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Q&A: David Kelley, design innovator, Stanford 'd.school' founder

Q&A: David Kelley, design innovator, Stanford 'd.school' founder

Posting in Design

The design guru chats with us about creative confidence, the future of design, and whether d.school really is "the new B-school."

David Kelley spotted them when he was 14. He was browsing the shops in his small Ohio town and there they sat in a window, beckoning him.

"They were saddle shoes called British Walkers, and they were so beautiful—and the leather was so good—that I just fell in love with the design of those shoes," Kelley says. "I don't know how many years it took me to save enough money to buy them, but I did buy them eventually. That was when I realized that I cared a lot about aesthetics and about design."

In the decades since that awakening, Kelley has worked his way to the forefront of design innovation. His consulting firm, IDEO, is a worldwide leader in the user-centered design of products, services and environments. He's received numerous awards for his work, including the Chrysler Design Award and the Smithsonian's National Design Award. And in 2005, he founded the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design—more often referred to as "the d.school"—at Stanford University.

Kelley divides his time between Stanford and IDEO, helping CEOs and university students baby-step their way toward creative confidence through "design thinking." He spoke with us recently about what that means, where design trends are headed, and whether d.school is actually "the new B-school."

Do you still have those shoes that blew you away as a teenager?

[Laughs.] No. I'm 61 now. But my mother kept everything, so she does what's called 'shopping in the basement.' Every Christmas and birthday, she goes down in the basement and finds something from my childhood and sends it to me. It's a really interesting thing that we're always trying to put meaning into design—something that people will fall in love with—but there's nothing like stuff that intrinsically has meaning in your life as far as a cool product.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal called d.school "the new B-school." Do you agree?

When we started dreaming this thing up, we called it the d.school because we thought it would be funny. The business school's this big thing on campus, and we were this little upstart. I never dreamed that someone would compare us, but the truth is that the business school is super valuable to us. The students from the business school come over and take classes in the d.school. We're not competitive with them at all. The B-school is not in danger of being unimportant.

Looking back, why did you decide to start the d.school in the first place? What were some of your goals for it?

I was a professor with tenure so I could do whatever I wanted. [Laughs.] I had taught with an art professor and a business professor and a computer science professor. I noticed that magic was happening when different kids from different backgrounds got together and built on each other's ideas. They were coming up with breakthroughs more quickly because it was unusual for people to collaborate from different places. I proposed to Stanford that we start a whole institute for that.

My dream has always been the same thing: to help as many people as possible regain that creative confidence they used to have when they were kids. As a teacher, it's just so thrilling to see these kids flip the switch and feel really good about themselves. They have this sense that they can change the world. Once they build this confidence, it affects all kinds of things in their lives.

How do you help them find that creative confidence?

We use design thinking. There's a famous psychologist at Stanford named Albert Bandura who calls what we do "guided mastery." We take people and organizations through a series of small successes and through that series of small successes they surprise themselves with just how creative they really are. It's like a new tool or new muscles that you acquire that allows you to build creative confidence.

These people are wildly creative inside, but they've opted out because they're afraid other people will judge them. We hold their hands, help them take baby steps, and through a series of successes they go from fear to familiarity. It sounds too good to be true, but we've seen it over and over again.

Can you give me an example?

Let's say we're going to redesign the experience of taking the subway in New York. The first thing we'll do is become experts on the subway. We go see Port Authority and go see people who ride the trains and go talk to people who build the trains. It surprises [d. school students] how quickly they can get up to speed on what the issues are for people riding the subway or maintaining the subway.

For the next step, maybe we have them go and ride the trains and start to observe and look for places where people are having trouble. Where is someone upset or frustrated? Then the next phase might be to meet with a bunch of people and come up with ideas together. They'll start to see that they're contributing pretty good ideas to this discussion.

Then we'll start deciding which ideas are the good ones. Then we'll build a prototype. Let's say our idea is for a new cup holder that goes on the train. We'll build some and put them on the train and say, 'Oh, that doesn't work well. Oh, that does.' And the whole time, they're saying to themselves, 'This is my idea and look how well it's going.' By the end, they're successful and all we did was build the framework and hold their hands to get there. That guy Bandura I mentioned—he cures phobias with this approach.

Your company, IDEO, is often recognized as much for its culture as it is for its work.

Our culture is interesting because we're in the business of routine innovation. Everyone here thinks of themselves as a creative person. The thing that makes IDEO interesting is that by definition, a designer has to be positive. You're inventing the future. That in itself is an inherently positive approach. It says, 'Hey, there's a future and I'm in charge of making it better for everybody.' So the culture here is just incredibly positive because of that.

How does IDEO help companies change the way they innovate?

We help our clients look at their organizations and find out what the blocks are to creativity. We do the same thing we do at the d.school: We take them through a series of small successes. Some companies want us to actually work on their culture to help them improve their culture of innovation. Sometimes they'll come and live with us in a studio inside our company. The notion is always this guided mastery to making your company routinely innovate. I realize this is common sense. It's just that companies have evolved to a place where they are fish who can't tell that they're wet a lot of the time.

Have you met any people who simply aren't creative?

I've met thousands of people who said they weren't, but I've met very few people who didn't surprise themselves once we got them going. I really believe everyone is creative. We work with a lot of CEOs. When they come in, we say, 'Now we're going to do improv as a warm-up exercise.' They of course decide all of a sudden to look at their BlackBerrys and they have a really important call and they try to leave the room. But if you track them down and really get them to follow through in the process, they really open up and they surprise themselves.

Where do you see design trends heading now and in the next few years?

I spent a large percentage of my career designing objects. Now we've moved from that to designing more complex and interesting things: services for how to check into a hospital, how to enjoy staying in a hotel more. We're helping the United States government work on social security or we're working with this entrepreneur in Peru to understand how to fix K-12 education there. We're redesigning whole businesses.

The wonderful thing I see in the future is that designers, who used to be relegated to putting the beautiful finishing touches on something at the last minute, are now being brought in at the beginning of the conversation because our way of thinking is valued in solving big, complex problems. That is the future for design.

Photo courtesy of IDEO

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure