Experiencing the world through the lens of an anthropologist, a conversation with Dennis Boyle

Dennis Boyle, Founding Member and Partner at IDEO, and Origami Innovations Advisory Board Member (photo courtesy Dennis Boyle/Stanford Medicine X)

It’s the moment you bring a plastic bottle to your lips to quench your thirst only to realize that it’s filled with laundry detergent misleadingly named after fruit. Or the time the volume on your airplane movie headphones rockets up because the control panel is underneath your neighbor’s elbow. At moments like these, you are the character in a “mistake made by some designer.”

Dennis recommends forming “opinions on what you think is good design and what isn’t. When you see something that you consider to be surprisingly good design” or surprisingly the opposite, whether it be difficult to use or an agent of mistakes, note it down. Take pictures of your discoveries and make a collection. This practice helps you cultivate a designer’s mindset and hones your ability to notice and differentiate good and bad design.

For Dennis, to perceive the world as a designer is to be an “anthropologist.” He finds inspiration in travel and the opportunity to “be surprised” and discover unusual objects and patterns. Just by nature of removing yourself from the same normal daily habits and places you occupy, you open yourself up to seeing new things. “When you go to a new city you find that people do things slightly differently.” A highlight for Dennis is Tokyo, where “you just always find something surprising.” Among the inventions he’s encountered are cool toys; “toys are always sources of inspiration for materials, mechanisms, and ideas.”

When it comes down to it, “designers and engineers are kind of constantly being impressed by interesting components or materials or design products or toys or mechanisms or things that are thermal, mechanical, or optical.” To dedicate space for such discoveries, years ago Dennis started TechBox, a collection of what’s now 800–900 things stored at IDEO’s Palo Alto office. It’s “just a bunch of drawers of things we’ve found over the years that are surprisingly interesting and you can go there for inspiration, fill a big box and put it on the table for brainstorming… we’ve had luck using it over the years.”

Another category ripe for anthropological investigation is what Dennis calls “workarounds.” When conducting design research, Dennis recommends looking out for these natural life hacks. What are people “doing out there” to solve a problem without even thinking about it? How are people “reinventing their environment, so that they get done what they need to do”?

They might fix a problem “by taping it” or they might use “a hammer or a cork or a fire extinguisher to hold the door open.” Dennis noticed surgical teams organizing wires “floating around next to a patient” by weaving them through the patient’s toes. “Follow the things you do to try to make something work in your environment.” Workarounds promote problem-solving by suggesting, “well okay, that works. Is there something else that might be better than wrapping around the patient’s toes?”

As a problem solving process, design thinking is a balance among “what’s desirable, what’s viable, and what’s feasible.” You need all three — the human, business and technical aspects — to be innovative, but you always have to start with understanding people’s needs and motivations first as opposed to launching directly into working through a business plan or a piece of technology.

For example, you might be tempted to start with what you have — a cool molecule or technology — and then figure out how to make it resonate with people. “But that doesn’t usually work very well and you get off on the wrong track and you get stuck.” But if you start by asking what the real problem is that people are experiencing and what they need, “that’s the fundamental place that design can really make a difference.”

Origami Innovations is excited to welcome Dennis as an Advisory Board Member to carve out a greater presence for design in New Haven. He is passionate about healthcare and medicine and teaches “Design for Healthy Behavior” at the Stanford d.school.

Dennis cautions that Origami’s design initiative might not be an immediate “slam dunk,” as we might encounter an “Uh, I don’t get this. What? We’ve got work to do here” from skeptics. But “there’s a lot of growing knowledge and sensitivity to human-centered design.” It’s found a place in the core values of many organizations and Origami looks forward to continuing the momentum and inspiring entrepreneurs with its creative possibilities.