as I took on the role of CEO of IDEO, business design.

The more confident I became in my ability to explore new disciplines and cross boundaries, the more I became intrigued with complex problems, such as designing healthcare or education systems. In fact, I believe these are some of the most compelling creative and business challenges today, and I’m happy with my choice to go wide.

But this is not meant to be an argument in favor of choosing wide over deep. I have many colleagues who took the alternative path and have achieved incredible impact in the world, such as Apple’s Jony Ive or Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa.

Here’s what I’m saying: Although my unplanned career path turned out fine, choosing to go wide versus deep should be made consciously, not accidentally. Each path offers tremendous reward if followed with passion and commitment, but each requires different skills and approaches to be successful.

Going deep requires incredible focus, lifelong commitment to a single cause, a willingness to be patient towards achieving success, and the confidence to follow a path others may not understand or value. Whether it’s as a research scientist, designer, chef or software engineer, committing to a single discipline and pushing it as far as you possibly can holds the potential to make a significant dent on the planet.

Going wide, on the other hand, is about making connections between what you already know and what you’re curious about discovering. It requires systems thinking in order for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It means developing the skills to collaborate for the purpose of learning. It’s about seeing the creative possibilities in breaking down boundaries and describing the world, your organization, the problem in new ways. It probably means having a difficult time describing to your parents what you do.

Taken seriously, though, the interdisciplinary path opens up a host of purposeful challenges that can be approached through the lenses of science, the arts, business or non-profit and, of course, some combination of all of them.

In your career, what choices are you making between going deep or going wide?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

I hardly ever look at résumés. In general, they don’t help me achieve my goal—to discover people who will be a great fit at IDEO.

I get that the résumé is just the first step in the journey, but what a terrible first step it is, especially when you have to read through several thousand of them every year. Just last year, we had about 14,000 candidates applying for jobs at IDEO. You can imagine how tedious it would be to look through that tall stack of 8.5 x 11 black-and-white typed documents. At a certain point, they all start to look the same, and your chances of singling out that special person with unique skills are very slim.

In a job market where creative confidence, collaboration, and storytelling are valued across sectors, it would make sense for your first impression to be a showcase for those qualities. Rather than standard, it should be exceptional.

So, how would I fix the résumé? Here are a few ideas from a design-thinking perspective.

First, I would ask: What are you trying to communicate?

Do you want to merely list standard qualifications, or describe more unique skills? Are you showing off your depth of experience, or a particularly remarkable journey? Do you mean to infer your qualifications by being linked to the companies listed on your résumé, or to show that you’ve developed your own point of view?

Second, I’d add some visual flair.

Your résumé might convey what’s important to you and what strengths you want to emphasize through creative visual puns. IDEO mechanical engineer Jordan Lay impressed us with his engineer’s rendering. (see above)

Perhaps you’d like to feature an illustration of your character, offering insight into who you are as a person and your combination of skills and experiences. Business designer Joe Brown introduced himself to IDEO staff with charming cutout illustrations.

Third, think like a digital native.

In the not-so-distant future—and some might argue, right now—the résumé will likely be digital, not even printable on paper. That allows video and animation to play a role in telling your story. Take a look at this clever video created by IDEO systems designer Deirdre Cerminaro, when she applied for a job. It showcases her personality, imagination, as well as her video-producing chops.

Whichever creative approach you take, remember that your résumé is a design challenge and that you must think about the user. While it might pay to be visually compelling, it’s just as important to be clear and legible.

It’s a tall order, but making the effort to get your résumé right will make you stand out from the pack of job seekers. So go ahead and challenge yourself to put your best foot forward.

Images courtesy of IDEO / Jordan Lay + Joe Brown

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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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?