What it’s like to work at IDEO
One perspective from inside the design firm
I often get asked what it’s like to work at IDEO. Here’s what it’s like. I’ve been at IDEO (Bay Area) as a mechatronic engineer and designer for over two years now. So far, it’s been a dream. IDEO is a design consultancy made up of creatives from all over the world. We shape many companies’ futures at once and have too much fun doing it.
On top of talent and potential, when we hire people, IDEO heavily considers “cultural fit.” We start a new project every few months, so it’s necessary that a designer can work well with almost anybody else. Even our receptionists, positions other companies might find any friendly face to fill, are often creative individuals. One is a practicing artist that holds exhibitions. Another is a full-time improv actress.
Even though we’re 500+ strong (with the Bay Area being ~300), it still feels like a small company. I recognize nearly everybody by face, and most by name. And because we change teams every few months, I get to really know at least 10-20 people each year.
Because we believe in multi-disciplinary teams, IDEO is diverse. We have psychologists, anthropologists, engineers (of every type), architects, visual designers, interaction designers, writers, and business gurus to name a few. We also have a food scientist and a surgeon-in-residence because of our work in those industries. We’re all united by creating positive impact in the world through design.
In terms of cultural diversity, I receive more cultural diversity on a day-to-day basis at IDEO than I did at Stanford. Stanford is diverse, but my American friends greatly outnumbered my foreign friends. At IDEO Bay Area, I estimate > 40% are foreign-born. On a recent project team, I was working with natives from South Korea, Italy, New Zealand, and Denmark. That’s 4 of 8 people (and I’m not counting my white-washed Asian-American self). It’s incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by such radically different life experiences.
Culturally, it’s much like many other Silicon Valley companies (except, if you allow me to be haughty, IDEO has been doing it since the late 80s). It was only slightly surprising to get mimosas during one of our monthly meetings. Standard attire is anything fashionable (jeans, shorts, jorts — whatever, as long as it’s fashionable). People bring their dogs to work, and everyone wants to play with them. Somebody used to bring in her snake. We use the company-wide email list to get wisdom from the collective brain trust. This once led to a (ridiculously cool) poetry slam.
None of this is crazy for Silicon Valley, really, except for two important differences I’ve noticed.
- Unlike other Silicon Valley cultures I’ve seen, it’s not a prescribed culture. Google, Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, and Dropbox all have impressive offices with fun colors and happy furniture. But it all seems forced. IDEO designers build the culture of the company, not some internal team determined to make everything fun-looking.
- Because of that emphasis on cultural fit, everyone at IDEO is awesome. Everybody respects one another because we’re all uniquely talented (i.e. no crazy competition). We become good friends with each other, and regularly see others outside of work. There were approximately three IDEO-centric house parties this past weekend (that I knew of). I have a cabin lease in Tahoe with IDEOers. In between the day I was hired and the day I started, I went to Burning Man with a predominantly IDEO camp. And then again two years later. We go out dancing. We do various athletic things together. When David Kelley started IDEO, he wanted to just work on cool projects with his friends. That ideal still permeates IDEO culture today.
It often feels too sterilized to call my fellow IDEOers “coworkers.” They’re a goofy group of friends that I work with.
Some companies have artists-in-residence. Others consult other companies (like IDEO) to design their workspace. Luckily, it’s something we can do in-house, and because we see a lot of our clients’ offices, most employees end up taking personal interest. Because most IDEOers know how to make things, and make things look good, small things around the office turn into pet projects
Every IDEO office is inherently different because we build up its character through these small acts. We have a VW Van inside the Palo Alto office because of a prank where people replaced their coworker’s office with a VW van. It has since become a meeting room. Some IDEOers built a swing-set one weekend. The interns last summer built a treehouse. We’re a culture of Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.
Our desk layout is very similar to much of Silicon Valley at this point: open-plan, Aeron or Aeron-like chairs, Eames chairs, standing desks, lots of collaborative spaces. Apple products everywhere.
Project teams are always housed into their own defined, but open, space where they can be immersed in the user research, inspiration, prototypes, and ideas all day. One time, a project team bought an Airstream as their project space.
The work we do varies from pretty cool to really freaking cool. You can read about some of the stuff we’ve done on our website, but to be general, it feels like play a lot of the time. We work with companies, often Fortune 500, to help them grow and expand in novel ways. We get to play with their new technologies. We get to build out how things should be, sometimes without worrying about the nitty gritty of implementation. That means we get to play with whatever tech we need to get the prototype working.
Every project is different. We have a process we talk about, and that acts as a guideline. Each project is dependent on the client, their problem, and their assets/advantages. As our founder David Kelley would argue, it’s not that we as designers are inherently more creative. We’ve practiced being creative individuals, and more importantly, being empathetic. As a result, we can confidently jump into new situations, learn quickly and think of novel solutions. In my first few months at IDEO I went from designing futuristic interactions inside a car to working at a handbag manufacturer to make a purse for London Fashion Week.
We’re all novelty junkies at IDEO. The different clients, the travel, and the constant learning keeps us on our toes.
IDEO doesn’t have many of the lavish perks that many Silicon Valley start-ups like to tout. We do get breakfast + lunch (some days), generous 401K matching, profit-sharing, unlimited vacation, but really, most of us work at IDEO because we want to do work at IDEO, not because of any perks. Most of us could, without much friction, get jobs at other companies with higher pay and more perks. But we don’t because we can create a lot of impact through our work here.
IDEO’s goal is not to keep people at work. Many of our perks are meant to bring people together. So rather than a plethora of snacks all the time, we have tea-time every Wednesday at 3pm where everyone converges on the baked goods, and facilitated serendipity happens.
One of the best parts (and sometimes the most criticized) is that we hardly have an org chart. We’re a group of creative people. We don’t take kindly to too much structure, but we also need to feel supported, safe, and guided by a minimal amount of it.
IDEO’s value is built entirely by its employees. IDEO doesn’t sell (m)any products or generate any revenue other than through the talent of its employees. And as an IDEOer, that’s an incredibly empowering feeling.