My own private IDEO

Ideo has added Design Week’s Best of Show award to its clutch of trophies. Michael Evamy visited its London offices to discover the secret of its success.

The walk up Kentish Town Road from Camden Town Tube station to get to Ideo’s London offices is a slightly jarring experience, especially to anyone familiar with the consultancy’s credentials: the result of a three-way, Anglo-American merger in 1991; now the employer of over 300 professionals, from the San Francisco waterfront to Boston, London and Tokyo; winner of more Business Week Industrial Design Excellence Awards than any other design group; the creator of more than 2000 medical, computer, telecoms, industrial and consumer products; Tom Peters’ favourite company; and owner of a client list in which Apple, NEC, AT&T, Samsung, Olivetti, Philips, Amtrak and Steelcase are simply faces in a crowd.

This is the biggest, brightest and, in many people’s eyes, best product-based design business in the world. Ideo knows how technology will mesh with our lives in the future even if we don’t. It’s an image that doesn’t really square with the north London streetscape of roadworks, Irish pubs, Indian takeaways and run-down Georgian terraces. There is a quiet air of studied creativity once you turn into the mews of Jeffrey’s Place, but it’s still a long way from Silicon Valley’s cauldron of processing power and paradigm shifts, in which Ideo’s constituent parts forged their reputations in the Eighties.

So you can’t help arriving at Jeffrey’s Place with a sense that as the plaudits have been heaped up on Ideo’s West Coast whizzkids, the London office has been left a bit in the cold. This isn’t the kind of funky wharfside studio that has been winning the company awards in San Francisco. But it is where the roots of the company lie, where Bill Moggridge first set up shop 22 years before joining forces with David Kelley Design and Matrix Product Design in Palo Alto.

Once inside, the impression is borne out of a business about to receive some long-awaited attention. Tim Brown, who returned from San Francisco to head the London team, is here to correct the balance. “The reason for my return was not that I was desperate personally to come back to Europe – although that’s been a lot of fun – but more the belief, which Moggridge started out with, that Europe is important at Ideo. We might be ten times bigger in America than in London in terms of people, but Europe’s influence on our work, and the interesting people there are to work with here, is important.”

So had London been neglected? A short pause before Brown replies. “There was a sense that the focus of energy had been on the US and that it was time to redress that. We wanted to bring to Europe some of the expertise and approaches, especially from the engineering side of business in US. We had taken Bill’s focus on interaction design and human factors to the US, but hadn’t done the reverse. And there’s something extremely exciting about Ideo’s technical ability – the ability to pull off things that have an impact on clients and are fun. We had to build an integrated engineering side to the London office that was the best there is.”

The London office, adds Brown, had been “left behind a bit in being able to drive at a problem from a technically innovative and creative standpoint as well as from a design-innovative standpoint. And, more and more, problems out there are like that. In fact, the opportunity to change the rules here is even bigger than in the US because really no one here does that sort of thing from both perspectives.”

To help do just that, Brown persuaded Alan South to leave the flourishing product design side of Cambridge Consultants’ business and come to Ideo. South has drafted some of the most creative brains from sources such as the Royal College of Art’s industrial design engineering joint course with Imperial College.

This is the first clue to what keeps Ideo going. Its connections with the world’s most respected design schools are crucial to sustaining its own levels of creativity. “We spend a lot of time teaching,” says Brown. “It’s the best opportunity for exploring ideas from a different point of view. It also gives you a chance to get to know and develop the brightest people before you hire them, not after. It’s about making our culture closer to those of these colleges and, I suppose, about making theirs a bit closer to ours.”

Growth, says Brown with some conviction, has never been a goal of the company. But organic growth (from 120 staff to 340) has been a feature of the seven years since the Ideo merger. In contrast with many other large design groups, it has never got to the point where it treats design as a commodity.

The centres of its business benefit from firm leadership, but the relationships between them remain fluid, sustained by a mutual enthusiasm for what other parts of Ideo are doing. “We’re not just a brand; we benefit from being big, from the skills we have. There’s a critical mass you need to do this interdisciplinary stuff, especially with the technical expertise we want. We’re just about there now in London, with 40-45 people.”

Another of Ideo’s secrets is its management of multi-skilled teams in which magical ideas are born. It manages to keep growing and still remain creative, and is in a different league to its competitors in this respect. Not surprisingly, it is the part of the business that has attracted the most soundbites. There is the concept of the “Ideas Pot” – not unique to Ideo, but taken more seriously than most. “You have to work out how to top it up,” says Alan South, “otherwise you stop being creative. Part of the source for ideas is the new people we bring in. Another one is to assemble the best possible team you can, from people inside Ideo and people outside, so you can behave like a much bigger organisation just for the duration of this one project, without all the problems of being big.”

Ideo in this mode is what Moggridge has dubbed “the virtual organisation”. Brown calls it the “movie director principle”: strong local leadership coupled with visionary team building. This leads into a discussion about disciplines: things which Ideo has made great show of in the past, labelling its projects as cocktails of industrial design, human factors, mechanical engineering, interaction design and so on. That blending of appropriate skills is still Ideo’s trademark but, more and more, distinctions inside the consultancy are fading.

Brown sees a marked difference between the multidisciplinary firm and the interdisciplinary. “It’s the difference between having everyone there and having just the right people there. The latter is about removing boundaries between disciplines, thinking about the problem, and assembling the right group of brains to deal with it in the right, most focused way.”

Formally, Ideo staff are still grouped by discipline, but individually they spend nearly all their time working in teams that span disciplines. Colin Burns, new head of the interaction team in London, arrived from two years as a designer among computer scientists at Interval Research in the US. He believes the company has entered a “post-disciplinary era”, and that the change is driven by the shift from hardware to services. “It’s becoming very hard to know whether a project that comes in is an interaction design project or an industrial design project, or a mechanical engineering project.

“The client often doesn’t know what it is. The conversation we have with them will establish what the right approach is. It may become apparent that it’s to do with user-experience, but it has an environmental context because it’s an installation, but there’s also some network technology. Oh, and it’s about a world-famous consumer brand with a strong product identity, so it needs industrial design, too. It can make writing project proposals pretty tricky.”

Indeed, these specialisms would mean nothing to most clients. So the internal boundaries are dropping. Business problems in the service-led UK economy are softer, less concrete. “It was one of the compelling reasons to return,” says Burns, who was with Ideo from 1988-93. “There isn’t the same broad base of electronics and hardware manufacturing here, so it’s easier for us to practice a type of design not focused on the object, and more about the service. The level of service design here is more sophisticated than anywhere else in the world. There’s more potential for designing user-experiences here than in the US, in fact.”

That said, one of Ideo’s recent coups has been in the US, where it turned a request from Amtrak to design new interiors for its trains in the high-speed north-east corridor into the delivery of a service strategy covering the entire customer experience, “from the moment they even thought they might be taking a journey”. Information, ticketing, branding, uniforms, stations, car-parking, food and, of course, the trains all got the Ideo attention. “That was a service design problem,” says Brown, “with hardware worth a few billion dollars stuck on it.”

The delivery of services through the medium of new technology is breeding a new generation of hardware. Ideo London wants to be at the forefront of the change. Two of its younger designers recently conceived a family of globular new radios with LCD screens. The client for the project was the BBC, its aim to demonstrate to manufacturers the potential of digital audio broadcasting, and the services it can deliver: CD-quality sound, images and text.

With the switch in the industrial power base, it is service companies that are prompting innovation from manufacturers. “I’ve worked with dozens of manufacturers all over the world to envisage future products,” says Brown, “and it’s almost always impossible. Because it all comes down to what kind of service you want to deliver. If you don’t understand that, or don’t drive that service, then you have no reason to change things. It’s why notebook computers haven’t changed for ten years. If you come at it from an entertainment, media or education point of view, then you rapidly understand why a lot of stuff is hopeless for what you need to do.”

The hardware will disappear, seep into the background. “What is exciting,” says Burns, “is that the design then becomes important. It’s not about mediating between humans and technology anymore, but about designing rich, appropriate experiences. Like the contribution design now makes to furniture. We know about the technology of sitting, we take it for granted. So the furniture is just design.”

The one customer experience Ideo has been working on for a year and has yet to crack is the one its own customers undergo when they arrive at its offices. There are groans when I suggest the incongruity between Ideo’s address and the work that happens inside. The company has searched London high and low for 3500m2 of space to house state-of-the-art cordless networking. “In the same way as, when you step outside the San Francisco office you get “the San Francisco experience” in bucketloads, we want our London place to deliver “the London experience” in bucketloads,” says South. In other words, as Brown might put it: “It’s a service design problem with a city stuck on it.”

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