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 / Autumn 2009 / Issue 56(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Tim Brown

The CEO of Silicon Valley–based design firm IDEO contends that elegant, customer-centric design stems from a simple set of thinking practices.

The screensaver on Tim Brown’s office computer is a selection of photographs of classic automobiles. Some of the pictures came from colleagues at IDEO, including a few of the cars in company cofounder David Kelley’s collection. As one might expect, fascination with objects is a common trait at this 550-person design firm headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif. “We all grew up,” says Brown, “making or working with beautiful things.”

Another common trait at IDEO is a fascination with systems — especially those involving such complex, interconnected issues as reconceiving marketing campaigns, rethinking the materials in packaging, and redesigning health-care delivery and early childhood education. IDEO is perhaps the earliest and best-known design firm to promote what Brown calls “design thinking”: a holistic approach to innovation, including in-depth customer insight and rapid prototyping, aimed at getting beyond the assumptions that block effective solutions. This means addressing the look and feel of the product being designed, as designers conventionally do. But it also means reconsidering the way it meets consumers’ unspoken needs, as well as reworking the infrastructure that enables the product and the supply chain that delivers it.

Among the examples of this approach described in Brown’s new book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Can Transform Organizations and Inspire Innovation (HarperBusiness, 2009), are the Nintendo Wii, which ignored the industry fixation on improved graphics and focused instead on gestural controls; HBO, which sought to stop relying on cable TV distribution and began to offer its programs for new platforms such as mobile phones; United Airlines, which set up “premium service” featuring larger seats, finer food, and expanded in-flight entertainment options between selected cities in the U.S.; and the Aravind Eye Institute in India, which cures cataracts for as little as US$65 by emulating a no-frills assembly line. (See “India’s Demographic Moment, s+b, Autumn 2009” by Nandan Nilekani.)

IDEO (pronounced “EYE-dee-oh”) is known for its role in developing (among other things) the sleek aluminum-clad Palm V, the stand-up tube for Procter & Gamble’s Crest toothpaste, the Steelcase Leap chair, and Bank of America’s Keep the Change savings program. The firm was founded in 1991 through the merger of three firms — David Kelley Design (designer of the first Apple computer mouse), ID Two (founded by Bill Moggridge, the designer of the first laptop computer), and Matrix Product Design (founded by Mike Nuttall, designer of Microsoft’s first ergonomic mouse). All three founders are still involved with IDEO. David Kelley (who remains the firm’s chairman, and is also a professor at Stanford University) was replaced as CEO by Tim Brown in 2001, just in time for the dot-com bubble to burst.

Brown, who was born in the U.K., had joined Moggridge’s firm in 1987. He came with Moggridge to IDEO and rapidly became involved in the design of services, interactions, experiences, and even organizations. After successful engagements with the U.S. furniture company Steelcase, which later bought a majority stake in IDEO, and the Korean consumer products company Samsung, the design firm was asked to teach its innovation approach to other companies. That experience became the starting point for Change by Design, which is devoted to the rigorous principles underlying highly creative processes. To Brown and his colleagues at IDEO, the type of thinking that leads to a stand-up toothpaste tube can also make all the difference to an emergency room or a city’s transportation grid. He expanded on this idea in a conversation in April at his office in IDEO’s headquarters, a few blocks from Stanford University.

S+B: What is the essence of “design thinking”? How does it lead to better innovation?
It’s a process for creating new choices. Managers are taught sophisticated methods for making choices, and they’re often very good at it, but making choices out of a prevailing set of options is a very limiting thing to do. You might read in a business magazine or on a Web site about a new way of using resources more wisely, or moving forms of production around the world. And you can execute it rapidly — but your competitors can do the same thing the next day, because they all have access to that same insight.

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