The Next Big Thing in Design

IDEO has joined a creative collective. Here’s why.

You may have heard that IDEO has joined the kyu collective (a unit of Tokyo-based Hakuhodo DY Holdings). kyu was formed by a group of diverse companies including SYPartners, Sid Lee, Digital Kitchen, C2, and Red Peak Group. It’s an exciting moment for us, and we wanted to explain why.

Since IDEO started over 30 years ago, we’ve walked the gangway from industrial products to digital experiences (which we started working on in 1985, when co-founder Bill Moggridge coined the term “interaction design” — a considerable improvement over soft-face, which he had come up with the year before to describe the application of industrial design to software products) to our current interest in designing complex systems. The rate of change has been dizzying, and today’s advanced technologies — AI, genomics, robotics, data science, the Internet of Things — have so outpaced our industrial-era organizations and infrastructure, they end up hitting institutional cul-de-sacs. The technologies don’t come to a halt, of course, they simply move on, seeking out other places where they race ahead. If our institutions are to survive, they’ll have to create new roadways.

That’s a design problem — one that requires new rules of engagement with a broad set of collaborators. We’re excited to have found those collaborators in a few like-minded design firms. Now we’re joining forces to form a creative collective called kyu.

Why now? Is it because we’re caught in the much ballyhooed death spiral of the independent design firm? Not so much. But we have learned a few things about what it takes to tackle today’s toughest systems challenges. Namely, that bringing human-centered design to education, government, healthcare — the sectors that need it most — requires a few important culture shifts:

1. We need to bust out of siloed design practices.
2. We need to develop ever-broader capacities, taking an interdisciplinary, deeply collaborative approach.

Take one example from recent work: it required a multidisciplinary team with a wide-ranging set of knowledge and skills to realize the vision for Innova, a K-11 school system. We built the school system’s curriculum, teaching strategies, buildings, operational plans, and underlying financial model from the ground up. In February of 2015, Innova became the largest private network of schools in Peru, with almost 20,000 students and 1,200 teachers and growing. It’s uplifting the middle class and helping give Peru’s next generation the chance to compete in the global economy.

That kind of project is what gets us out of bed in the morning. It emboldens us to work at greater scale. We’re not used to designing for and communicating to millions of people, but with new capacity, we’re hoping to get there. We turn our own questions on ourselves: What if we could help design education that readies today’s kids for the technologically enhanced (and challenged) environment they’ll grow up into? While we’re at it, what if we could then start addressing the very policy that shapes those educational institutions? That kind of moonshot systems thinking requires both agility and scale — it requires networked organizations and creative collectives. It requires designers who never stand still.

Another thing we’ve learned, largely from the open-source movement and the sharing economy, is that when individuals with their own aspirations and talents come together to build upon each other’s work and drive toward a greater goal, we can gain traction on much bigger challenges — and find new ways forward.

Of course, large corporations know this, too. They’ve realized design’s importance in nearly everything they do, and are either acquiring independent firms, or developing their own internal capabilities. We’re excited that design has become the keystone of doing business. That’s good for everyone. But when a company of tens or even hundreds of thousands hires a few hundred designers, the practice is still being treated as a tool, not as a core competence.

That makes the longevity of independent design companies — and collectives that have creative mastery at their core — all the more important.

You see, even when you have a pack of designers roaming your halls, it’s hard for analytical cultures to integrate creative ones. The reason being that analytical cultures traditionally start with an answer, and then break the problem down into its constituent parts, whereas creative cultures start with questions and look at problems holistically. We’re not delivering a verdict here that one approach is superior to another, just that one invariably ends up being dominant. From the very beginning, IDEO has been a culture that starts with questions. It’s the only way we know how to uncover pressing human needs and design toward them. That’s at our core.

But for us, those questions can’t be limited to digital experiences. We’ve been working on those for 30 years, and our hunch is that they’ve reached a “peak design” moment. That’s not to suggest that digital experiences are unimportant or can’t get any better, but simply that they’ve become commoditized at this point. It’s time to apply our collective design practice to greater challenges, namely:

1. Serving the needs of the global poor
2. Designing new approaches to health, including aging and the end of life
3. Designing healthy and profitable food systems that can serve the needs of all
4. Designing citizen-centered government services
5. Designing the future of our urban communities
6. Anticipating the opportunities and challenges of over-the-horizon technologies
7. Designing the future of work and the corporation itself

Those are the edges of design and it’s where we feel a gravitational pull. Organizations and systems must be redrawn so that they are able to make use of today’s technological capacity in ways that help humans, not hurt them. The sci-fi specter of A.I. that outsmarts us or an Internet of Things that controls us can only come true if human-centered design is not present at the drafting table. Bringing others to the party who feel the same way just makes us faster, stronger, and able to build things of which today, we can only dream.

Download the Chinese translation of this post here (中文).