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When I began speaking with Michael Hendrix, who leads the Boston office of global design firm IDEO, I made the same rookie mistake many of his clients do: I offered a question that was too easy.
The mattress company Sealy, for example, asked IDEO to help them choose new fabrics. "We turned them down," said Hendrix, later in the interview. "It was too specific a request. It wasn't a strategic ask. What we were curious about was why they might need that."
When I asked an overly simple question—"What is design and design thinking?"—Hendrix didn't refuse the engagement. But his response—"I guess this is a pretty fundamental level, huh?"—redirected me just as surely as IDEO redirected Sealy. Ultimately, IDEO agreed to relaunch a sagging mattress brand, after the question was broadened to include the brand's recent sales decline, 165-year history, manufacturing process, and perceptions of retailers and consumers.
Reframing my question to Hendrix—to, "What makes a design project interesting for you?"—took us deeper into the specifics of design thinking than a simple definition would have.
Hendrix came to IDEO from Chattanooga's Tricycle, a company he cofounded that was built around a design solution for the floor-covering industry: replacing expensive and environmentally costly carpet samples with high-resolution digital and print images. If you think of design as the creation of a pleasing object, making a picture of carpet might not sound so hot. But Tricycle's design leadership has been lauded nationally and internationally. Design is not primarily about esthetics, according to Hendrix.
"If you've asked a designer to redesign the esthetics of something, you're assuming that's the problem," Hendrix said. "That's usually not the problem. It's usually a much deeper problem that's systemic. People are usually responding to some kind of negative outcome but looking for a solution in wrong place."
Where traditional business consulting is primarily analytical and reductive, IDEO is interested in opening up more options. "What is unique about the way we approach problems is that the main tool kit we have to approach a business challenge is design. We say we design toward strategy," said Hendrix.
While discussing some specific design challenges IDEO has addressed—from helping Jet Blue add first-class amenities without creating a class system, to helping health care companies monetize wellness and prevention rather than just treating disorders—Hendrix outlined some key design methodologies and sensibilities.
Prototype and fail often. "If you fail quickly, you learn quickly, and you can move on to the next step faster and with more confidence," said Hendrix. "In a lot of organizations that's counterintuitive and failure is considered... well, failure. In our world, failure is considered a learning moment to help you move forward."
Build on ideas. "If you've ever taken an improvisational comedy class, what you learn to do is when someone says something to you, you take it and you build on that idea and you give it back, rather than blocking the idea and kind of killing the conversation," he said. "Maybe design and comedy are similar. That's definitely a value of design. We're trying to build on the ideas of others and be optimistic about what they say and what the possibilities might be."
Value ambiguity. "A definite characteristic of design thinking is looking at the unknown as an invigorating place to explore, not a place to shy away from, not to be risk averse about," he said.
But methodologies do not add up to good design. "I think innovation has been boiled down by many people to simple methodologies, and I think what we've seen proven out over time is that approaching innovation as a department or event or methodology doesn't sustain itself," he said.
Hendrix is fascinated by a discipline called "embodied cognition," the idea that a great deal of our mental experience arises from our bodies as much or more than from our brains. For example, some research suggests that people with Botox treatments do not empathize as readily because their brows can't furrow in concern, or that artificial sweeteners cause confusion because sweetness is a signal to start metabolizing, but the body has nothing caloric to metabolize.
"As a designer, one of your strongest tools is empathy," he said. "Once you understand the situation people are in, you can start to find the opportunities to improve it. I think that's in contrast to what a lot of people think design is about, some kind of personal expression or vision and making that beautiful object. There are certainly places for that in the design profession, and there are moments in every project that require an execution of beauty. But the real need for us is to be empathetic with the people we're designing for. Everything else will follow from that. And anybody can do that, anybody can be empathetic."
Michael Hendrix will speak on "Innovation Culture" May 21 at 7 p.m. on The Public Library's Fourth Floor. Sponsored by AIGA Chattanooga, the event is open to public. $20 for nonmembers, cash or card at the door.