How To Launch Your Own Ideas Lab

Jan 29, 2016 · 5 min read

Gordon Moore’s prediction of an exponentially growing technological evolution has proven true and reached every industry, from healthcare to retail, from government to education. Design has not remained immune to this accelerated change. On the one hand, as technology disrupts traditional communications, transactions, and business models, designers’ focus on outcomes and user-centered experiences becomes essential in retaining and enhancing our humanity. That is why demand for designers is high and why companies rush to build (or acquire) internal design teams and proclaim their commitment to becoming design-driven organizations. On the other hand, the accelerating rate of change is forcing designers to evolve themselves.

To remain good designers, it is no longer enough to imagine and create constructs. We need to be able to give our ideas shape and form quickly and then either bravely discard them if they are not strong enough or invest in them when they show promise. We need to become makers. For design consultancies, this is not a question of choice, it is a question of survival.

Two years ago at Artefact, we launched our internal incubation program, Startefact. To kick off, Startefact called for new ideas — hardware, software or a service — as part of an internal pitch fest. Everyone who works at Artefact could vote on the ideas they believed in, and the winning ideas became the first Startefact projects. We then dedicated time and resources to take these ideas to the next level. The first round of Startefact resulted in things we built (the Purple locket,the BrakePack backpack), something we launched (the Civic IQ commenting platform), and something we experimented with (the Token payment bracelet).

During the process, it occurred to us that, although we like to think that innovation is part of who we are, the challenges we encountered in launching our incubator were not trivial. For organizations a bit more set in their ways, a bit less committed to innovation, or a bit bigger than ours, this process must be that much harder. So, in the spirit of sharing our experience, here are four lessons we’ve learned so far from running Startefact and the changes we are making to the program.

1. On the journey of making something real, be prepared to give up some control. Innovation is a messy process. While we hoped we retain control in the process of running Startefact, we realized that early in the process we have to embrace ambiguity and the outcomes that might happen. We had a vision of our end goal, but we could not anticipate all the challenges and discoveries along the way. We had to be ready to pivot from one week to the next as we dived deeper into building out the ideas. But it is that ambiguity that also accelerated our learnings. Working on Purple and trying to source a circular display introduced design challenges that made us go back to the drawing board.

It’s good to give up some control but giving up too much can create chaos. When we did the first pitch fest, we did not put any guidelines in place and as a result we got an extremely wide range of ideas, from a video game to a bottle opener, a school curriculum book to a digital photo-editing platform. Our method of crowd-funding filtered out many of them. Yet if our goal was to accelerate learning and get better at spotting a winner, we needed to ensure that ideas we invested in built on skills and knowledge. That is why in this year’s Startefact, we introduced “themes” so that we can deepen our expertise in areas like education that we believe that are ripe for innovation. To reign in unpredictability and also take advantage of and deepen existing knowledge bases, construct ideas around designated themes or concepts.

2. Protect new ideas while reaching decision points quickly and confidently. The chemistry of innovation is delicate. You have to resist the urge to create idea barriers too early in the process because these barriers could crush something unique and valuable. At the same time you want to provide some guidelines to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. Finding the right balance between freedom and direction, between a broad exploration and deep analysis, gets easier the more often you go through the process, but it’s never a hard-wired process or timeline.

One way to counterbalance the effect of unexpected curve balls is to compress the time frames and build prototypes of the ideas as quickly as possible. This year, we are running Startefact in two-week sprints. At the end of each sprint, we take stock of where we are at and try to objectively determine if we want to invest more time in developing the idea or if it is time to move on.

3. To go from making to shipping, you need the best partners as well as an internal commitment to the project. We are a company of 60. We have diverse talents and can go pretty far in building products and even launching a company. But the distance from building a prototype to going to market can be impossible to cover without the right partners. For hardware like Purple, that means engineering, manufacturing, distribution, brand and retail partners, each pursuing their own innovation priorities, at their own pace.

It is easy to dedicate resources to a program like Startefact when times are slow. But when you have a solid pipeline of client projects, or are under pressure to ship a product or maintain your current offering, it is easy to justify pausing or giving up. Innovation is like exercise: to see results, you need to commit to it and make it a priority. You also need to create the conditions for people to collaborate and share ideas, so that all that chemistry can happen. We would not have been able to create BrakePack without the direct collaboration between designers and developers, who worked through the software and hardware challenges as a team to come up with a solution that worked.

4. Try. Learn. Repeat. The value of being a maker is as much in the process itself as it is in the final product. We set off on our first incubation program somewhat blindly but with enthusiasm. Two years later, we have converted all the insights and lessons we gleaned from the experience into a tool, code-named Project Helium. It is the synthesis of running Startefact and working with partners who share our entrepreneurial spirit on their own innovation efforts. And it is something we continue to refine and continue to learn from.

If you make learning part of your program’s goal, then even setbacks become a source of knowledge and experience that otherwise you would not have acquired. And often the process itself gives you an idea that is worth nurturing.

A version of this article originally appeared in FastCo Design.

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Perspectives on designing the future