Design and innovation firm, IDEO has offices in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, London, Munich with 350 staff worldwide.

In Melbourne recently to address an international business forum organised by The Design Foundation, Webster took time out for this interview with Curve editor Belinda Stening.

How do you establish your client relationships?

Our clients trust us as people. We empathise and listen to our clients right from the beginning. Listening is the key.

For a while – as part of our evolution – we started to believe our own hype a little too much, by talking about our process as a sacred thing.

Instead of listening to clients as much as we should have, we went in and said ‘Let me tell you about IDEO, let me tell you about the IDEO process, here’s what you’ve got to do’. That’s a big turn off. Fortunately we have had to evolve beyond that.

It was interesting last year when we got the cover story in Business Week magazine. We made a decision as a company to put our process in there and make it available to everyone.

Essentially we were saying, ‘It’s not about the process. The more people that do this process the better, but our differentiator is the people at IDEO and the way that we can enable your company’.

I have met a couple of clients who have been burnt by designers or who are cynical about design.

I think what helps us is that we are not too ‘fabulous’. We are not too trendy. We are just normal people. We are not painfully fashionable and affected. We work with a broad range of clients from start-ups to established brands.

How do you match staff with clients and projects?

We do our best to assemble the right team for each project we have. If this means bringing someone from our Munich office to work in San Francisco then we’ll do it. We do get a lot of staff moving around, but some staff really want to focus on one domain.

We have eight practices that focus on different segments of the client world – for example, consumer experience design, smart space, health, transformation, zero twenty (design for children), service design... emerging enterprises and software experiences.

These permeate throughout the company. They are not location specific but there are clusters of people who choose to have an emphasis on one of these areas and tend to ‘serially date’ clients in those fields.

Some want to grow deep domain expertise and others like the variety so they’ll go from a packaging project, to a health project for example and mix it up that way.

Then we have, for some of our big client relationships like P&G and Pepsi, a person who is the one point of contact for that relationship, a relationship manager to make sure they feel they are being taken care of.

How do you create the right creative space for your staff?

We make our office locations stimulating and interesting.

The office in San Francisco is open plan with shared tables in the middle. There are some small rooms for when people need to go and work quietly on something intense. The office is on an old pier built from rustic looking timber. So the look is not perfect and minimalist, but raw and real... real and true.

We have designers, architects, engineers, and specifically a materials engineer and a sustainability expert on staff. Our materials engineer speaks in a language we can all understand and she has created a material wall that allows everyone in the group to touch and feel a range of materials.

How do you think IDEO became so successful?

There are a couple of factors – one thing is that from the beginning IDEO has been all about collaboration. IDEO could easily have been just another design company that follows the ‘maestro’ model, where you have a founder and it’s all about the cult of their personality.

The founders of IDEO were all very keen for that not to be the case. Design in IDEO has always been about the group and has been a collaborative activity.

It’s definitely been a ‘we’ thing rather than an individual thing. I think that’s been important in terms of enabling us to attract the best talent and to keep the best talent. So that’s one key thing.

Another reason is that, we’ve got a low boredom thresh-hold as a group of people. Great designers have borderline OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), I think most also have borderline ADD. So we are constantly provoking ourselves to take design to new places. Culturally we are definitely about – ‘ask for forgiveness rather than permission’.

So if you want to hire in an MBA and start manifesting a design skill set at the business strategy level, you get to do that at IDEO and to see what happens. We are constantly experimenting with new domains and that keeps us fresh.

I think some of it is good fortune as well. It certainly helps that IDEO was in the Silicon Valley and didn’t get burnt too badly in the old dot com crash... because we had diversified.

An awful lot of other companies at that time had more work than you knew what to do with, in dot com start-ups, and some of the other design companies in the area just started focusing on that.

But IDEO kept the client mix healthy and we kept our designers interested. We had clients in the health industry, big brands and furniture work. So that meant when the dot coms folded we were nicely hedged and had a balanced business as well.

Can you explain how the IDEO process works?

We design experiences not just products. The way we engage with design challenges is something that our clients are finding valuable at the most macro level.

It’s a way of thinking and a set of values that allows businesses to engage with very complicated, messy ambiguous situations and helps them to figure out what to do next.

For a long time we were in the product design business. We always had a human centred approach. As we started to design an increasing number of products with embedded intelligence it became clear that the thing to design was the time-based experience rather than the object.

We recognised the difference between engineers being from Mars and designers from Venus and very consciously hired and worked at a culture to reconcile those differences.

To design experiences properly you have to design services and environments as well as products.

An increasing amount of our work now is strategic. Clients often ask us, ‘what is the future of our product’ or, ‘what is the future of the workplace and what should we do about it?’ Often the most valuable design deliverable in these cases is a structure or language to help think clearly, build consensus and prioritise.

In response to ‘what’s the future of the workplace?’ we created Dilbert’s cubicle. The ideas were pretty out there of course, but we’ve seen a lot of similar ideas actualised  in our work for Steelcase.

We do a lot of work with the health care industry in the US. It’s satisfying to come at projects in this area with a human centred approach, because often there are systems in place that make sense and are efficient from the caregivers perspective. But this can confuse the patient and their family and make them anxious. Many times its possible to significantly improve how these people feel.

For IDEO, innovation works on three levels. On a human level (is it useful, useable and desirable?), on a technology level (is it feasible, does it have ownable IP... does it enable innovation?), and the business level (is it viable and does it fit with the strategy?).

It’s a highly collaborative process with the client and is fundamentally about three behaviours – empathy, prototyping and storytelling.

Empathy is about putting yourself in the shoes of all of the stakeholders and in particular the user. We have people in the company with anthropology and social psychology backgrounds who are ‘empathy experts’ and can help us to see experiences through the eyes of the user and to feel their pain and pleasure points.

A culture of prototyping is really a mindset that allows us to be uninhibited about externalising ideas without fear of failure or ridicule.

We work really hard to make sure that we feel OK about sharing preposterous, perverse, laughable ideas and not shooting them down. It’s about feeling comfortable enough with the people you are working with to overcome the natural inhibitions to sharing what’s on your mind.

It’s also about getting over your own ego so that you can let your own ideas go and build on those of others.

By storytelling I mean, when you are designing experiences you have to think in a narrative way. You have to engage with what you are designing in a sequential way. You have to think of what you design as a story. From when you first engage with the situation all the way through to when you communicate the experience you have authored.

A universal language at Electrolux

Leading global design and manufacturing company, Electrolux, now boasts five design centres and nine design studios around the world, spread across a range of sectors and product categories.

The global reach of the company includes design centres in Shanghai, Brazil, North America, Italy and Europe. Its success around the world reflects the effective blending of its Scandinavian philosophies with local cultures.

Henrik Otto, senior vice president global design at Electrolux, suggests Scandinavia fosters a culture that is honest and open.

“Scandinavians stay true to themselves,” he explains. “As designers and manufacturers, they believe in their products. Scandinavian society is a thoughtful, caring and considerate society.”

Otto says there is much value in Electrolux having design studios around the world.

“People should recognise Electrolux design by a visual language and be able to recognise and identify that regardless of where in the world they are.

“But a customer or a user in Scandinavia will not necessarily have the same cultural needs and the same kind of behaviour when it comes to interacting with our products.

“For example, in Australia a consumer buys a dozen or half a dozen eggs at a time so a European style refrigerator will provide the right storage. In China a consumer buys sixty to seventy eggs a week which means you have to cater for a completely different kind of need and a cultural adaptation of the product.

“The same thing occurs with Indian or South American products or in Europe and the US. So we have to cater for social behaviour or cultural differences.”

Otto refers to the international design centres as ‘listening posts’ and says they provide a way to tap into the local changes in people’s minds and societies and cultures in general.

According to Otto, the global nature of the company allows employees to develop empathy with other cultures.

“We like the challenge of finding the local flavours or styles in the regions around the world. We are working a lot with ‘emotional design’. We want purchasers of our products to get a feeling of well being from our products.

“Any Electrolux product that you buy is an affirmation of yourself,” says Otto.

Student participation is encouraged and supported at Electrolux along with interaction at various universities and colleges around the world. The Global Design Lab student competition is a manifestation of this universal participation.

Scandinavian design is not about aesthetics, according to Otto, it’s about functionality.

“It is very much about the approach that you take to solve a design problem. It’s not actually something that has to do with a nationality. You could be working with Scandinavian design in Australia, or in China or the US, as long as you have a Scandinavian design philosophy where all of the designers around the globe have a common value platform to base their work on.

“We base our common value platform on what we call ‘thoughtful design’ which then leads in to some of the core values we have, such as ease of mind and ease of use.

“From my point of view, this means that you should never have to adapt to a product, the product always adapts to you in it’s way of communicating. For example, everybody talks about ‘high tech’, at Electrolux we are more interested in talking about ‘human tech’.

“In the sense that what we do is ‘humanise’ the way any product looks and feels through displays and interfaces and how the product communicates with a person.

“You take away as much of the visual noise as you can. So you are left with a very uncluttered feel, and instead of giving information such as time, in a certain number of minutes, you define it as – when the clock is at a certain time, that is when I do something. Not – I’m going to do shopping in 127 minutes,” says Otto.

The location of its offices and studios around the world is more defined by Electrolux’s corporate acquisitions than actual planning to set up design studios.

Otto says the locations are based on where Electrolux has purchased a company with a design studio and a research and development group.

Five of the international studios are dedicated to designing outdoor products, the others design and produce major appliances as well as small domestic appliances and floor care products.

“We exchange staff all the time. If you work for a global company you can’t have a static organisation, you have to allow people to grow and move around,” says Otto.

“Someone who may not fit in well in one area in one office may fit extremely well in another area in another part of the world.”

Belinda Stening

Managing creativity at Philips

Curve contributor Laura Traldi, author of From Hardware to Humanware, discusses the influence of Stefano Marzano and Philips Design.

Managing design means giving structure to a creative process. In this sense, it is almost oxymora, in that creativity is, by its very nature, an ‘unstructured’ activity – or, at least, a not necessarily linear process, whose outcome is often portrayed as the result of the individual’s genius.

It is natural to ask what the point of design management is. Can it positively work, regardless of the personal capacity of the individual to create? Could it possibly become a ‘cage’ for creative people? Undoubtedly, the answer to both questions is yes.

In industrial realities that are in continuous evolution and cannot rely – due to size, global outlook and diversification of activities – on the individual’s own creativity, design management is an absolute necessity; a necessity that needs to be managed in a careful way, in order not to turn it into an imposition that will naturally kill innovative ideas.

Successful design management has to be based on ‘balance’ – balance between the individual and the group, between ‘blue-sky’ thinking and structural information gathering, and between idea generation and implementation. The challenges for the design manager are not merely related to the ‘fuzzy front end’ – the idea generation phase – but to the whole product creation process, including product development and manufacturing. In companies that are serious about understanding design and its value, designers, technologists, engineers, and marketers work together throughout the whole product creation and development processes.

In large organisations, the need to diversify new solutions is just as high as the need to create uniformity in the product offering, in order to keep conveying the same brand values and attributes. Everything that the company produces (from the actual products and services through to the environments in which they are located or sold, and to the tools and tones of voice that they use to communicate) makes an integral part of its corporate identity. The creation, development and maintenance of such corporate identity are also very important tasks of the design manager.

The design management function within a company should be strictly linked to the strategic value that the company gives to design: if design input is only an add-on to an already existing development process (ie. if designers are not consulted in the actual idea generation process that leads to the creation of a new product or category of products), then managing the process of designing and developing the product and its identity in relation to the brand is far more difficult – and the design management function less effective.

Philips Design in the Netherlands presents us with an interesting case study to illustrate the ways and means through which the design management function was developed throughout the years.

One of the first electronics companies to develop a design function, the history of design at Philips is clearly illustrated in a recent publication that the company has recently published to celebrate its eighty years of design. The design process that the company currently uses – and that it has been successfully using for the last thirteen years – was developed in 1992 by Stefano Marzano, now Philips Design’s chief executive officer who, at that time, was one of the most respected experts on design management in Italy, and a Professor at the Domus Academy in Milan.

In a global company like Philips – consisting of five product divisions, with design, development and manufacturing sites located in all continents – design management is obviously not an option but a must. Design activities are therefore managed, structured in a linear, yet iterative process called high design. This process consists of five phases that take designers from concept creation down to the realisation of the product, also setting intermediate milestones and toll gates in which the work is evaluated before proceeding further. All parties involved in the creation of products (engineers, scientists, developers, marketing people) also take part in the most important moments of the high design process and in its evaluations.

But the real differentiator in the Philips design process is not its overall structure (the ‘what’) but in its contents (the ‘how’). Before the concept development phase, designers are fed with information provided by social scientists – insights on social and cultural developments. It’s the analysis phase, without which no product creation workshop can take place.

Contrary to what happens in other design processes, the analysis phase is not an illustration of current aesthetic trends and fashion but a series of structured insights provided by Philips Design’s sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and historians on the development of macro-trends on a global scale – changes in the cultural outlook of people, in their value system, in their perception and use of technology.

When Marzano and his team first developed the high design process in the early 90s, such approach to design was truly unique and it has influenced a very large amount of design companies since then. Still now, despite the fact that trends research is claimed to be used by most companies, only very few of them truly put a concrete, operationally-related emphasis on macro-trends and in most cases the word ‘trends’ is mainly referred to ‘aesthetic trends’, ie. information related to taste and fashion.

This differentiator is of key importance in that it allows designers to work on a more strategic level, providing input on the functionalities, materials, interfaces and overall usability that products should have in order to be relevant for people in their everyday lives. Only at a later stage, designers become ‘stylists’ and work together with aesthetic trends researchers on providing the product with the desired look and feel, in line with the brand identity and with the current visual taste.

Throughout the years, Philips designers have used various methodologies to help them share, understand and use the social and cultural input – from intranet subject-related microsites through to information cards. Yet, the most effective tool always remains the workshop. Every product development workshop starts with an overview of the current and future trends that the social scientists have identified and with insights, provided by Philips research experts, on the technologies that are currently being worked on, and that will be on the market five years down the line. This type of input can be regionally customised, or tackled on a global level.

Typically, professionals from many nationalities attend the creative workshops, in order to guarantee cross-fertilisation of ideas and a lively, cultural mix. Whilst all ideas are accepted and considered during the creative sessions, the filters that the moderator needs to include in the selection process for the final concept include all criteria related to corporate identity, feasibility, and alignment with the business purposes.

At the basis of the high design process there is an idea – the strong emphasis on the social role of design. This emphasis is what characterises Marzano’s design philosophy from its early start. In 1992, Marzano wrote: “We need to give life to meaningful objects that use technology to stimulate cultural growth; that promote the amplification of senses and powers; and that allow people to live life at its best while at the same time utilising less resources for an ever decreasing impact on the environment”.

Understanding the high design process and Marzano’s contribution to the design culture means to read both of them according to this pattern of thinking. Michele de Lucchi, who partnered with Marzano in several visionary projects, says that “at the basis of Marzano’s work there is the application of a humanistic perspective to develop meaningful technologies. He would nurture ideas only as long as they stemmed from people’s needs and from the willingness to make the relationship between man and machines more fulfilling and efficient”.

When he became the director of Philips Design, in 1992, Marzano explained to the ICSID congress: “We are now in the right position to attempt a transformation within our company. We can help it take up a design philosophy that is driven by ethical values, ...and that aims at developing solutions to enhance people’s quality of life. If we work towards this direction, we will grow as a company; we will sell more because we will sell something that is better; and we will do it in the respect of others and of generations to come”.

This straight-forward, simple philosophy has, through the years, evolved from an almost utopian aspiration to a coordinated, global company action – through the creation of high design, its application throughout the company and its alignment with the business objectives.

Philips Design’s vision is constantly communicated internally, throughout all the twelve branches located in all the regions; designers work according to a fluidity concept that allows them to visit other branches or product groups and to share information and ideas – always in line with the philosophy and vision; the adherence to the design philosophy is the prime element of each creative briefing.

But it is not the only element. Marzano’s almost obsessive reference to the necessity to develop sustainable solutions through design has certainly contributed to the understanding and the acceptance of the idea of sustainable development within Philips. Leveraging on a socially conscious past and on an environmentally-minded present, Philips has, since 2001, proactively pursued sustainability in its broader sense – thus ecologically but also economically and socially. To such extent, in fact, that it was quoted, in 2004, as the world leader in corporate sustainability and in the recycling of its own products (according to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index).

Strategically-minded and responsible design management, based on clear vision, and careful balance between creativity and structural process, can have great impact on a company’s approach to business development and become a powerful tool for innovation. 

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