d.school founder taps into humankind’s innate creativity

In a wide-ranging conversation on July 13, David Kelley, founder of IDEO consultants and Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, talked about his belief in humankind’s innate creativity, the need for world-changing ideas and his friendship with Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Kelley, one of America’s leading design innovators, was a guest speaker at the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships 8th Reunion & Conference July 11-14 at Stanford. The Knight Fellowships’ focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership in journalism has been informed by the user-centered “design thinking” approach to solving complex problems pioneered by Kelley and the “d.school,” as the design institute is known.

1992 Knight Fellow Richard Sergay, a longtime television journalist, interviewed Kelley on stage in the high-ceilinged atrium of the d. school. Sergay had first interviewed Kelley in 1999 for ABC News’ Nightline, that time at IDEO in Palo Alto, focusing on the premier design firm’s unique style of teamwork. This time, the two sat before an audience of Knight Fellow alumni in white folding chairs filling the open structure, with its moveable furniture and dozens of whiteboards ready for brainstorming. The airy, sparse interior design of the building is part of Kelley’s approach to innovation.

“We wanted to make the space ‘not precious’,” he said, an egalitarian arrangement where student innovators would feel comfortable engaging with instructors. “We wanted to lower the status difference between the professors and students, and you can do that with space.”

Breaking down barriers is at the heart of the ideology that Kelley has used to help Stanford students as well as Fortune 500 companies innovate more effectively.

1992 Knight Fellow Richard Sergay in conversation with David Kelley at the d.school.  photo: Doug Zimmerman

1992 Knight Fellow Richard Sergay in conversation with Stanford d.school founder David Kelley. photo: Doug Zimmerman

Kelley, an electrical engineer, joined Stanford after hearing about its cross-disciplinary Joint Program in Design, which merged engineering and art. Under the leadership of President John Hennessy, Stanford was encouraging multidisciplinary partnerships.

Kelley began teaching design at Stanford in 1978. Design thinking didn’t catch on until many years later, he said, after he was tenured in 1990.

“I was a pretty obscure professor here for the first 25 years. Design was this thing that was nice. People would say ‘Where did you get those shoes? Or ‘Where could I buy those glasses?’ as opposed to ‘Here’s the strategic intent of the university – can you help me with that. That’s not the question I got.”

After he earned tenure, he started teaching classes with different professors, from art, computer science, business. He found that when students and faculty from the different departments came to together, it was easier to come up with innovations because they came with a range of backgrounds, and weren’t focused on relying on old habits and structures from their home organizations.

“Diversity is the number one thing that correlates to better innovation,” he said. Design thinking, a non-threatening methodology focused on people’s needs, was the glue that held the various players together.

“So when people from different backgrounds got together and said let’s go out and build empathy for the people we’re trying to help – in Africa or waiting for the train or checking into the hospital – for some reason all these varied disciplines, these big-shot professors trying to win a Nobel Prize in a narrow way, were willing to do that.”

Those early successes prompted Kelley to propose that Stanford establish an institute to bring all of Stanford’s seven schools together, from business and engineering to the humanities and law. “The university types said that’s nice and patted me on the head.” Around the same time, he mentioned his idea to one of IDEO’s clients, German industrialist Hasso Plattner, chairman of the software company SAP AG. “He said, ‘I’ll help you with that.’ “

Kelley thought that was nice and mentioned it back at Stanford. “People said to me ‘When a billionaire says he’ll help you, you’re supposed to call him back.’ So I did.“ With $40 million in hand, he got Stanford on board and the d.school was born.

Kelley credits the d.school’s success – it hosts about 750 students at a time – with the fact that there are no required classes, no degrees awarded, and the professors aren’t paid. “They have to overload this or get their department to pay for them. So everybody who’s here really wants to be here. “

Asked how he would define success for d.school graduates, he said: “I basically measure how many people walk away confident in their creative ability. “

Kelley is a firm believer that all people are “wildly creative.” What gets in their way is fear, he said. “It’s fear of being judged, that somebody is going to say that your idea is not up to snuff.”

Kelley and his brother, Tom, who is an IDEO partner, have written a new book about unleashing the creativity that lies within people. In the book, due out in October, the Kelleys draw on their work at IDEO, the d.school and with major companies around the world and outline strategies and principles they say allow anyone to tap into their creative potential at work and in their personal lives.  

Much of the d.school process is creative confidence building and de-sensitizing people to failure. Ongoing phases of development and re-development create a series of small successes that allow people to “see themselves in a different way, he said,” to experience their creativity.

“It’s hard to fail in our process because it’s so iterative,” Kelley said. “You come up with ideas, you show it to stakeholders, they say what’s wrong with it, and you go back and fix it. That allows you to have insights and build a point of view with a wider range of possibilities because you’re not afraid of failure.”

Successful innovation requires taking action on your ideas, he said, or, as someone once told him: “Innovation is creativity plus implementation.”

Key to design thinking is the continual re-imagining and re-construction of possible solutions by a team with diverse perspectives.

The d.school offers this re-iterative template as a launching pad for collaboration. The process starts with unearthing the needs of users that may not be obvious to a casual observer. The team tries to empathize with users and come up with ways to address their needs. It then prototypes an idea and cycles back to make adjustments and improvements.

One of the huge signs hanging in the d.school atrium reads: “Nothing is a mistake. There is no win and no fail. There is only MAKE.”

Kelley said he often talked about the design thinking process with his good friend and Apple founder Steve Jobs. “We talked about our kids most of the time. I applied the stuff I do here to the kids. He was much more receptive to the ideas we teach here about kids than he was about Apple products.”

Asked what he may have taught Jobs, Kelley said, “How a friend reacts when he’s being beaten up. … I taught him a lot about the importance of empathy.”

Apple may not have signed on to the d.school way, but many other big companies have. In a May 2004 cover article, Business Week profiled his design consulting firm, IDEO, and its work helping companies innovate.

“Companies want to be able to routinely innovate now,” he said. “It’s not enough to have an idea for the instant camera and then milk that for 40 years. That doesn’t work anymore.”

In fact, he said, the Internet, which has disrupted many companies and industries, has been a “boon” to IDEO. “Everyone’s trying to figure out how to react. The way we get hired is when a company is going through their strategic intent. They start to see sales fall off a heritage product that’s been selling for years and years.”

The fastest way to get innovation is not the way business has typically tried to change: by strategizing and making five-year plans, Kelley said.

“If you were asked to improve the experience of taking the train to San Francisco, you could start by analyzing the train. But we would just go talk to Caltrain and ask them to them give us a car. We’d tear all the seats out, or serve coffee on the platform, just do a bunch of stuff.

“We think it’s a way of thinking, this building and doing, as opposed to this grubby thing that manufacturing does after all the decisions are made. So we spent a lot of time with students and at IDEO jumping in quickly to find out as much as you can by doing something in the real place, with real people. Then you start to have real understanding, real empathy for the people. Then you’re much better prepared to start doing the strategic work.”

Near the end of the interview, Sergay asked Kelley about a personal topic which he has not spoken about much publicly. Kelly “was on death’s door” with cancer, and was given a 30 percent chance to survive.  Sergay asked Kelly: how did that health challenge change your life?

 “It wasn’t that I was pissed off that I was going to die soon; it was the realization that I was going to die at all,” Kelley said. “I’d been living my life in this kind of open loop way. All of a sudden I realized…I better start using that big box of Q-Tips I had.”

Shifting to a serious note, Kelley said that a turning point in his recovery was thinking about his young daughter and not just that he wouldn’t get to see her grow up – but looking at it from her perspective, that she would not have a father. He focused firmly on his treatment and getting well.

Fighting cancer gave him “this sense of being present and enjoying the day,” he said.  Previously, he would try to be in control and doing five things at once. “One of my old buddies said, ‘if it’s really important, somebody else will do it.’”