IDEO Vacation pt. 2 : Top Bill-ing
If you've seen David Kelley in interviews and seen his dynamic, almost frantic prosthelitizing about design (which we love, don't get us wrong), you might have some misguided preconceptions about what Bill is like. He's calm. Calm like an ocean with a pristine, glassy surface, but with currents that change the course of ships and the coastlines of continents.
Bill's interest has always been interaction design, from the founding of his first practice, Moggridge Associates to his current work at IDEO. While at Moggridge Associates, he worked on human-computer interaction, and designed a precursor to the modern laptop, the GRiD Compass. When he was looking for a US base of operations, he found that San Francisco offered it all. Proximity to suppliers, easy communication with manufacturers, and a growing design scene -- and the weather wasn't bad either. At the same time, David Kelley, a (Stanford engineering professor) was starting his own product development doings with good success. Even in a city as big as Frisco, it was only a matter of time before they crossed paths. Over the course of a few years, they realized that their goals for design were coincident and simple: making products and experiences where technology responds to the desires of the user, rather than forcing itself into an uncomfortably gizmo-ized, inhuman experience. To this end, David applied his engineering and problem solving understanding, and Bill leveraged his experience with making user-centered experiences. IDEO was born.
15 years later, it is arguably the most successful product design house in the world. Last year, IDEO completed work on products in all spheres of use, including the Carpet Flick, and this Zyliss line with an amazing lawnmower-style salad spinner. They have offices in 4 countries around the world, and 4 stations in the US. Most importantly, as Bill pointed out, they have now expanded themselves beyond changing the world through products. They're now designing the thinking strategies that make businesses run.
The first really interesting point that Bill mentioned about IDEO is its grounding in the idea of what he calls design thinking. In a nutshell, IDEO doesn't sell product designs; Instead, they sell access to a finely honed system of problem solving. This system of design thinking is a number of strategies for brainstorming, team management, production, materials understanding, part and material sourcing, and other facets of commercial product problem solving. So, in the classic product design scenario, Zyliss came to them and said "We want a set of kitchen utensils to compete with company X by reaching high-end user better." IDEO says "Sure" and reaches into their toolbox of problem solving strategies to create a method for solving that particular problem. This is why they tend not to get long-term, evolutionary projects, like a long line of soda bottle re-vamps, or slight updates in paper plate styling and function. Rather, companies come to IDEO to get revolutions. How do you hold a big-gulp in a modern car drink holder? IDEO. How does a diabetic easily self-administer insulin, multiple times, over the course of a day? IDEO. How does Proctor & Gamble tackle carpets, when its entire history is rooted in hard surface cleaning?
These are the kinds of questions that IDEO has been asked, and has answered, over the past 15 years. Yet, even after so much time building up this powerful library of formula for design solutions, they are far from tight lipped. The second major point that Bill pointed out was that IDEO is about teaching its design understanding as much as selling its output. In fact, you can buy a simplified version of this database of techniques with their freely available Method Cards. For only 50 bucks, you can have years of accumulated problem solving power in your desk. Even more exciting is the work that David and Bill are doing with the D school and Engineering department at Stanford University. They are creating the first design program based on the design thinking concept. What differentiates the D school is this: They don't give degrees. The way we see it, it makes sense; if you're going to focus on teaching someone a problem solving method, it follows that they should have some other interest to apply it to. Accordingly, the D School gives a certificate, like a minor, in addition to a student's degree. These students can come from all different disciplines, from engineering to sociology. When they graduate, the hope is that, just as the introduction of the scientific method exponentially increased information acquisition, these newly educated innovators may go on to push the boundaries of their disciplines faster and further than they have yet been pushed. If IDEO's success is any indicator, we should be prepared to see great things from these graduates.
Though our conversation covered everything from supercars to Northern California weather, we did get around to another absolutely crucial point. As we were talking about design and China, Bill said something that really caught me. While other designers and pundits are playing China up as either a menacing threat, or perhaps not a threat at all, he welcomes the rise of design and engineering in the East. For one simple reason: Equality. Once enough countries which are currently obliged to make things for others can take control of their own design and engineering, the world will switch from the sort of new-age colonialism that we see in the huge trade deficits between the US and China. Self control of production like this leads to less international bullying with embargoes and invasion over resources. It's a pretty optimistic vision, and one that Bill is committed to. More evidence of this is his participation in getting the ICSID+IDSA Congress going in the United States in 2007. Of all the seriously design-minded countries, the US has always seemed alarmingly disconnected from the international design world, so the upcoming congress will be a welcome step in a new direction.
All in all, Bill is an incredible guy. With him and David Kelley behind the scenes, programs like the D School, ICSID+IDSA, and anything IDEO does seem like they're fated to greatness. Definitely keep your eyes on these developments. Design thinking is more than just some hyped idea. If it's not already directly affecting the way you work, it may be sooner than you think.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team