Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Brief History of IDEO's Design Thinking Process

In the February 1, 2009 issue of FastCo Design, Linda Tischler told the story of David Kelley, the founding of IDEO and the at Stanford, but there is much more to the story than that.  It also mentions the cradle of Design Thinking at Stanford; the Joint Program in Design. What follows is an edited and expanded version of what started out as her story;

Stanford's Joint Program in Design dates from 1958, when Professor John E. Arnold, formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, moved to Stanford with a joint appointment as Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Business Administration.

John Arnold and a friend from Arcturus IV

Arnold had received a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1934 and a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1940 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  In the 1950s he sought to shift the meaning of design from being “the language used to tell fabrication and assembly where to make their cuts” to “the language of innovation,” by which engineers expressed their imagination, He proposed the idea that design engineering should be human-centered, which was a radical concept in the era of Sputnik and the early Cold War.

In 1959 Arnold wrote; "...[the engineer] can take on some aspects of the artist and try to improve or increase the salability of a product or machine by beautifying or bettering its appearance, or by having a keener sensitivity for the market and for the kinds of things people want or don’t want.” Similar to L. Bruce Archer and Harold van Doren, Arnold was suggesting that beauty and desirability were key elements for the engineer to consider.

John was already known for his unconventional methods of teaching engineers, for example; Arcturus IV; a problem-based learning assignment that put his students in an off world setting to work on tools and appliances for a bird-like race of "Methanians" who had “three eyes, including one with X-ray vision” as featured in the May 16, 1955 issue of Life Magazine.

Building on Arnold's work, Bob McKim (Emeritus, Engineering) and Matt Kahn (Art), created the Product Design major and the graduate-level Joint Program in Design. The curriculum was formalized in the mid-1960s, making the Joint Program in Design (JPD) one of the first inter-departmental programs at Stanford.

The Ping Pong Ball Problem made it into Adam's book

Textbooks included McKim's Experiences in Visual Thinking, and Jim Adams', Conceptual Blockbusting, a Guide to Better Ideas. McKim's work predated other writers and proponents of the Visual Thinking concept. ME101: Visual Thinking became the introductory course to the Product Design major. Adam's Conceptual Blockbusting contains more than one problem right out of John Arnold's bag of mental challenges.

When Bob McKim transitioned to Emeritus status, Matt Kahn, Rolf Faste and David Kelley  continued instruction in the tradition of merging art, science and need-finding though the 1980s and 1990s. ME101 is still taught at Stanford and the Mechanical Engineering Department and the Department of Art continue their collaboration, with faculty drawn from both schools.

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon in 1973, David Kelley took a job at Boeing, designing what he calls a "milestone in aviation history"; the 747's LAVATORY OCCUPIED sign. He moved to National Cash Register (now NCR) in Ohio, which turned out to be a similarly frustrating experience. Fate intervened during the 1973-74 oil embargo, when a guy in David's car pool told him about Stanford's product-design program.  At Stanford, Kelley met Bob McKim, who became his mentor.

In 1978, Kelley and some of his Stanford pals banded together to launch a design and engineering firm, Hovey - Kelley Design, opening for business over a dress shop in downtown Palo Alto. In 1981, the firm created the first Apple mouse.

In 1991, Kelley's firm merged with two others; Bill Moggridge's ID2, which had designed the first laptop computer, and Mike Nuttall's Matrix Design, whose skill was in visual design, to form IDEO.

In a 2003 meeting with IDEO CEO Tim Brown, Kelley had an epiphany: They would stop calling IDEO's approach "design" and start calling it "design thinking."

"I'm not a words person," Kelley said, "but in my life, it's the most powerful moment that words or labeling ever made. Because then it all made sense. Now, I'm an expert at methodology rather than a guy who designs a new chair or car.”

"They went meta on the notion of design," says Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, referring to the shift from object design to focusing on organizational processes. "They concluded that the same principles can be applied to the design of, say, emergency-room procedures as a shopping cart.”

Like Arnold's view, Design Thinking represents a serious challenge to the status quo at more traditional companies, particularly those where engineering or marketing dominate the process. Patrick Whitney, Dean of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) sends many of his graduates off to IDEO and says he sees this resistance all the time. "A lot of my students have MBAs and engineering degrees. They're taught to identify the opportunity set, deal with whatever numbers you can find to give you certainty, then optimize.”

It took David Kelley a while to appreciate the power of stepping back before forging ahead. In the mid-1980s, while at Hovey Kelley, he used to write proposals with the phases of the process he'd learned at Stanford — understanding, observation, brainstorming, prototyping — all priced separately. Clients invariably would say, "Don't do that early fooling around. Start with phase three." Kelley realized that the early phases were where the big ideas came from — and what separated Hovey Kelley from other management consultants.

"That moment was really big for me," he says. "After that, I'd say, 'No way, I won't take the job if you scrap those phases. That's where the value is.’ "

How much value? Procter & Gamble's CEO A.G. Lafley sent the company's entire 40-member Global Leadership Council to IDEO headquarters twice for a total immersion in the process. "Our senior management was blown away," says Claudia Kotchka, former vice president for design innovation and strategy. "They learned that design is more than aesthetics, and that there are different ways of solving problems than the analytical methods that most disciplines teach.”

Still, despite the enthusiasm in Palo Alto, once the P&G Global Leadership Team got back to Cincinnati, ideas created in the design process kept getting stuck as they ran into the commercial side of the business. This frustrated Kotchka, who called Kelley, Rotman business school dean Roger Martin, and IIT's Patrick Whitney to help find a way to break the deadlock. Over the summer and fall of 2005, the three came up with a prototype of an integrated approach that took a product team through the design process all the way through the impact on strategy. What's more, they trained the P&G employees to facilitate such programs on their own.

The way Kelley sees it, a polyglot team gives an extraordinary advantage in generating truly creative ideas. That idea was one of the animating forces behind the — a place that would help typically analytical Stanford students become more creative thinkers. The school would draw from business, law, education, medicine, engineering — the more diversity, the better.

Kelley is still a bit astonished at what he has been able to pull off. "I've been here 30 years, and nobody paid any attention to me at all," he says. "At one point, they were trying to reduce the size of my office — which was 78 square feet. Now I'm sitting in meetings with the president, with him asking if I want another building and talking about making creative confidence a requirement at Stanford, just like a foreign language."

The most mature form of the process turns up the gain on the artistic/feeling leg of the art/science/business problem solving triad. Participants in the's seminars start their journey by empathically interviewing strangers, looking for emotional hot buttons, in an effort to discover hidden problems to solve. It's a long way from the top-down, buttoned-up world of Mil-Aerospace inspired methods where everything is carefully planned out in advance. but its a lot more creative and Kelly would testify that it's also a lot more fun.

John Arnold would be pleased.

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