IDEO – The future advertising agency?

As part of the excellent Internet Week Europe, I saw that IDEO were running a session on ‘How Technology is Changing Design’. For the uninitiated, IDEO are a global design agency – But not in the graphic design sense – More in the business innovation and product sense – lots of fingers – lots of pies sense – they wrote the book on it. Anyways, I was very excited to go see how they work, as a ‘Human Centric Designed’ approach is something these guys promote heavily and something that I’ve been applying to most of my work.

So onto the talk (my notes are a bit patchy and I’ve embellished some bits so please excuse me) – I’ll try and pull out themes. (If Tom you are reading this I would love to see your slides and please comment if I’ve misinterpreted anything).

Tom Hulme – Design Director of IDEO london was chief speaker. Interesting background as he doesn’t seem to be from a pure ‘industrial design’ background. Seems bloody smart and nice.

Exploit and Explore

When creating a new product, you diverge your thinking into many possibilities and then converge your thinking into the final product. This approach where you funnel all your intelligence into the final product, was a great when manufacturing processes were slow and responding to consumer needs were even slower. But now, with social media we can see the feedback to the product in a much greater scale and faster speed than ever before. This means that production cycles are getting faster and the need to respond to consumer feedback is greater.

The tools of the ‘diverge’ are deep dives, brainstorms, ideation, prototyping etc and the ‘converge’ are the industrial design, spreadsheets etc. You need to mess with those tools – use spreadsheets for creativity (price can be an amazing driver for innovation and creativity). Use creative tools for making business decisions. Mix it up. When you make choices, you might realise your end result is wrong and then you are back to creating choices again. Basically it boils down – Be in BETA.

Be in BETA

Business design can be unpredictable so prototype it and be in BETA – A great example is the Clover Food Lab. They are a restaurant and creating a new restaurant is a massive overhead and risk – finding the right location, renting a space, kitting it out, employing staff, cooking the right food etc. This is a tough business to get right. So they have a food van, they travel around, they change the menu – so they are constantly going to where customers want them, cooking the food the customers want and constantly learning and getting better. An amazing approach for a restaurant to take.

Designing for the whole

Ask yourself why Apple is so great. Genius marketing, beautiful product design, great UX, great retail shopping experience, great customer support etc etc All these things add up to that ‘amazing, magical’ experience that Steve Jobs exudes. But not one of these things IS the ‘magic’. A great phone with a terrible UI is a terrible phone. When you are designing a product – what is going to differentiate this product in the market – what is the marketing insight for this product? – basically bake in the marketing into the product. This is actually something Alex Bogusky and John Winsor wrote a book about.

To steal a quote from William Bernbach – ‘A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.’

Design is now democratized

The era of the lone designer is over. It takes an enormous amount of people to create a design. Technology has allowed us to open up the design process to the crowd to see if we can get better designs. So IDEO are trying this ‘crowd sourced’ approach to innovation and design with OPEN IDEO. If you are going to open up the design to the world, then you have to think really really hard about what you ask. Make sure your are posing the right question (spend a LOT of time on this). Make sure you have the right incentive / motivation for people to participate ($$$ / fun / fame). Make sure you can react to the contributions – don’t just do nothing about it. For me, this also throws up masses of questions about ‘what is design’ and ‘what can be designed’. Can user experience be designed or implied?

Making systems fun

Gamification is the buzzword de jour but it can actually be useful as an incentive. Computers are very good at crunching data but rubbish at understanding images – humans are very very good at understanding images but rubbish at crunching data. So why not combine the two? You can then try to train a computer to be a better. But that is quite a boring task. So if you wrap it up in a playful way, then you have people wanting to perform a menial task a WIN – WIN. Google took this approach and called it ‘Google Image Labeller. They made a game out of labelling images.

Reacting to feedback

Dustin Curtis is a user interface designer, he became so frustrated with the American Airlines website that he redesigned it – Because now we are in an age where you can’t just complain – you’ve got to improve to complain. And improve he did.

He posted it up on his site – It gained an amazing amount of press and then a UX designer for American Airlines responded. He told Dustin he had drawers full of redesigns but the web teams for AA were split across so many silo’d parts of the business that nothing ever was fixed. So you would think AA would react to this by making a redesign priority number one. But no. The AA designer was fired. Say’s everything really.


I’ve glossed over loads of detail. Tom was a great speaker – packed in a heck of a lot in 30 minutes or so. I was incredibly interested in how aware IDEO were about advertising and marketing. Also how they approach open collaboration and consumer feedback and I’ve got loads of questions about how this design approach can work for other creative industries.

Is the age of the visionary really over and is insight driven invention really working? The iPad for me is not a useful product. I said it would be a flop prior to it being launch – it’s just a scaled up iPhone and a not very good laptop. So why not buy an iPhone AND a laptop. But clearly people (millions) of people disagree. And actually it has created a new product category. Was the creation of this product down to a consumer insight? I’m not sure. I’m not knocking insight driven innovation here as I absolutely believe in this, but I think sometimes you have to give people what they didn’t expect.

Is consumer feedback really always worth listening too? Advertising generally hates market research on its creativity (a focus group on an ad is the kiss of death). Did Flat Eric or gorilla or go through testing? I’ve no idea. I doubt they would have got through testing as anything so bold is generally not accepted in testing. But then, the movie industry have got into testing in a big way. I see reports all the time of random people going to see an unfinished cut of a new film only for it to be twisted and changed (for the worse?) when it finally is released. Again I totally believe in testing and iterating through consumer feedback – but I’m talking about software and maybe stories shouldn’t (can’t?) be created like this.

All in a fantastic insight into IDEO. I would love to try and find a way we could collaborate with them. Advertising agencies are certainly trying expand their horizons – I haven’t met one agency who isn’t trying to get into into some sort of product or business development. It seemed that IDEO are the best agency placed to understand the marketing when they also create and fully understand the product. I really think if IDEO wanted to go this way, bring different creatives in house to get that storytelling craft they could become an ‘advertising agency’ (whatever that means these days). Heck they are probably already doing it already…

My final take out – Use the tools you want to use – There is no right way – Plan to make mistakes – Prototype, Prototype, Prototype, Collaborate (internally and externally) – Have some fun where you can.

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