From a rack full of inventions at design studio IDEO, partner Andrew Burroughs pulls down a rough-looking prototype: a black film canister, a clothespin and a whiteboard marker taped together to look like a gun. He whipped it up a few years ago while discussing a design for a surgical tool known as a sinus shaver. “It goes up your nose and performs surgery in places that you didn’t know existed,” Burroughs says with a chuckle. The finished product, which he pulls out next, looks strikingly similar to the makeshift combo of office supplies.
“The medium you prototype in doesn’t matter,” Burroughs says. “It’s the quality of the ideas behind it that count.”
In its 20-year history, IDEO (as in idea, ideology or ideogram) has earned a reputation as arguably the most innovative design firm in the world. The mantra voiced by Burroughs is part of the company’s pedigree: When chairman and cofounder David Kelley’s Silicon Valley design house—one of three companies that merged in 1991 to form IDEO—birthed the first commercially available computer mouse for Apple in 1983, a butter dish and the ball from a bottle of roll-on deodorant were inspirations for the device.
Today, IDEO has nine locations in five countries, with headquarters in Palo Alto, California. Its airy office in the West Loop is just two years old, but many of the 60 employees have been working together for much longer than that. (From 1991–2009, the local outpost was in Evanston.) A sign in front of the elevator reads don’t wait for a fire to take the stairs; designers are encouraged to walk between floors so they might cross paths and chat about projects, which are collaborations with organizations as large as McDonald’s and as small as a public elementary school.
Two years ago, the bigwigs at Walgreens’ corporate headquarters in Deerfield approached IDEO with a question: How can we be the pharmacy of the future? A design team began interviewing customers about the drugstore giant. “People said, ‘Gosh, pharmacists are so busy, I’m not going to stop and ask them for anything,’ ” says Mark Jones, a veteran service designer at IDEO.
The new “Well Experience” format, which will be rolled out to 20 stores in the Chicago area by year’s end, reimagines Walgreens as a community health resource center. An on-staff “health guide” fields questions about, say, drug interactions or differences between over-the-counter cold medications. A classroom will host nutrition education seminars. And the pharmacist no longer hides behind a check-out counter; he or she will sit at an accessible desk, with a side room at the ready to have private conversations about sensitive health issues. A pilot location opened last November in Oak Park, followed by a second pilot in Wheeling.
Jones credits Walgreens 2.0 to IDEO’s “human-centered lens.” When the firm creates something, he says, it’s always with human wants and needs first in mind—as opposed to a business consultant, who may prioritize profit above all else. “We want to make something that helps people,” says IDEO design director Jerry O’Leary. “We believe you can grow your business through delivering good experiences.”
This philosophy comes with some offbeat research methods. Exploring how an operating room could better function, a project team consulted a NASCAR pit crew. For Bedsider, a campaign IDEO created for an organization seeking to lower rates of unplanned pregnancy in the U.S., communication designer Mary Foyder and her team got insights from a man who hated using condoms, as well as from a woman who was on the pill, used condoms and made her boyfriend pull out. “We’re not just looking at statistics,” says IDEO staff writer Annette Ferrara. “We’re looking at how people actually think about something.”
Four years ago, State Farm came knocking at IDEO’s Jackson Boulevard door. The Bloomington, Illinois–based insurer said it wanted to build stronger relationships with 18-to-35-year-olds. In late August, IDEO’s solution, Next Door, debuted in a stylish Lakeview storefront at 659 West Diversey Parkway (nextdoorchi.com). The so-called learning lab offers free life coaches and financial advisers who are available to discuss major decisions such as buying a car or a home. The only things being sold are espressos at the attached café.
As weighty projects keep rolling in, staffers do their best to keep things light. Periodic confabs featuring guest speakers on topics like “color” and “storytelling” are held over beer and chips; the rooftop garden yields fresh veggies to cook with; and fail early is a mantra. “When you’re dealing with a blank sheet of paper or foam core, ideas are very cheap,” Burroughs explains. Employees are encouraged to move straight from Post-its to the office workshop stocked with a Home Depot’s worth of power tools. Though, sometimes those things are unnecessary. Recently, a project team created a large-scale model of a new office for one of its clients—out of LEGOS.