Archives For designing for impact


We say we practice human-centered design at IDEO, but what does that really mean? Our friends at +Acumen and have designed a free online course to answer that question. Open to anyone anywhere in the world—no prior design experience needed— the class is called “Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation.” The goal is to teach budding social entrepreneurs how to develop solutions for those who live in such dire circumstances, they may not know where their next meal will come from.

The team-based, 7-week curriculum was first offered last summer and brought together over 13,000 people from 134 countries. Many inspiring ideas came out of the course, but one in particular caught my attention.

Two groups of staff members from Jacaranda Health in Kenya, which is dedicated to providing affordable, high-quality healthcare to low-income women in East Africa, looked at “barriers to good nutrition” for pregnant women. To better understand the problem, they interviewed people all along the healthy eating chain—pregnant women, farmers, community members, cooks, and food buyers—distilled the information, then brainstormed possible solutions. Then they built prototypes and showed them to patients in their maternity clinic for feedback.

What’s interesting is that even thought the two groups were looking at the same problem—“improve pregnant women’s nutrition”—they came up with very different solutions. One group thought better education was the answer, so they came up with healthy eating do’s and don’ts that they published in a local newspaper and posted in the clinic’s waiting room. The other group felt pregnant women know what to eat, they just don’t have the right resources, so they created a burlap-sack kitchen garden that would grow iron-rich greens in their homes.

Jacarada Health’s commitment to taking a human-centered approach to solving their communities’ maternal-health challenges is impressive and has caught the attention of the Gates Foundation, Heath Enterprise Fund, and others. In about the time it takes to get a passport, you, too, can be introduced to a whole new way to approach the world’s toughest challenges.

Specifically, the social-innovation course will:

  • Teach you human-centered design processes and methods
  • Help you identify patterns and opportunities for concept development
  • Inspire you to approach challenges differently and experience how human-centered design can add a new perspective to your own work
  • Give you hands-on experience speaking to, prototyping for, and testing solutions with potential users.

This year’s registration deadline—March 30—is fast approaching. Time to design a better, more human future together. Sign up now.


What challenges will you tackle with your newly acquired design-thinking skills?


(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

3 Must-Watch TED Talks

March 14, 2014 — 2 Comments


For three decades, three big red letters have signified an annual forum for the creative and forward thinking to share groundbreaking ideas. From revealing the first Apple Mac in 1984 to Jamie Oliver’s heartfelt plea for a Food Revolution in 2010, TED has been one of the best platforms in the world for making complex ideas completely gettable and easily sharable.

It’s hard to believe that for most of its history TED conferences were only accessible to an elite audience with significant resources. Lucky for us, seven years ago, curator Chris Anderson made these sessions available online to watch and download for free. Today, TED Talks are memes that instantly spread to millions across the world.

I humbly count myself among those lucky enough not to just attend TED conferences, but also to speak at them occasionally. I look forward to next week’s special gathering in Vancouver, B.C., called TED: The Next Chapter. It marks the conference’s 30 anniversary. Like any milestone, it’s a good chance to reflect on what’s come before. In the spirit of the TED Talk’s signature brevity, here are three of my favorites who will be part of this year’s “All-Star Sessions.”

Sir Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity” – There’s a reason why this author, educator, and creativity expert’s talk is the most watched TED talk ever (over 25 million views). Sir Ken argues for a significant rethinking of education leadership from “command and control” to “climate control” in order to create environments that nurture kids’ creativity. It’s been a huge boon to those of us interested in unlocking the creative confidence of the next generation.

John Maeda, “How Art, Technology, and Design Inform Creative Leaders – A programmer, artist, and former president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Maeda is passionate about putting the “A” (Art) into “STEM” education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This talk was taped when he was at RISD’s helm, trying to bring technology to the storied, handcraft-focused school.

Stewart Brand, “The Dawn of De-Extinction. Are You Ready? – The founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and Long Now Foundation, Brand argues for “de-extincting,” or bringing back previously extinct species like the carrier pigeon. Whether you’re horrified or indifferent, the idea that our current understanding of science may be deep enough to reverse environmental damage and return to a balanced eco-system is a paradigm shift that utterly transforms our legacy to future generations.

And if you’re new to TED and looking for an overview, the organizers have put together thisplaylist, which features 17 of their favorite talks over the past 30 years.

What are your favorite TED Talks and why?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

If You Build It…

March 7, 2014 — Leave a comment


Blocks. Legos. Forts. Kids are natural builders. But most schools don’t offer such hands-on learning. They offer sitting at a desk and listening quietly. That’s a shame, because there’s no better way to learn than by doing. Designer-activist Emily Pilloton gets this idea in a big way.

The founder of Project H, Emily’s dedicated her life to improving K-12 education in America through rigorous training in design thinking, vocational skills, and applied arts and sciences. (The “H” stands for the values at the core of her work: “hearts, hands, and hammers.”) Recently, Emily spoke to me about the two inspirational programs she’s running at Realm Charter School in Berkeley, CA: Camp H and Studio H. Camp H teaches young girls ages 9-12 hands-on design, woodworking, fabrication, and welding skills, while Studio H is a design and build class for 8- to 11-grade students that Emily originally co-founded with Matthew Miller in Bertie, NC. Where literalists see band saws and blow torches, visionaries like Emily and Matthew see these tools’ potential to strengthen kids’ math, design, and visual and abstract thinking skills—and boost their creative confidence.

But don’t just take my word for it. The best way to appreciate Studio H’s potential to transform young minds is to watch the recently released documentary, “If You Build It,” by Patrick Creadon, Christine O’Malley, and Neil Baer. This wonderful movie follows 13 Studio H students in Bertie, NC. Tasked with designing and building a farmers market for their community, “If You Build It” demonstrates how design can give meaning to our lives and shows just how difficult making meaningful change can be. Thankfully—spoiler alert!—their sheer optimism and determination surmounts bureaucratic obstructions and construction challenges.

I left the movie more convinced than ever that a thinking-with-your-hands approach to education provides students with the critical tools they need to build solid futures.

What other education experiments inspire you?

Photo courtesy of “If You Build It.”

(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)



At IDEO, we often start brainstorms with the phrase, “How Might We” (HMW, for short). We use these three words because they help frame a problem in an open-ended, optimistic, and collaborative way. “How” assumes there are solutions out there. “Might” says some of the ideas may work, others won’t—either way, it’s OK. And “We” says we’re going to solve the problem together by building on each other’s ideas. (I write more about this powerful phrase in my book, Change By Design.)

This is the first of several such HMW posts I’ll be posting over the coming months. The intent is to provoke conversation about some of the big global challenges we face and reframe them as creative opportunities.

The inspiration for this post was a recent discussion I moderated on “The Rise of Megacities” for the World Economic Forum. A megacity is defined as having over ten million people. One panelist informed us that as cities increase their gross domestic product, the average wellness of their inhabitants declines. At first, this seems counterintuitive. While city dwellers are undoubtedly earning more than they would in their rural homelands, dense living conditions, poor sanitation, and lax policing mean they’re also exposed to terrible diseases and increased crime. Over time, these things lead to increased income inequality. A small portion of the population does disproportionately better both economically and physiologically, while the majority stays locked in poverty with significantly shorter life expectancies. Social instability and violence quickly follow.

Another insight from the session: in many megacities, the lowest paid workers—drivers, maids, etc.—commute up to six hours a day. This has terrible impact on quality of life. Thankfully, some Latin American cities are beginning to address this issue. For instance, one of Rio De Janeiro’s most notorious favelas, Complexo do Alemão, has a sophisticated cable-car system that speeds 30,000 passengers a day to work in the city center. Each resident gets one return ride per day for free. Reducing commuting times means residents have more time to spend with their families, on education, or even second jobs.

Our thought-provoking discussion got me thinking in HMWs:

How might we redesign cities to increase the wealth and health of the majority of inhabitants?

How might we use open spaces in cities to promote wellness?

How might we reduce the amount of surface area currently dedicated to cars (now around 30%)?

How might we design new services to help city dwellers achieve sustainable livelihoods?

How mights we rethink zoning rules and exploit emerging digital-manufacturing technologies to bring work closer to where people live?

Data shows that megacities, in general, are a good idea. They reduce carbon emissions, generate wealth, and increase productivity and innovation. One of the greatest design challenges of the 21st century will be ensuring everyone benefits equally from these cities’ explosive growth—instead of some being unfairly exploited by it.

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

Photo: CC Image courtesy of Daniel Julie on FlickrPhoto.