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The Psychology of Design

IDEO’s Tom Kelley challenges what you think you know about design.

Tom Kelley
Source: Tom Kelley

Whether it’s a watch or a school, design is psychological. And all of us are designing things—whether our work space, kitchen countertop, or a party we’re thinking about throwing.

A world leader in bringing psychology to design is IDEO. A global survey by Boston Consulting Group ranked IDEO among the world’s most innovative companies. It is number 10 on Fast Company’s list of the Top 25 Most Innovative Companies, and has won more IDEA awards than any other design firm. In today’s The Eminents interview, I talk with IDEO principal partner, Tom Kelley.

MARTY NEMKO: Many people think they’re not creative enough to design things. Your experience at IDEO and in consulting elsewhere suggests that creativity can be improved. How?

TOM KELLEY: One key is to seek out fresh input: outlier people, outlier products, and outlier experiences. For example, at IDEO, we might talk to early adopters of consumer drones to understand their enthusiasm’s basis. Their answers and the underpinning emotions may suggest opportunities for helping the technology go mainstream. We also talk with people who strongly resist the idea of drones to deeply understand their concerns and identify appropriate design constraints.

MN: You tout another key to improving design ability. You call it creative confidence. Indeed, you co-authored a book of that title with your brother and IDEO co-founder, David Kelley. What is creative confidence and what’s key to gaining more of it?

TK: Creative confidence is the ability to come up with fresh ideas combined with the courage to act on them. A key to improving it draws on the research of Albert Bandura, the most cited living psychologist: structuring learning to give you small wins. That deceptively simple principle so often builds confidence and the courage to take on tougher challenges plus the resilience to persist beyond setbacks.

MN: Is there a first psychological principle that a designer should keep in mind?

TK: Empathy. That’s easiest to achieve if you’re creating products or services for someone just like yourself. So, for example, IDEO is designing new experiences for aging populations around the world, so it has been really helpful for IDEO to have the 91-year-old Barbara Beskind on the team. Of course, designers often must create solutions for people unlike themselves. And that’s where empathy comes in so they can create a product or service that will delight customers, simplify their lives, or give them peace of mind. Part of the reason customers like Uber so much is that it eliminates the awkward social moment at the end of a taxi ride in which you have to calculate a tip, pay the driver, get your change or receipt, and leave the vehicle.

MN: What’s an example of a big company taking a big design risk and what convinced them to do it?

TK: Big risks are always scary. That’s why we always try to break down big risks into small experiments. For example, when Steelcase wanted to rethink the rigid classroom chairs most of us experienced in school, we built over 200 quick prototypes to test the feasibility, viability, and desirability of different concepts and features. That spawned Steelcase’s Node Chair, which has became one of that venerable company’s most successful launches ever. That principle can apply to everyone: Do quick, low-risk trials before making a big investment of time or money.

MN: Watches come in an exceptionally wide range of designs, from minimalist to hypercomplex. Is there a key psychological factor that governs a watch designer’s decision where to place their next watch on that continuum?

TK: Today, watches are more about psychology than about timekeeping. You can get amazingly accurate time from a $10 watch from Walgreen’s or free on your smartphone. The rest is mostly about self-image and self-expression. So a human-centered designer must think, “What feeling does a customer want to have? What image do they want to project?” The most popular watches at IDEO, for example, are the made-in-Detroit Shinola models not because they keep excellent time—which of course they do—but because the company has a great story and wearing one feels like supporting the resurgence of American manufacturing. That feeling of purpose is much further up on Maslow’s hierarchy than the ability to tell time.

MN: An outsider like me would think that design would be a single person’s activity, yet as I watch IDEO in action, lots goes on in teams. Why?

TK: Although the history books of my childhood were filled with tales of lone geniuses and solo inventors, I believe most such stories were oversimplifications. Even Thomas Edison, the most prolific inventor in U.S. history, couldn’t have become an American hero without a bright, energetic team of collaborators at his workshop in Menlo Park.

MN: What’s next for Tom Kelley?

TK: I’ve become fascinated with Japan's culture and feel there’s an opportunity to make a significant positive impact there by complementing the incredible work ethic and technical excellence there with just a bit more human-centered design thinking. I’ve spent almost as much time at IDEO Tokyo this year as at my desk in Palo Alto. I am excited by the possibility of helping Japanese companies—especially young start-ups—to live up to their full creative potential. During my IDEO career, I have worked with clients in 30+ countries but, both personally and professionally, I find myself especially intrigued now by Japan.

Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.

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