Preston Smith's Corner

Book Review: The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm

Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman; New York: Doubleday, 2001, 308 + xii pages, US$26.00

Over the past ten years, IDEO has won the prestigious Industrial Design Excellence Award (sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America and Business Week) more times than any other product development firm. Indeed, one could rank IDEO as the best product development firm in the United States, perhaps in the world. Tom Kelley is the General Manager of IDEO and the brother of the firm’s founder and leader, David Kelley. The book is Tom Kelley’s explanation of IDEO’s success formula.

This book is for anyone who wants to know what makes for prolific product innovation and what they can do to improve their own innovativeness. It would be useful to managers in almost any industry—high- or low-tech, product-based or service-based—who would like their organizations to become more innovative. Easy to read and filled with a broad variety of short examples, it would also be an excellent introduction to industrial innovation for any lay-person interested in how new products come into being.

First, a little about IDEO. David Kelley started the firm in 1978 as David Kelley Design, and their initial success was the first mouse for Apple Computer. They now have 350 employees, with a head office in Palo Alto, California, and nine others worldwide. Over the years, they have developed over three thousand products for hundreds of clients. Their output ranges from toys to medical instrumentation. Some of their best-known projects are the Palm V personal digital assistant, the Crest Neat Squeeze stand-up toothpaste tube, Amtrak’s Acela train, and a shopping cart developed in four days to illustrate innovation on prime-time television.

Kelley intends that “This book will help you to arrive at insights that are directly relevant to you and your company.” (Page 4) However, he warns, “It’s not a matter of simply following directions. Our ‘secret formula’ is actually not very formulaic. It’s a blend of methodologies, work practices, culture, and infrastructure.” (Page 5) Their methodology, which Kelley cautions is interpreted very differently for each project, is a common-looking five-step process:

1. Understand the market, the client, and the technology.
2. Observe real people in real-life situations to understand how they might relate to the proposed product.
3. Visualize new-to-the-world concepts and the customers who will use them.
4. Build, evaluate, and refine prototypes quickly and iteratively.
5. Commercialize the new concept.

Observe, however, that this process is far more front-loaded, customer-focused, breakthrough-oriented, and cut-and-try than the typical stages-and-gates process.

Each chapter explains a facet of the IDEO formula. For example, Chapter 3 describes how the observation in step 2 above starts with a healthy dose of skepticism: “Plenty of our well-meaning clients duly inform us what a new product needs to do. . . . Of course, we listen to these concerns. Then we get in the operating room, so to speak, and see for ourselves.” (Page 26) For example, in observing how little children brush their teeth, they noticed the “fist phenomenon” in which all fingers wrap around the handle, in contrast with older kids, who point fingers up the shaft. Consequently, they designed Oral-B’s Squish Grip youngster toothbrush with a large, toy-like handle. Fertile ground for observing, Kelley notes, are the rule breakers: users who make the product do something the manual says it can’t do.

Chapter 4 delves into the “religion” of brainstorming at IDEO, and Kelley starts right off stating that the problem with it is that everybody believes they already brainstorm. We quickly learn that we are novices relative to IDEOers. To them, brainstorming is a complex skill, more like playing a piano than tying one’s shoes. Just like a manual skill, brainstorming requires frequent practice. If we only practice it once a month, we become mentally flabby compared to those who exercise twice a week. Also, brainstorming doesn’t just happen on product concepts at the beginning of a project. If the team becomes stuck on anything midway through a project, rather than waste time spinning their wheels, they convene a brainstormer (brainstorming session) and get unstuck again within an hour. Kelley provides plenty of positive tips for brainstorming, but more illuminating perhaps is his list of “Six Ways to Kill a Brainstormer,” which includes letting the boss speak first, doing it offsite, and writing everything down.

Chapter 5 deals with teams, which Kelley calls the heart of the IDEO method. Rather than the traditional jargon of “high-performance teams,” Kelley calls them “hot groups.” What is a hot group? “It’s the difference between administering a trust fund and making an MTV video.” (Page 70) As opposed to common practice, in which management assigns members to teams, IDEOers pick their teams and their team leaders.

IDEO puts great emphasis on team facilities. Each team is expected to build its own “neighborhood,” and as Kelley notes, if you can’t tell when you are moving from one neighborhood to another, you don’t have neighborhoods. One team bought a DC-3 wing to decorate the ceiling of its neighborhood. Neighborhoods draw members in and encourage interaction. They get the team close to the hardware it is working on and facilitate holding quick, spontaneous meetings. Finally, they recognize the primacy of the project.

Notice that the way in which IDEO looks at workspace opposes the current trend toward working “virtually” in characterless cubicles. Given the very high cost of office space in downtown Palo Alto, where IDEO houses most of its workers, it is clear that they value productive workspaces highly. They believe that great spaces celebrate teamwork, and they invest accordingly.

Chapter 6, on prototyping, is perhaps the best of the book. At IDEO, prototyping is a culture and a language, a state of mind. Their “Boyle’s Law” (after one of their team leaders, Dennis Boyle): Never go to a meeting without a prototype. “Quick prototyping is about acting before you’ve got the answers, about taking chances, stumbling a little, but then making it right.” (Page 107) Prototypes force decision-making; they can persuade. In short, a good one is worth a thousand pictures. There are many ways of making prototypes, and modern computerization has reduced the cost of many of these processes tenfold, opening up new prototyping strategies. IDEO exploits the advantages of making numerous relatively cheap but crude prototypes early in the project to move ahead faster and more surely. This is in line with other recent literature [1, 3, 4] but in conflict with the “do it right the first time” mantra of many managers.

Being part of the IDEO culture, prototyping pervades the whole book. In Chapter 11, for example, Kelley cites two competitors to IDEO in a soapbox derby race that they entered against other Silicon Valley firms. These competitors were both more expert in the theory of building cars than IDEO, so they went with their “expert” theory without prototyping to test it. In both cases, their theory failed miserably in the real world against IDEO on the track.

Much of the last half of the book reinforced the concepts in the first half but did not add new dimensions. For example, Chapter 12 covers risk taking, but few of the examples concern IDEO, and it is largely an alternative way of expressing their prototyping philosophy in Chapter 6. Chapter 10 (the users’ experience) and Chapter 13 (user interfaces), likewise, were other perspectives on the material in Chapter 3 on user observation but lacked many IDEO examples.

IDEO is fast to market, and because I have a personal interest in this subject, I was anticipating some gems in Kelley’s Chapter 11, “Zero to Sixty.” The initial paragraph seemed to set the chapter’s objective: time to market “leap-frogs established players before they can get off the ground.” (Page 221) However, the rest of the chapter was about speed of a racing car, not speed of development, totally missing the point that I was anticipating!

By coincidence, I read The Art of Innovation just after completing the new edition of Cooper’s Winning at New Products [2]. Cooper claims, and independent research corroborates, that 60 percent of manufacturers use a version of his Stage-GateTM process and that there is strong correlation between use of such processes and product development success. Thus, one could conclude, statistically, that such processes are the route to successful product development. By other measures, IDEO is an exemplary product developer.

I was struck by the dramatically different ways in which Cooper’s firms and IDEO attain product development success. For example, the two authors agree on the fundamental importance of teams; but Cooper devotes about five pages to “the right organizational structure, design, and climate,” (page 95) and does not even list teams in his index, while Kelley devotes at least two chapters and nearly a full column of his index to IDEO’s hot groups. They agree on the importance of customer input, but go about obtaining it much differently, Cooper using mostly formal methods, mainly carried out by marketing, and Kelley by getting designers themselves informally into the users’ shoes. In other areas they are even more divergent. Cooper says, “Do it right the first time,” (Page 110) while IDEO says, “Fail often to succeed sooner.” (Page 232) In short, one approach stresses predictability, the other passion. Interestingly, Cooper’s first critical success factor (of fifteen) is “a unique superior product.” (Page 83) Kelley’s whole book—brainstorming, hot groups, prototyping, customer observation, and interface design—is about achieving this.

As you might suspect, The Art of Innovation is a work of art itself. It has an understated, embossed dust jacket, is stylishly typeset on elegant paper, and employs a page layout that is both appealing and conveys the theme of design. This book is beautifully illustrated with color and black-and-white photos (not a single piece of line art). Don’t miss the photo on page 119 of an IDEOer skateboarding through the team neighborhood! Unfortunately, this polished, finished aura doesn’t seem to allow Kelley to illustrate some of the quick, crude, dumb prototypes that he espouses, so he doesn’t quite “walk his talk” on prototyping philosophy.

You have several options for proceeding with this book. You can just read and enjoy it. You can buy it and place it on your coffee table—or your boss’s—and hope for osmosis. You can attempt to implement some of its teachings yourself. Or you can work with IDEO onsite to absorb their approach to product development. They offer and encourage several avenues for this, including IDEO U—see www. Although IDEO may be the most prestigious firm in this business, they have several very able competitors that would probably also be quite willing to work with you to simultaneously develop your product and transfer their techniques to your organization (although IDEO seems to be less concerned about client secrecy than the others, thus more open to visits). I am amazed that so few companies exploit this combined opportunity to have IDEO develop their product while improving their own development methods.

Preston G. Smith, CMC
New Product Dynamics


1. Clay GT, Smith PG. Rapid prototyping accelerates the design process. Machine Design 2000;72(5):166—71.
2. Cooper RG. Winning at New Products. 3rd edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing, 2001.
3. Schrage M. Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
4. Thomke S. Enlightened Experimentation: The New Imperative for Innovation. Harvard Business Review 2001;79(2):66—75.

(Reviewed in the Journal of Product Innovation Management, January 2002, pp. 101-03.)

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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