The Deans of Design
From the computer mouse to the newest Swiffer, IDEO is the firm behind the scenes
When you're the chief executive officer of one of the planet's most influential design firms, you can't help but notice compelling design-such as the object in which IDEO's Tim Brown and a visitor are sitting this summer morning. Right inside the front door of the two-story lobby at IDEO's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters is a 5-foot-high, open-roofed, Corian-shelled, cylindrical micro-conference room. It's sort of a 21st-century version of a yurt, the sturdy, all-weather tent of the Mongolian nomads. The yurt is not an IDEO design, though. Brown spotted the Steelcase-created prototype at a design show last year and just had to have it. Yet the technoyurt represents a core IDEO design principle: creating something tangible as a launching pad for further exploration and innovation. "It's not talking about what may be; it's actually creating and building it," Brown says. "Something you can walk into. It's that ability to make new ideas tangible that makes design useful."
IDEO is all about experiential approaches. Its designers try to see and sense the world by getting inside the heads of their fellow human consumers. The firm-a dream come true for the concerned parents of liberal arts majors everywhere-employs anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, and sociologists, among other right-brain thinkers, to create, improve, or reimagine all manner of products, services, work spaces, and business systems. "It's a very human-centered process," says Tom Kelley, the firm's general manager and brother of founder David Kelley. "Others approach a problem from the point of view that says, 'We have the smartest people in the world; therefore, we can think this through.' We approach it from the point of view that the answer is out there, hidden in plain sight, so let's go observe human behavior and see where the opportunities are."
To illustrate the principle, Kelley gives the example of working on a project with the SSM DePaul Health Center in St. Louis to revamp its emergency room. One approach the firm could have taken would have been to quiz a bunch of former patients on their experiences. That sort of clinical, sterile approach is not the IDEO way. Instead, the firm went up close and personal. For instance, one IDEO anthropologist pretended to be a patient and managed to videotape his entire emergency room experience. One realization: While the admitting and treatment process might seem logical and orderly to staff, it appears chaotic and confusing to patients. So IDEO created a simple "map" that the hospital staff could give each incoming patient outlining the seven steps of the emergency room experience, starting with the triage nurse. It also recommended cards that each member of the staff could hand out so the patients could keep track of who's who. "They understand that creativity had to be provoked and fed," says Robert Porter, who has twice worked with IDEO, now as head of strategic and business development for SSM Health Care-St. Louis, part of one of the largest Roman Catholic systems in the country. "They understand that you need a messy process to gain consumer insights."