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Why a Bowling Shirt Made Me Love David Kelley

It was a Power Point slide of Ettore Sottsass in a bowling shirt that first made Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase, want to get to know David Kelley.

Fifteen years ago, Hackett remembers, the Ideo founder had been summoned to Steelcase’s Grand Rapids boardroom to talk to the company’s executives about why the office furniture giant should be more design-driven. In prior weeks, other designers had trooped through with predictable presentations about metrics and ROI.

Then Kelley showed up and started talking about the intersection of humanity and design. He’s tooling through his presentation, and up pops a slide featuring the renowned Italian designer, the founder of Memphis, in a blue bowling shirt Kelley had given him with "Ettore" embroidered over the pocket. The point? That good design isn’t always about great luxury or something unattainable. It’s about a human connection. Your bowling partner. Your favorite mug. A great umbrella for a stormy day.

"I totally fell in love with the guy," Hackett says.

Hackett is now CEO of Steelcase and, technically, Kelley’s boss. Ideo is privately held by Steelcase and Ideo’s leadership team, although the Palo Alto design firm is currently in the process of buying back its share. But Hackett and Kelley’s relationship transcends the ordinary hierarchical folderol.  There is, for example, the matter of the worm hole.

Kelley has a screen in his office that links to Hackett’s; Hackett has one that links to Kelley’s. But for the occasional confidential meeting or phone call, the line between them is open 24/7. So, while Kelley is in California and Hackett is in Michigan, the two are virtually working side-by-side, every day.

We talked to Hackett about what Kelley has taught him–from the importance of prototyping to how to fight cancer with butcher paper.

FC: When you finally hired Kelley to do a project, what did you notice about how he tackled things?

Hackett: We had him work on home office products for Turnstone. He asked if we’d come out and go through a charrette. When we got to the part about doing prototyping, I ended up on the floor cutting foam core. I remember thinking it was so unconventional compared to the way things were then being done at Steelcase–with lots of meetings. He had a whole team of people who had mastered the idea of turning observations into prototypes to create a better outcome.

FC: That must have been an ‘a-ha!’ moment for you.

Hackett: Sure was. I bought hook line, and sinker into this theory of design thinking. Now, I get to run a company with the effect of that theory. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

FC: You’ve mentioned David’s affection for bowling shirts. Maybe that came out of his background. He’s a Midwesterner, isn’t he?

Hackett: We both grew up in Ohio and can’t escape our Midwestern roots. I went to the University of Michigan and played football, so Bo Schembechler was a hero to me. There’s a big sign as you’re entering Barberton, Ohio, where David grew up, that says "Welcome to Barberton, Home of Bo Schembechler." And there’s a sign when you’re leaving that says, "Departing Barberton, Home of David Kelley." He got nominated to his high school’s Hall of Fame. He went out of respect for his mom. The ceremony was held in a bowling alley.

FC: You mentioned that David has also mastered the knack for applying design thinking to just about any experience. What’s been the most unusual application of that?

Hackett: When he got cancer, he invented a new way for people to organize the many medicines you have to take. He got a roll of butcher paper and diagrammed his regimen, so he’d remember what day of the week he was supposed to take each drug. He rolled it out, and hung it in the bedroom, then drew a line through the regimen for each day. Dealing with cancer is a very complex experience. It’s a mix of technology and medicine and emotional issues. Design is about delayering complexity to understand and make it better. Making it better is innovation.

FC: That must have been a tough time for you, too, given how close you are.

Hackett: This is a man’s story. When he was sick, I wrote him a note and said, "Remember when you were a kid and you were best friends, and it got to be dusk and your mom was yelling that you had to come in? Remember the moment–how precious it was—under that streetlight? You felt like you’d never have a friendship like that again. That's the way I feel about this guy.  When we're together, I have that feeling that I don’t want to come in. We are having so much fun.