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Inspirational Guidance

How has IDEO sustained such a consistently creative, productive, and profitable culture over the past twenty years? Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO (and brother of founder David Kelley), and his co-author Jonathan Littman answer that question in The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America's Leading Design Firm (2001, Doubleday & Company, $27.50).

When AT&T hired Palo Alto-based IDEO to develop new concepts for its teleconferencing service, the IDEO team started out by doing what many user-centered design teams might do: it talked to users.

But not just any users. Instead of hunting for "typical users"—the pre-screened, carefully segmented, demographically consistent humdrums who tend to fill up focus groups—IDEO sought out the "crazy user."

For example, an office worker named Sally had developed her own idiosyncratic approach to teleconferencing that involved carting a bunch of individual speakerphones into a conference room, setting the phones around a table, dialing in each caller separately, and conducting the conference call in the open air of the room.

Eccentric? Sure. But Sally's unorthodox behavior yielded breakthrough insights for the design team. Her need to control the physical dimensions of the conference room sparked the IDEO team's creativity. As a result, the company developed a new teleconferencing product that incorporated numerous physical and spatial cues into the product design.

That kind of unique thinking has propelled IDEO to near-mythic status in the industrial design world. The progenitor of such varied products as the Apple mouse, Crest toothpaste caps, the Palm V, the Heartstream heart defibrillator, and the Aerobie football, among thousands of others, IDEO has mastered the art—and the business—of innovation.

The Art of Innovation, a chatty manifesto about creativity and organizational culture, overflows with anecdotes about the many design challenges IDEO has faced over the years. For instance, the one about how an early prototype for the Apple mouse took shape out of a butter dish and a rolling ball. Or the one about how a team working on a ski goggle project in Palo Alto in mid-July faced the challenge of mimicking winter fog conditions. The solution: place a bicycle in an ice cream freezer, and recruit willing colleagues to don goggles and pedal until they break a sweat.

Kelley and Littman bring readers inside the IDEO culture by organizing the book around discreet themes, each supported by vignettes from the IDEO project archives.

As you might expect of a ghost-written encomium penned by (and for) a company executive, The Art of Innovation reads at times like a book-length commercial for IDEO. Readers in search of company gossip or juicy tales of what it's really like at IDEO will, of course, be disappointed. But despite the book's relentlessly positive viewpoint, it serves up plenty of good advice on how to imbue any organization with the creative spirit.

The authors also talk about the importance of what they call "cross-dressers," or team members who switch disciplines or specialties. Engineers turned designers, for instance, and vice versa. IDEO blurs disciplinary boundaries wherever possible. That's especially true when it comes to research, a cornerstone of IDEO's design process. Many design firms still treat research as a stand-alone discipline practiced by Researchers (with a capital R). At IDEO, research is everyone's job.

However, the book's most concrete lessons are in the chapter on brainstorming. Here, the authors expound on a series of simple ground rules for brainstorming. For example, an optimal brainstorm should last one hour and should have a specific goal—say, of coming up with one hundred ideas (physically numbered on a big sheet of paper). Brainstorms should never be scheduled off-site, lest creativity be construed as some kind of unusual act that could only ever happen outside the office.

Toward the end of the book, the authors stray from the subject they know best—the IDEO way and its experiences with customers—into a mode of management soothsaying that, alas, devolves into predictable platitudes and proscriptions better left to the likes of "trend expert" Faith Popcorn. But when the authors stick with the core topic, the story of IDEO, this book brims with great accounts and practical insights that far outweigh the occasional predictable lapses into company boosterism.

Alex is a user experience architect. You can contact him at [email protected].

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