No mystery why IDEO became the home of good ideas

Want to put your company on the map? Turn to the designer of choice for the 'Who's Who' of global industry and an acknowledged legend of innovation.

By Roger Trapp
Saturday 17 September 2011 14:10

Even in this era of converging technologies it is hard to see the link between toothbrushes and laptop computers, office equipment and bicycle accessories, instant cameras and trains. But there is one, a product design company called IDEO.

Even in this era of converging technologies it is hard to see the link between toothbrushes and laptop computers, office equipment and bicycle accessories, instant cameras and trains. But there is one, a product design company called IDEO.

The business, celebrating its 10th anniversary, has been responsible for all of these and many more. With a client list that includes Nike, Pepsi, BMW, Yamaha, Canon and Nissan, and its majority shareholder, the US office furniture company Steelcase, IDEO can justly claim to be the designer of choice for the Who's Who of global industry.

Perhaps best known for the Apple mouse and, recently, the Palm V handheld organiser, the company employs more than 350 people globally, with annual sales of about $60m (£42m). It has topped BusinessWeek's annual list of top industrial designers 10 years running.

In February 1999, the American news programme Nightline screened a 30-minute documentary on how the business tackled a challenge to design and build in just a week an improved version of that shopper's bugbear, the supermarket trolley. It attracted so much interest that both the television company, ABC News, and IDEO have been besieged with requests for tapes.

But in Britain IDEO is hardly known. This is odd because, although the firm's spiritual home is in California, where it has close links with Stanford University and extensive studios in San Francisco and nearby Palo Alto, it has strong British credentials. London is the company's oldest office, dating back to 1969 when it was the base of the design business set up by Bill Moggridge, one of the two British designers who co-founded IDEO with former Boeing engineer David Kelley in 1981. Mr Moggridge and his colleague Mike Nuttall had followed their noses to Silicon Valley in the late Seventies to cash in on the then-embryonic technology boom and soon met Mr Kelley. Another Brit, Tim Brown, is the company's new chief executive and there are other Britons prominent in management. Yet here the firm is eclipsed in the fame stakes by Seymour Powell, which has also been featured on television, trying to improve such disparate products as airline seats and, most famously, bras.

Colin Burns, head of the 58-strong London office, professes not to mind. "We're happy to be backroom boys and girls," he says. "It's part of what we're about. Nobody is terribly interested in being a star. "

That approach is responsible for the company not being named after its founders, but simply taking its name from the Greek word for idea. The same humility has prevented the firm following other designers down the tricky road to becoming public companies, something Mr Burns says all are keen to avoid because of the distractions it brings.

The non-hierarchical culture is also credited with the organisation's impressive retention rate. And even those who leave tend to remain enthusiastic about the place.

Clive Grinyer, now director of design and innovation at the Design Council, which promotes the importance of design to British industry, worked there before co-founding the consumer products design business Tangerine. He credits much of the company's success to its integration of the hard, engineering aspects of design with the more emotional side. Through encouraging product designers and engineers to work with psychologists and human behaviour experts, the company realised earlier than most that "brand was as much about experience as promise", he says.

This determination to look at problems in a holistic manner is also responsible for the company's status as "legend of innovation". This concept has assumed buzzword status, with just about every business either claiming to be or aspiring to be innovative, but Mr Burns says IDEO likes to think that it was there ahead of the crowd.

Indeed, the degree to which the firm has become synonymous with the word is demonstrated by the recent publication of two books ­ IDEO ­ Masters of Innovation (Laurence King) by the British design writer Jeremy Myerson and The Art of Innovation (Currency/Doubleday) by Tom Kelley, the firm's general manager and brother of co-founder David.

Tom Peters, the management guru who has been one of the chief proponents of innovation in business, says that, while innovation has "spurted to the tippy top of the 'requisite core competence list' for companies of all shapes and sizes, nobody does it better than IDEO".

At the heart of IDEO's approach to innovation is the creative development process demonstrated on the Nightline programme. Though probably a little "American" for some tastes, what ABC called the "Deep Dive" method features noisy brainstorming sessions designed to produce challenging ideas, extensive observation of how members of the public really behave and ­ a key component of the IDEO process ­ rapid prototyping, a process that involves making crude models to test ideas and hunches.

The success of thousands of products is evidence that this apparently madcap and often demanding way of working produces the goods, which is why companies increasingly use IDEO to help develop their creative processes as well as come up with specific products.

Some firms might be guarded about lifting the lid on the mystery. But IDEO, which began in economic conditions even less favourable than those now, is sufficiently confident that it is still out in front. Mr Burns says the company is always trying to reinvent itself, and telling the world about what makes it special is part of moving on. And in an echo of the commitment to trying out new ideas by building models, chief executive Mr Brown adds: "IDEO is a new animal and we're still learning how to exercise it."

While there are strong cultural links with the company's past, such is the spirit of challenge that it is likely the company's 20th anniversary will find IDEO a very different beast than the one it is today.

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