Encourage Wild Ideas

IDEO Product Development is the world's most celebrated design firm. Its ultimate creation is the process of creativity itself. For founder David Kelley and his colleagues, work is play, brainstorming is a science, and the most important rule is to break

Walk into the offices of IDEO Product Development and you quickly appreciate how many ways there are to describe new products. Computer screens display intricate designs embedded in software. Long rolls of butcher paper, spread out over conference tables, record doodles, scribbles, notes. Prototypes are everywhere and in every medium: cardboard, foam, wood, plastic.

Standing in the middle of things, admiring the creative chaos, is David M. Kelley, 45, IDEO's founder. Kelley describes IDEO as "a living laboratory of the workplace." The company "is in a state of perpetual experimentation," he says. "We're constantly trying new ideas in our projects, our work space, even our culture."

IDEO is arguably the world's most influential design firm. About 250 people work in a network of offices stretching from San Francisco to London to Tokyo. They create 90 new products a year, including some that have become familiar parts of our daily lives: Levolor blinds, Crest's Neat Squeeze toothpaste container, telephones and answering machines from AT&T. Others are icons of the digital age: cutting-edge laptop computers, virtual reality headgear, even automatic teller machines. But the firm's defining creation is the process of creativity itself. To understand how IDEO works, you have to see how it looks.

The company's main offices are spread over seven low-rise buildings in downtown Palo Alto, the heart of California's Silicon Valley. The people here (about 140 in all) work under tight deadlines and intense pressure. But you wouldn't know it from the feel of the place. Kelley is adamant that people can't be creative without heavy doses of freedom and fun. So there are no "bosses" or job titles at IDEO; all work is organized into project teams that form and disband in a matter of weeks or months. There are no permanent job assignments; designers in Palo Alto are free to move to Chicago or Tokyo if they can find a colleague willing to switch.

"The most important thing I learned from big companies," Kelley says, "is that creativity gets stifled when everyone's got to follow the rules."

That same spirit infuses the offices, which display lots of funky touches and clever twists. Consider the small matter of bicycles. It seems nearly everyone at IDEO bikes to work, so "parking" is a problem. The solution? An intricate system of hangers and pulleys that allows people to wheel their bikes to their cubicles, raise them to the ceiling, and retrieve them as needed. It's a bicycle rack in the sky.

There's also the matter of noise. The firm's twenty-somethings like to play music while they work, which can drive the other designers crazy. So IDEO created a special area for the youngsters -- dubbed the Spunk Space -- complete with a DC-3 aircraft wing that pivots on a pole to serve as a room divider.

Of course, all this fun and freedom is in the service of something tangible: radical new ideas that become important new products. Kelley says the primary "engine for innovation" at IDEO is its distinct approach to brainstorming -- the only part of company life where strict rules do apply.

Sessions are held in spaces dubbed (not-so-creatively) Brainstormer Rooms. There are three such rooms in Palo Alto, and they all have the same main features. Participants can draw almost anywhere: on whiteboard-covered walls, on conference tables covered with butcher paper. Multimedia tools -- television, VCR, computer projector, video screen -- allow for in-depth presentations or sensory stimulation. To help maintain the right spirit, IDEO's five principles of brainstorming are emblazoned on the walls: Stay focused on the topic ... Encourage wild ideas ... Defer judgment ... Build on the ideas of others ... One conversation at a time.

Project leaders call a brainstorm at the beginning of a new assignment or when they feel stumped. A typical session involves eight participants from a mix of disciplines: industrial design, engineering, human-factors analysis. Invitations go out over e-mail and attendance is voluntary, but no one takes brainstorming lightly.

"If you have a problem, you want the full force of the company behind you," Kelley says. "People feel incredible pressure to be part of a brainstormer. The next time they put out an e-mail, they're going to want the best people to come."

These sessions generate a frenzy of activity. In fact, their very productivity creates a challenge: how to record all the ideas. So each Brainstormer Room has a clever device (sort of a hybrid camera-copier) that photographs every drawing on the whiteboards, every artifact on the walls. The project team selects the most promising ideas and moves quickly to develop them.

The key word is quickly. Kelley encourages his designers to model their ideas (usually from simple materials like foam or cardboard) within days of coming up with them. As an idea becomes more robust, it goes to the company's machine shop, where powerful computer-controlled machine tools generate prototypes from plastic or metal within hours of receiving software files from a designer's computer. In creative work, Kelley believes, enlightened trial and error beats careful planning every time.

Indeed, one of the most popular slogans at IDEO is "fail often to succeed sooner." Which is why the company's designers store their diagrams, mockups and prototypes on large metal racks outfitted with wheels. When it's time to begin a new project, designers just grab an oversized roll of plastic wrap, seal their belongings, wheel them down the hall or across the street, and join their colleagues.

Can this formula for creativity work in other places? Some of the world's leading companies certainly think so. In a separate (and super-secret) building in Palo Alto, IDEO has opened a lab with Samsung, the Korean electronics conglomerate, where the two company's product developers can rub shoulders. In January, Steelcase, the office-furniture giant, made an equity investment in IDEO and named Kelley its vice president of technical discovery and innovation.

"Companies are coming to us and saying, 'How can you make us more innovative?'" Kelley says. "They want us to help change their corporate culture to make it as creative as we are."

Tia O'Brien (76061.740@Compuserve.com) has been a business reporter at KRON-TV in San Francisco and political editor at KYW-TV in Philadelphia. She is a contributing writer for "West" the Sunday magazine of the "San Jose Mercury News."