Engineering Inspiration

Article excerpt

Byline: Josh Hyatt

Ideo's David Kelley wants to redesign the way you think.

There was a time when it looked as though David Kelley's design career would be summed up in two words: LAVATORY OCCUPIED.

Kelley, then a fresh grad from Carnegie Mellon, was working for aviation giant Boeing when he helped design the bathroom sign that went into 747s. "I spent six months on that," recalls Kelley, now 59. "I had a narrow role. I wanted the ability to come up with solutions that were new to the world and to see them have an impact."

Kelley, now chairman of Ideo, one of the country's best-known design firms, has traveled a long way toward that goal, designing scores of wildly successful products. Even before cofounding Ideo, he helped create the first computer mouse for Apple. (The prototype was crafted using the roller ball from a deodorant dispenser and a butter dish.) Ideo also designed the first portable defibrillator and collaborated with Ford on remaking the "driver experience" for some of its 2010 vehicles. The company is responsible for such contemporary creations as the Palm V handheld organizer and the stand-up toothpaste tube. Its customers include Samsung, the Mayo Clinic, and HBO.

But Kelley has moved the company well beyond designing beautiful things you can hold in your hand. As he explains it, Ideo's current mindset is less about product design than it is about, well, fostering new mindsets. He's positioned Ideo as a kind of innovation consultant, training clients to think as designers do when they're trying to conjure new lines of business or to improve existing ones. "Ideo is at the forefront of promoting what designers have been pushing companies to do, which is to make design a strategic element of the business," says Marco Perry, a founding principal at Pensa LLC, a boutique design firm in Brooklyn. "The same methods that we use to invent products, we can use to come up with business strategy."

The Ideo approach is closer to anthropological fieldwork than it is to market research. Rather than poring over spreadsheets or quizzing focus groups, Ideo dispatches multidisciplinary teams to immerse themselves in the experience users are having. While doing research for Pepsi, Ideo employees spent hours watching people use vending machines, leading them to wonder about the size of the selection buttons, among other things. …