Archives For design thinking


Typically, the soundtrack of Fourth of July is the deafening boom of fireworks. You can barely hear yourself think, let alone have meaningful conversations with family and friends. This year, why not try something different and hone your creative listening skills in the time it takes to fire up a grill?

IDEO’s New York studio recently put together a short “Creative Listening” course in the form of a podcast for the Aspen Ideas Festival. Designed to help conference goers maximize their experience, the four bite-sized segments can help anyone develop better creative listening habits in 30 minutes. Here are a few things you’ll learn:

How to utilize your intuition: Sometimes too much information is just that. It can be overwhelming and logic can only get you so far. That’s when you need to trust your gut and ask, “What’s really important here?” “What’s going on behind the surface, the unsaid versus the said?”

How to hone your interpretation skills: Industry jargon and wordy explanations often mask the true value of something. Learning how to distill a message down to its essence, into simple, understandable language isn’t “dumbing it down,” it’s giving it wings.

How to find inspiration in unexpected places: Looking outside your normal, go-to sources can be a great creativity boost. For instance, one of our teams was working on new membership program for a credit card company. Instead of looking at the competition, they spent time with a rabbi who encouraged people thinking about changing religions to experience different types of synagogues to find the right “fit.” That extreme, analogous experience helped the team turn the corner.

And finally, learn how to amp up your curiosity: Curiosity pushes us beyond what we know and challenges us to look at long-held beliefs in a new light. Staying curious—always asking “Why?” like an earnest preschooler—is a critical muscle that needs to be continuously flexed if you want to have new, game-changing ideas.

Best of all, the course is free to download on iTunes.

Creative listening is a great tool to help you solve tough problems at work. But this holiday weekend, you might want to apply what you learn to tackle a more pressing challenge: keeping everyone happy on vacation.

Happy Fourth!


What’s the most surprising thing you learned when you listened creatively?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


Are you “vacation deprived”? According to a 2013 study by, Americans only used 10 of their 14 annual vacation days. That’s twice as many unused days off as in 2012. While the restorative powers of a good, long vacation shouldn’t be ignored, there’s also something to be said about creating mini-getaways within the workplace to help people quickly reset and recharge.

Intuitively, we all know how much our environments affect our moods and behaviors. Our offices can either be numbing or energizing; encourage rigid manners or enhance creativity.At IDEO, we continually experiment with mood-altering environments.

In a few of our locations, you’ll find picnic tables, which spark memories of summer vacations and encourage friendly, casual conversations between colleagues. In our Chicago studio, there’s a cozy, under-the-stairwell fort some of our interns constructed. You need to crawl into it on your hands and knees, like a child. And at our Palo Alto location, an old-fashioned tree house was built one summer weekend, again, by some creative interns. As you climb up the ladder and perch amid the sturdy branches and rustling leaves, you soon find yourself next to some unexpected office mates, namely, bugs and birds.

The nice thing is that all these in-office escapes were easy to do and relatively inexpensive, much like a spontaneous weekend road trip. To be fair, none of them truly solve “vacation deprivation.” To my knowledge, only an actual vacation can cure that. But they do provide quick, midday pick-me-ups and that rare workplace commodity: free headspace.

Where do you go to temporarily disconnect during the workday?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


I just had one of those serendipitous moments on a trip back from London to San Francisco (see my recent post). Instead of working, I took the chance to catch up on some recent movies. Unexpectedly two of them ended up offering some powerful lessons about creativity.


The first was the The LEGO Movie. As several of my fellow IDEO’ers had already mentioned to me, it does a wonderful job of underscoring the importance of improvisation and play. Playing by the rules and following instructions achieves predictable results. They might be high quality (as is the case with many of the LEGO kits) but there is little creativity. Ignore the instructions and build your own stuff is the main message.  I love the way LEGO as a company challenges its own previous orthodoxy with this story. Perhaps that willingness to challenge and reinvent is what makes LEGO a trully great company.


There is also another lesson for the aspiring creative leader; the danger of group conformity. Teams can be powerful things but when everyone agrees and no one stands out then, again, creativity suffers. The Lego Movie shows quite beautifully how bringing the right team of creative individuals together with the permission to challenge the status quo can achieve more interesting results. This is a movie that creative leaders should check out.


Tim’s Vermeer is an astounding documentary that challenges our assumptions about the relationship between art and technology. Made by Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, it tells the story of inventor and entrepreneur Tim Jenison’s quest to paint a perfect Vermeer picture. 17th Century painter Johannes Vermeer is famous for creating visually stunning, intricately detailed paintings that look real enough to be still frames from a movie. Inspired by David Hockney’s book on how historical artists used optical devices, Jenison set out to discover how Vermeer made his paintings and then recreate one himself. I won’t describe the story here but instead encourage you to watch the film. What the story challenges however, is our received wisdom about the role science and technology plays in artistic breakthroughs. Our culture has determined that somehow art is a wholly human act and that is transcends technology or science. We are educated to see them as two distinct worlds. Yet Jenison’s story shows how art can be the result of technology and that artistic innovation can rely on technological innovation. Just as Steve Jobs stated that he was interested in combining technology and liberal arts to create great products, so Vermeer may have used technology to create some of our most treasured paintings. What this implies is that we need to put more effort in bringing the worlds of art and science together in order to achieve our true human potential. We need to ensure that we educate our kids in the sciences and the arts, rather than encourage them to select one or the other.


What movies have you seen that provide lessons in creative leadership?


Design thinking doesn’t just apply to creating memorable products, services, or experiences; it can also help you land a job you love. Just ask my colleagues Duane Bray and Lauren Wallins who, along with a global HR team, help recruit, support, and grow IDEO’s incredible talent pool.

I spoke with them recently about what advice they’d give to the thousands of applicants whose resumes we’re privileged to receive each year. I believe Duane and Lauren’s human-centered advice transcends our company and can be applied to any job seekers trying to launch successful creative careers.

Here’s what they had to say about getting hired by design:

Be empathic. There are real people reviewing each resume and fielding calls from eager candidates. Being proactive is good, but being pushy or aggressive can hurt your chances. Be as polite, professional, and respectful to the front-line HR person as you would be to a future boss.

Think outside the resume. When applying for creative jobs, your resume and cover letter count for less than half of your application. Besides taking the time to put together a solid visual portfolio of your work, ask: What would you do if there weren’t things like resumes and cover letters? How would you introduce yourself and your capabilities? An iPad app you designed? A video montage of your work? As we’re fond of saying here at IDEO: “Ask forgiveness, not permission.”

Tell a good story. Resumes are neatly ordered, but we all know life is messy. Few of us easily sail from success to success—especially in creative fields where failure is part of the process. What’s the dramatic arc of your work life so far? What are you passionate about? What outside pursuits fuel you? When did you fail and how did you recover? Telling a clear, compelling life story—in plain English, without loads of buzzwords—helps humanize your accomplishments and makes them more memorable.

Be targeted. Nothing raises HR eyebrows more than when someone applies to multiple positions simultaneously. While being a generalist can be a good thing sometimes, it’s unlikely you’re equally good at being a graphic designer and an engineer and a receptionist. Do homework on the company you’re interested in and be honest about your strengths and possible fit. The latter approach shows confidence, while the former seems desperate.

Be yourself. Are you a naturally collaborative person who likes to riff on other people’s ideas? Do you think more clearly when you’re in jeans and sneakers? Then why apply to a work at a company with a strict hierarchy, cubicles, and a dress code? It might seem okay for now, but soon both you and your employer will be frustrated by the mismatch. A bit of upfront soul searching and some research into the goals and culture of your potential company will save you lots of time—and career heartache—in the future.

Happy job hunting!


What’s the best advice you’ve given—or received—about landing a creative job?


(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


If you’re a busy professional like me, chances are your calendar looks a lot like a Tetris board. Every minute of every day is accounted for. Some hyper-organization is necessary, of course. How else would business get done? But on a recent trip to Chicago, my colleague Aaron Ferber reminded me of the importance of leaving room in one’s personal and work life for serendipity. He shared the following story with the IDEO Chicago studio. It resonated with his fellow designers and me and I thought my LinkedIn readers would enjoy it, too. Here’s what Aaron had to say:

“I’m the vacation planner in my family. My organizational approach is simple: plan every day, but not a single minute. I do enough research so we go to interesting places, but not so much that there’s no time left for the unexpected, because those chance moments are sometimes the most delightful and memorable.

I came across a term a few years ago that perfectly encapsulates my approach to vacation planning: ‘engineered serendipity.’ The notion that you could intentionally design your life to encounter surprises struck a chord with me and reminded me of a trip my wife and I once took to Honduras.

We’d just finished a short stint volunteering at an orphanage and were back in the city of La Ceiba, about to catch our flight home. Before leaving, however, we wanted to buy a hammock as a souvenir. We’d seen lots of beautiful, handmade hammocks for sale by local craftsman during our stay, but our last day in Honduras happened to be a holiday, and all the street vendors were closed. The only place that was open was the mall. The stores there had a few hammocks, but they were mass manufactured, not made by hand, and were much more expensive. Disappointed and running out of time, we gave up and hopped into a cab.

On a whim, I mentioned to the driver that we were looking for a hammock, did he know where we could get one? He paused, thought for a bit, then slowly nodded his head. ‘Si,’ he said, and threw the car in drive without further explanation.

After some time, we pulled up in front of a large, cinder block building on the outskirts of town. It didn’t have many windows, just a single door on the side. The driver slammed the car in park and hopped out without saying a word. My wife and I sat in the back and exchanged worried glances. As our driver walked up to a group of uniformed guys standing outside the building, it dawned on us: the men were police officers and the building was a jail.

After a few very long minutes, the driver returned. He told us they had a hammock for sale. My wife and I looked warily at each other. Was this a scam? Were we going to be shaken down for a bribe? Or should we trust him? Desperate, and more than a bit curious, we got out of the cab.

An officer told us to empty our pockets before entering the building. Handing over our bags and wallets (!), we stepped into the jail, which was basically one giant room surrounded by bars. Dozens of guys were milling around, working out, and playing cards. Spotting visitors, they turned and stared.

The officer yelled at one of the inmates. The prisoner grabbed something, hopped off his bunk, and walked over to us…hammock in hand.

We stood, mouths open, as he showed off his masterpiece. Every bit the salesman, he talked about the quality of the construction, the colorful patterns, and the tassels that ran along each side. The hammock was beautiful, exactly what we wanted. His asking price was higher than we wanted, ‘But’ I said, trying to justify the purchase to my wife, ‘this hammock comes with a story!’ After some haggling, we agreed on a price. The prisoner carefully folded the hammock until it was small enough to fit through the bars. We passed a stack of cash back through the bars and thanked him.

Stunned, delighted, and inspired—with a beautiful, new hammock to boot!—we climbed back into the cab and sped to the airport.

So my question to you is this: How might you engineer some serendipity into your next vacation or into your day today? This could be a simple as taking a new route on your commute to work or asking someone on the street for directions instead of relying on Google Maps.

Who knows, you could find nothing.

But maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a hammock.”

What happened the last time you opened yourself up to serendipity?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)