A Brief History of IDEO: A Short Documentary Takes You Inside the Design Firm That Changed the Way We Think about Design

The design firm IDEO was found­ed in 1991, which may not sound like an espe­cial­ly long time ago, but con­sid­er it in tech­no­log­i­cal terms: what kind of devices were we using in 1991? How did they look and feel? Chances are not just that the phone and com­put­er you now car­ry around bear no resem­blance to the ones you would have car­ried around — not that most of them could be car­ried around — 28 years ago, but that your fur­ni­ture and house­hold appli­ances have changed as well. And think, too, of your every­day expe­ri­ences with shop­ping, med­ical care, and gov­ern­ment ser­vices: some have trans­formed, usu­al­ly for the bet­ter, and if oth­ers haven’t, it’s prob­a­bly not a good thing that they’ve stayed the same.

IDEO has worked on the design of prod­ucts and ser­vices in all those fields and oth­ers, and has indeed done much to rede­fine the field of design itself. The com­pa­ny’s founders and employ­ees tell the sto­ry in their own words in the short doc­u­men­tary video IDEO and a Sto­ry of Design above, which focus­es on IDEO’s achieve­ments in chang­ing the way we think about design (exem­pli­fied by the time they redesigned the hum­ble shop­ping cart on Night­line).

And though IDEO as a cor­po­rate enti­ty has only exist­ed since the ear­ly 1990s, it has deep­er roots in the his­to­ry of design, appear­ing as it did as a merg­er of four exist­ing firms, David Kel­ley Design, ID Two, Matrix Prod­uct Design in Cal­i­for­nia, and Mog­gridge Asso­ciates in Lon­don. Kel­ley, who’s also a pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford, appears in the video not only to remem­ber IDEO’s found­ing, but also to talk about its future.

So does Tim Brown, who after nine­teen years as IDEO’s CEO announced last week that he will step down, pass­ing the posi­tion on to for­mer glob­al man­ag­ing direc­tor Sandy Spe­ich­er. When IDEO enters a world, Spe­ich­er says in the video, “we bring our cre­ative lens, imag­in­ing how we can make that world bet­ter. I’m care­ful about words like ‘solu­tion’ or ‘the answer,’ because these are peo­ple-based sys­tems.” That remark, as well as the oth­ers made by the vari­ety of IDEO peo­ple — in a vari­ety of accents befit­ting a now-glob­al firm with nine loca­tions around the world — pro­vide a glimpse into IDEO’s mutu­al­ly insep­a­ra­ble cor­po­rate cul­ture and its con­cep­tion of design. And if all their talk about rein­ven­tion, respon­sive­ness, and ask­ing the big ques­tions sounds a bit high-flown, most of it may come down to an old say­ing that holds up in every domain just as well today as it did in 1991: There’s always room for improve­ment.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: A Crash Course in Design Think­ing from Stanford’s Design School

Down­load 20 Free eBooks on Design from O’Reilly Media

Saul Bass’ Advice for Design­ers: Make Some­thing Beau­ti­ful and Don’t Wor­ry About the Mon­ey

Pao­la Antonel­li on Design as the Inter­face Between Progress and Human­i­ty

Mil­ton Glaser’s 10 Rules for Life & Work: The Cel­e­brat­ed Design­er Dis­pens­es Wis­dom Gained Over His Long Life & Career

Dieter Rams Lists the 10 Time­less Prin­ci­ples of Good Design–Backed by Music by Bri­an Eno

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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