Daydreaming has a bad reputation. Just think of any classroom scene on TV where a teacher is chiding a child for staring out the window during class. Traditionally, those kids have been thought of as slackers, but, according to a recent report on education and entrepreneurship for the UK parliament co-authored by my friend, Professor Andy Penaluna, they’re exhibiting the behavior of innovators. They’re engaging in “relaxed attention.”

During relaxed attention, a problem or challenge is taking up space in your brain, but it isn’t on the front burner. Relaxed attention lies somewhere between meditation, where you completely clear your mind, and the laser-like focus you apply when tackling a tough math problem. Our brains can make cognitive leaps when we’re not completely obsessed with a challenge, which is why good ideas sometimes come to us when we’re in the shower or talking a walk or on a long drive.

Unfortunately, in both the UK and US education systems, since the late 1980s, the trend has been away from unstructured play and time studying the arts—both prime times for switching gears into relaxed cognition—and toward more structured, standardized National Curriculums. According to the report, this focus on finding the single right answer for the test instead of exploring many alternate solutions has resulted in “a significant decline in creative thinking scores in US schools. Using the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), and a sample of 272,599 pupils (kindergarten to fourth grade), evidence suggests that the decline is steady and persistent [affecting] teachers’ and pupils’ ability to think creatively, imaginatively and flexibly.”

While we can’t turn our entire education system around overnight, there are a few things you and your school-age children can do to enhance your creative capacity through engaging relaxed attention:


+ Walk away from the problem, literally. As the philosopher-poet Friedrich Nietsche once said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Maybe it’s the increased blood flow from exercising or the emotional distance gained by walking away from a problem, whatever it is, walking works.

Carry a notebook with you at all times, even by your bedside. You never know when good ideas will come. Having something nearby to jot them down ensures they won’t be forgotten along the way.

Turn your “snooze button” into a “muse button.” Use those few minutes of half-consciousness every morning to let your mind wander over problems you’ve been wrestling with during waking hours. With some practice, you’ll start discovering fresh insights before your first cup of coffee.

When have you experienced the benefits of daydreaming?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


drawing is worth a thousand words. That’s my version of the age-old adage. When it comes to expressing the functional and emotional merits of a new idea, I firmly believe you have to make it visual.

All children draw. Then, somewhere in the course of becoming logical adults, we unlearn this elemental skill. As Bob McKim, founder of Stanford’s product design program, and “lateral thinking” pioneer Edward de Bono have found, when you use drawing to express an idea instead of words or numbers, you engage a different part of the brain. To draw an idea accurately, certain decisions must be made that even the most precise language can overlook. The result of making that series of small decisions? You’re able to get to novel solutions more quickly.

Here’s an example of how drawing helped us refine a business strategy for a client: Many years ago, when online banking was still in its infancy, a start-up called Juniper Financial asked IDEO if we thought banks still needed buildings, vaults, and tellers. The team wanted to understand how people thought about money. But that’s harder than it sounds. You can observe customers paying bills or withdrawing cash, but it’s tough to scan their brains while they’re at it.

Instead, the team asked people to draw their money. One woman penned little Monopoly-style houses that represented her family, 401(k), and rental properties. The team dubbed her “The Pathfinder” since she was focused on long-term security.

Another woman drew a pile of money and a pile of things. “I get money and I buy stuff,” she told the team. She became “The Onlooker” who focused on day-to-day finances instead of long-term goals.

Talking about money can be emotionally difficult, but asking people to draw their relationship to money unlocked important insights that helped Juniper refine its target market and build a more effective service.

Visual thinking isn’t limited to illustrations, either. It can take many forms. Mind maps, two-by-two matrices, and other visual frameworks can help explore and describe ideas in valuable ways that require little more than a few straight lines and some imagination.

So, next time you reach an impasse, pull out a sketchpad or saddle up to a white board and quiet that inner voice that says you can’t draw. You may end up seeing your way through.

When has visualizing your idea instead of talking about it resulted in a better solution?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

The 7 Values That Drive IDEO

January 21, 2014 — 1 Comment


Clients often ask me how we built IDEO’s creative culture. For 20 years, I did a lot of hand-waving and gave vague answers. Then, about a year ago, we decided we really should put our values in writing. The result was a slim hardcover called The Little Book of IDEO.

In it, we distilled what makes our workplace tick into 7 human-centered axioms. From “Be Optimistic” to “Talk Less, Do More,” they’re the ties that bind us as a culture.

I spell out all 7 values in the slideshow below, which also lives on SlideShare’s #CultureCode blog, alongside other inspiring companies like Netflix, Zappos, and Fab. Read more about our value system on LinkedIn here and here.

If you’re left wanting a longer peek behind the IDEO curtain, our friends at the Harvard Business Review just published the results of a few months of in-the-field research in an article called “IDEO’s Culture of Helping.” The authors Teresa Amabile, Colin M. Fisher, and Julianna Pillemer clearly took one of our values—“Make Others Successful”—to heart by sharing with the world and, for that, we’re very thankful.

What workplace values inspire you?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)



Some think tenacity is the secret to following through on New Year’s resolutions. I think it’s more about asking the right questions and having the confidence to act on them.

I talked with my friend Don Norman recently about the value of asking interesting questions—a central tenant of design thinking. Don is a fascinating guy. A former Apple exec, academic, and author of The Design of Everyday Things, his latest adventure is teaching an online course at Udacity based on key concepts from his book.

The two of us sat down at IDEO to discuss how design thinking not only makes you better at design, but also gives you a set of problem-solving tools to help improve everything in your life, from advancing your career to throwing a great dinner party. Below, you’ll find a video of our conversation, which is also part of Don’s “Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things” class.

Whatever you’ve resolved to do this year—exercise more, learn a language, change jobs—I hope you’ll take my advice on how to start designing your life to create real, lasting, and meaningful change in 2014.

What questions are you asking yourself in the New Year?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


Making drones less dreadful is #1 on my redesigns of 2014 list

This time of year, everyone seems to be making a list. Lists of resolutions. Lists predicting what’s to come. I’ve decided to focus on innovations that could benefit from a human-centered redesign. A few of these inventions are already commonplace, some live at the fringes, and one barely exists, but all have the potential to revolutionize our lives—for better or worse—depending on how they’re designed.

1. Drones

The media has been abuzz with stories of drones being used for peaceful purposes. Earlier this month, Amazon used one to deliver a package to a customer within 30 minutes. While CEO Jeff Bezos admits the experimental Amazon Prime Air service is four to five years away from rollout, the stunt provoked much chatter about the ground-breaking potential of unmanned aerial devices.

But drones still suffer from a major image problem. They’re widely perceived to be weapons of war and invaders of privacy. And their looks—creepy, insect-like—don’t help matters. If drones are to be accepted by the masses, whether to deliver packages to suburban backyards or life-saving medical supplies to remote African villages, they’ll need to start blending into civilian life by looking and acting a whole lot friendlier.

It sounds like an oxymoron now, but how might we make “delightful drones” a reality in 2014?

2. Big Data

Today’s big-data apps are designed to benefit companies and governments, not individuals. This unbalanced stance risks alienating the very source of the data—people.

As more companies profit from tracking our movements, behaviors, and preferences, why should we continue to cooperate? Why should our health care providers or banks know things about us that we don’t know?

What if we took a human-centered approach and designed transparent data platforms that created value for companies and consumers alike? What if consumers could monetize their own data?

3. The Mobile Experience

Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone and its panoply of apps. But instead of simplifying my life, I find myself spending more and more time managing my mobile existence.

For instance, to effectively use my fitness app, I have to input my food intake, weigh myself regularly, recharge the pedometer, and then review and make sense of the data. Between that and the constant updates, subscription renewals, and password management, the cognitive load is burning more calories than my workouts.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and Uber is one of them. The design team clearly thought through the entire experience, from the great on-screen interface, to how you request a car, to the year-end summary delivered just in time for tax season. Uber doesn’t just get me from here to there, it fits into the context of my life and makes minimal demands.

Inspired by experiences like Uber, how might designers create apps that seamlessly integrate into our everyday lives?

4. 3D Printing

I’m excited by 3D printing’s potential to revolutionize how, when, and where we make things. Over the coming year, we’ll see a succession of new technologies that extend the range of materials, reduce the cost of manufacturing, and increase the resolution of the parts we can make.

But while companies like MakerBot and Shapeways make it easier to jump in and learn how to “print” new stuff, today’s computer-aided design tools are still too complex for casual users.

In 2014, I want to see tools that make designing in 3D as easy and intuitive as GarageBandmade composing music when it was first released in 2004.

How might we create simple, engaging, creative tools that will shape a new wave of democratized design?

5. Self-Driving Vehicles

Although you don’t see self-driving cars on the lot yet, I worry that this emergent technology is compromised, both by both non-human-centered design and non-human-centered regulation. I’ve tried some of the latest driving-aid technologies—lane following, automatic cruise control—and while impressive, they can act in unexpected ways and make the driving experience more stressful.

Instead of viewing self-driving cars as an evolutionary innovation, it might make more sense to think of them as a totally new form of transportation, so we’re forced to design the experience from scratch. Perhaps at the start of a journey, the passenger could be prepared for occasions when they’ll need to take over, just as travelers are prepped by flight attendants on planes.

Maybe, in lieu of a regular dashboard, an onboard robot co-pilot could brief us throughout the trip, handing over the reins to us humans only when necessary. And, so we feel protected no matter who’s behind the wheel, what if insurance companies allowed us to add our android chauffeurs to our auto policies?

How might we ensure that the auto industry takes a human-centered approach in all aspects of vehicle design in the coming year?

I’m sure we’ll be reading a lot more about these technologies in 2014. My hope is that by refining their design according to human needs, they will become indispensable—changing our lives for the better for decades to come.

Best wishes for a happy, thoughtfully designed New Year!

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)