“Talk less. Do more.”

And other lessons on design from IDEO Futures’ Iain Roberts

Images courtesy of IDEO

If history has taught us anything, it’s that wars aren’t won with weapons alone. It’s only in how you use them that the scales are tipped.

And in the world of business, those weapons are innovation and the applications of new technologies.

As part of our new podcast series, The Studio, we spoke with IDEO Futures’ Iain Roberts about blockchain, the future of design thinking, and bringing design and academia together. Listen to the full episode here:

Think of how Blockbuster, once a staple of neighbourhood street corners, fell victim to Netflix’s adoption of streaming technologies and has all but disappeared. Or how quickly Nokia’s dominance of the mobile phone industry plummeted after Apple and Samsung released the world’s first smartphones.

Time and time again, it’s not just knowing about a new technology that shapes the future, but knowing how to best empower users and customers with that technology.

“We had moments in the past year and a half when we could have done some things differently had we known that the industry was changing so rapidly.” — Stephen Elop, CEO, Nokia

It’s the job of places like IDEO — one of the world’s largest design and innovation consulting firms — to see ahead. To know what’s around the bend and switch gears before the hill comes into view.

And they know this because they lived it.

Back in 2001, they faced a dare-to-be-great moment as the original Internet 1.0 bubble was bursting and companies around the world were searching for new ways to make their mark through leveraging new technologies.

Iain Roberts — credit: IDEO

“I joined back in 2001 and IDEO was in the midst of a reinvention. We had built our brand over the past maybe 5 or 6 years on working at the intersection of new technologies: hardware technologies, Internet technologies. And so when 2001 happened, we rapidly had to reinvent what we were doing as an organization,” explains Iain Roberts, a partner at IDEO involved in IDEO Futures, who cut his design teeth in the UK working with James Dyson building tangible products such as vacuums and washing machines.

“So imagine a company back then that was still referred to as ‘IDEO Product Development’ known for making physical things and starting to connect them to the Internet 1.0 era.”

In the face of change, however, one lesson — one lens of viewing the world — has helped IDEO maintain their course: Always start with people.

This means using an anthropological and ethnographic perspective and being inspired by what people actually want or find usable and desirable.

Only then will new technologies move from being simple tools to integrated and integral parts of our lives.

And while this human-centric design process has been shaped since the company’s start in 1991, the breadth with which they’re applying these ideas has changed drastically.

Roberts’ lessons on the future of design

Inside IDEO you’ll find a group of designers and thinkers focused on what the future holds. They call it IDEO Futures, and it’s a lean group of people led by IDEO partner Diego Rodriguez that focuses on looking forward, connecting the dots, and seeing what the future of design and technology hold. And then building it.

Roberts, who is deeply involved in Futures, explains their approach to design as ‘a way to shape how humans live and interact at a core level’.

A lofty statement, but one that’s being put into practice around the world.

Pillpack (startup in residence) — Image courtesy of IDEO

In Singapore, IDEO runs a studio helping to design policy for the government, while back in the US, they’re looking at what the role of data is as a design medium.

But what all of these projects share, however, are two key beliefs:

  1. ‘Design thinking’ isn’t a top-down process: By decentralizing or getting rid of a typical company hierarchy, good ideas — or as they call them, ‘emergent ideas’ — will always bubble up.
  2. Talk less; Do more: Emergent ideas are always challenged in rallying the right resources to turn ideas into something more, whether that’s an idea, platform, or technology. So, as Roberts explains it: “Whenever we have a question around what we should actually be doing, our answer is go build a prototype and go test it with users or customers to understand if it’s successful. It’s this idea that everyone together is smarter than a set of individuals.”

Combine the two — an emergent idea culture and quick action — and you get what Roberts calls an “organism that feels quite chaotic at times but is capable of advancing on so many different fronts.”

“And so IDEO Futures is effectively the organization that helps IDEO see those emergent trends and patterns, identify the most important ones to focus on, connect the dots globally, and then incubate those things into new offerings for the company.”

How IDEO does ‘design thinking’

So, what then are the emergent trends, patterns, and technologies that Roberts sees changing the world in the near future?

Blockchain, bitcoin, and the future of trust

One example of how IDEO Futures is focusing on cultivating new and emerging technologies is their work with blockchain — a technology most familiar to those interested in bitcoin but with far-reaching applications outside of cryptocurrencies.

“When we think about a technology like blockchain, our challenge at IDEO is not to think so heavily about the technology, but about what that technology is enabling. Because those human beliefs, those human needs, they don’t actually shift that much over time.

“So if you think about how bitcoin and blockchain has come out in the world largely people have been focused on currency exchange and transaction.”

“By focusing on the human need, it actually allows us to focus on the things that are most important long term.”

“We actually set up a thesis that this is much more about trust, value, and participation. That it’s actually about decentralized networks of people coming together to create trust. To transact value. To think about the relationships that they build.

“We’re exploring trust and blockchain is our initial hypothesis about the technology that’s going to enable trust in the future. But we’re actually agnostic about the technology. It’s just a starting point. What we really care about is trust. What we really care about is building strong relationships. What we really care about is value transaction.

“Blockchain as it evolves today and as it evolves into the future tomorrow, we can be a bit more agnostic of that technology. But by focusing on the human need, it actually allows us to focus on the things that are most important long term.”

Design isn’t just for designers: Finding new ways to work together

Creating an environment of co-exploration has also meant defining new ways to work with talent.

In order to go an explore new technologies, IDEO’s built a new collaboration model called coLABs, which was pioneered by Joe Gerber and Matt Weiss. The idea is that a coLAB will bring together a consortium of partners who are all interested in the same space.

Instead of pooling together IDEO designers and saying ‘this is who is working on this project’, IDEO Futures and coLab interact with the relevant, leading-edge academic institutions — people who are coming out of places like MediaLab, HBS, Brown, or RISD and who have cutting edge insights but need a forum in which to explore them.

coLAB — Image courtesy of IDEO

“We’ve got two coLABs currently running: one here in San Francisco on trust, value exchange, and participation with blockchain called Bits + Blocks and the other actually based out in Cambridge, which is focused on the future of food in collaboration with MIT and Target and other partners around exploring what does everything from the personal genomics through to data-enabled food supply chain mean to how we interact with food in the future.

“It’s kind of bringing design far far far upstream into almost applied R&D. And using design to shape the application of technologies in service of people.”

“Those are super exciting for me because I can only imagine how that platform can expand further. I think about the future of mobility. The role of data in design. And you can almost imagine how these coLabs pop up and allow us, with our partners, to explore important themes for the world in the future.”

“I think this represents a significant step forward for how we consider design’s role in the development process. It’s kind of bringing design far far far upstream into almost applied R&D. And using design to shape the application of technologies in service of people. And it’s doing it in such a way that is quite innovative for our partners and taps into talent into an entirely new way.”


The future of the world, not just design, lies in how we interact with the tools that are more and more rapidly becoming available to us.

And as Iain and the team at IDEO Futures is showing us, we need to think broadly and openly, connect the dots, stay lean, and build more in order to make sure that we’re creating things that matter for real people.

Because in the end, good design does more than make the world beautiful. It makes the world a better place to live.

This post was transcribed from an episode of The Studio — a new podcast from Crew where we explore the lives, stories and inspiration behind today’s top agencies and creative professionals. Listen to all episodes here.