Inside Stanford’s


A few (12) years ago I was lucky enough to work at IDEO in London for a couple of weeks. Colin Burns was leading IDEO Europe at the time and he made me feel welcome and inspired. I was given a window into creativity and innovation. I learned that visualising lots of ideas was very valuable and that a lot of the time ideas come from the people that you are designing for. I remember asking what the best pens were for design, only to find that the pen didn’t matter- it was all about the thought and sharing the thought as quickly and clearly as possible with others. Colin introduced me to the concept of a “T” shaped person- someone that has a depth of knowledge in one area and also a broad understanding of other areas. (The reason it is called “T” shaped is because the top of the letter “T” represents the broad understanding and the vertical represents the depth). I asked about using different materials in product design and was directed towards an excellent book by Kara Johnson (Materials and Design, The Art and Science of Material Selection in Product Design)

The next week she was visiting from America so had a chat with her and learned about materials – IDEO seemed to work like this- the knowledge was all around you- just talk to people and find it! Over the last 12 years I have followed some of the publications that have come out of IDEO and seen the thinking go from product design to service design to experience design. I started reading books by people inside IDEO and following their progression towards design thinking. These books include the following:

The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm by Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman

The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout…by Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown

and more recently

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley

I recommend you read all of them!

David Kelley, founder of IDEO and author of the book Creative Confidence (with his brother Tom) set up with George Kembel at Stanford University, California, USA (in association with the Hasso Plattner Institute of University of Potsdam, Germany) in 2004. Since then, they have been spreading the concept of Human Centered Design and design thinking. They worked with +Acumen to deliver an online course in Human Centered Design (now called Design Kit) that I have taken my team through a couple of times. The is seen as one of the leading design schools in the world. A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit.

After a week in San Francisco, I made my way to Palo Alto and to Stanford University. What a beautiful place. Peaceful, warm and relaxed but with a buzz of learning.  The is not big, it is a two storey classroom like any other. A bunch of people were already inside and I was greeted by Kathryn Segovia and Perry Klebahn for our tour.


Space is what you make it
White boards are stacked up all around and some are attached to the ceiling to form walls. Spaces can be created or removed. Everything is on wheels- the sofas, the tables. Nothing is fixed. A board is a division and a creative canvas at the same time. This lends itself to the nature of design and creativity.


Sometimes you want to brief a team or feedback things that you have learned. A lecture type environment works well for this. Discussion is best held sitting on sofas that are close enough to share ideas. Someone else wants to join? Wheel in another chair! Working on a laptop- wheel in a stool. Need somewhere to write or stick a post it note- bring in a board. Kathryn and Perry showed a time lapse video that Mark Grundberg has very kindly sent to me. This 2 minute video shows the fluid nature of space.


Prototype…. everything!
As mentioned in Tim Brown’s book, Change by Design, David Kelley calls prototyping “thinking with your hands”. By this he means that at the earliest opportunity you should build something to test. It is only possible to test if you have something. Having nothing is a discussion, having something can be iterated on and improved. People at the are very keen to make as early as possible as these two posters at the nicely point out…


Hand tools are hanging on the walls ready for students to use. sketches and post it notes are everywhere. There is a real buzz of getting stuff done. The runs courses but not before they have prototyped them, thats right, the courses themselves first go through a prototype phase. A course lasting weeks will have been prototyped for a few days with a few people to test the concept. The message is dive in early and be prepared to iterate. You can only learn by doing something!

Inefficiency is not the worst option
The could bring in many more people (there are plenty who want to study there). They could fit many more into the space. You could have a lecturer and a couple of hundred people learning. But they don’t. A culture of coaching means that in some cases there is a ratio of one tutor for five students. Some might say that this is very inefficient but the learning is not compromised. People who learn here get a very special experience.

A design team of designers?
Traditionally design is done by designers. One might think that the teams at are made up solely of product design students. They are not. The teams are crafted around the products being designed. If a medical product is being designed then the team will have medical students as well as business and engineering students. A core team may bring in users or other experts to offer their insight and advice. This mix allows for creativity to truly blossom.

My take aways
I really enjoyed my visit. It was not a shock as I have followed the progression of learning with IDEO and various books and workshops. It was however great to see the physical space and how it all comes together. I am keen to put all of this into practice back in London. I have three key points to bring back…

  • Prototype early and fast
  • Think with your hands (for us this means drawing out screens early on)
  • Facilitate design and encourage subject experts to be part of the creative process

On my visit Kathryn recommended a book for me to read…

The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life by Bernard Roth

I am half way through it and finding it fascinating.

A big thank you to Kathryn, Perry and Mark for the experience, to Colin Burns, Maura Shea and Mark Hudson for the IDEO experience (12 years ago!) and to Des Matthewman, Jonathan Phillips, Richard Stokes and others at Capita for helping me get to the and supporting me.

If you want to learn more about then you can visit the website.

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1 Response

  1. Gareth Rebecca's dad says:

    Very well written Joe. I must read that book that you are half way through!!

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