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99U Conference

Tim Brown: Engage With the Unknown


In this conversation with Courtney E. Martin, IDEO’s Tim Brown discusses the arc of his career, and how creative industries have evolved, from the early socialization of design thinking to the changing relationship between design and engineering to the urgent challenge of design ethics.

About Tim Brown: Tim Brown is the CEO and president of IDEO. Ranked independently among the ten most innovative companies in the world, IDEO is the global consultancy that contributed to such standard-setting innovations as the first mouse for Apple and the Palm V. Today, IDEO applies its human-centered approach to drive innovation and growth for the world’s leading businesses, as well as for government, education, health care, and social sectors. Tim advises senior executives and boards of Fortune 100 companies and has led strategic client relationships with such corporations as Microsoft, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Steelcase.

About Courtney E. Martin: Courtney E. Martin is an author, entrepreneur, and facilitator. She has written and edited five books, including The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream and Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. She is also the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and has consulted with a wide variety of organizations—like TED, the Aspen Institute, The Obama Foundation, and The Sundance Institute—on how to make impactful, story-rich social change.

Full Transcript

CM: Good morning everyone. So first we’re gonna go, this is about the creative future, we’re actually gonna go to the creative past, and I wondered, Tim, if you would talk a little bit about your first inkling that you might be a designer, which I hear is that you played a lot with Legos. And not just like some people play with Legos. You built actually functional things that were needed in the household with Legos.

TM: It’s become a bit of a cliche hasn’t it, that all designers started off by playing with their, I’m English so it’s Lego in my world, not Legos, so I had big arguments with my publisher about that, they wouldn’t let me, and then I sat with the CEO of Lego a couple of months ago, and I said, “It is right, it’s Lego, not Legos?” and he said “Yes”. They hate the term Legos.

CM: All right Americans

TB: Just so you know

CM: You heard it here first. If you wanna please the Lego people, call it Lego, not Legos.

TB: Yes, I was obsessive about Lego as a kid, and I grew up in England in the 1970s which, if you think Britain is dysfunctional now, it was even more dysfunctional then. It’s hard to remember, it was even more dysfunctional. We had years and years of power strikes, and blackouts. On a regular basis my mother would have to try and cook our evening meal with no light. And so I built a huge flashlight out of all of the Lego and batteries and things that I could find, so that she could cook my dinner. That was the first product that I ever remember. I ever remember building.

CM: Amazing.

TB: I think I was about eight or something at the time.

CM: That’s amazing. And then, we’re fast forwarding a little bit here, you went to school, and we actually dug up your very first article on design.

TB: So I heard.

CM: You were a second year student at Newcastle Polytechnic, can we pull that up, I think I can do it myself here. This is 1983 Tim Brown, no little glasses. And one of the things.

TB: I was a little bit slimmer then, than I am now.

CM: Well you look great in both ways. So, you wrote, “A great proficiency in a certain skill, such as rendering or model-making, has allowed a mediocre solution to seduce those for whom it was produced”. Essentially saying, don’t settle for mediocre solutions. Which I feel like is actually central to your book, “Change by Design”, right?

TB: Yep.

CM: So when you hear that, how does it make you feel? Do you think like, I’ve always been thinking and writing about the same thing? Or does this feel like, vastly different?

TB: When I found this article, and I’d totally forgotten that I’d written it, it was actually while I was writing my book, so it was about 10 years ago now, and I read it again, and after I got over how, incredibly poorly written it was, and pompous it was.

CM: I think you were trying to be taken seriously.

TB: I was.

CM: You were young.

TB: No totally, and I was a designer who didn’t know how to write.

CM: We’ve all been there, right? Yes.

TB: The first thing I thought was, “Boy, have I not actually had a new idea in 30 years?” Because everything I’m thinking now, I was thinking then at the age of 20, or 19 or whatever it was. And then on a little bit more reflection, I realized actually, it was the start of a journey that has been my whole career. Where I’ve really simply asked the same question.

CM: Yeah.

TB: The answer has continued to evolve, but the question was what’s next for design. And I felt at the time, and I was hugely influenced by people like Victor Papanek, who wrote this wonderful book in the late 70s called “Design for the Real World”, which was challenging designers, to take the world seriously and actually work on problems that mattered, rather than the problems that were just put in front of us. And I was strongly impacted by that, by that book, and was simply asking that same question, I was like, well what are the problems that matter, and how might we approach them, and that’s the thing that’s provided energy for me, throughout my whole design career.

CM: Yeah, I mean it’s such an instructive example of the creative life, does have that through line that you can look at our childhood art, or your childhood sketchbooks, and see, oh even then I had these instincts, and so how do you kind of protect the instinct but ask it in new ways all the time, and in all the different contexts.

TB: You do have to do a lot of editing out of other things of course.

CM: Yes.

TB: But yes, yeah, I think it’s true. I mean design for me was, it did feel like destiny I have to say, and it wasn’t as though it wasn’t in my world, I mean I didn’t come from a design, my parents don’t come from a design background. My father’s a photographer, so he definitely had a creative piece to him. Design just felt like destiny, once I discovered it, although it took me a while, to figure out that design even existed.

CM: Where to plug in.

TB: But yeah.

CM: Well you have actually made it far easier for other people to discover design, right? Part of what’s so interesting about your book, “Change by Design”, which came out 10 years ago, so there’s this new edition which Tim has updated, with contemporary context and new examples, new case studies.

TB: And try to explain the embarrassing examples that didn’t quite work out how I hoped they would.

CM: Right, exactly. You’ve popularized design, in a big way. IDEO as an organizational force, has popularized design so much. Actually I wanted to ask in the audience, how many of you use design, well first this, how many of you define yourselves as designers? Raise your hand.

TB: Everybody.

CM: Okay, so a lot of you. How many of you use design thinking in your work, but do not define yourself as a designer? Okay, very interesting. I ask because this is part of what has happened, with your work, as a thought-leader and also with IDEO more generally is, over the last decade, this huge popularization of people understanding design, people using design thinking. What are the wins and kind of warnings of that? I know, of course that was part of what you were trying to do, but also, there’s always the fear that design gets watered down and people use it in ways that–

TB: No it’s a delicate balancing act, whenever you try and open up any, any topic or any act, any practice, to a wider audience. Popularizing anything has, has both positive and negative effects, but I’ve always believed that design as an act, as a practice, of purposeful, creative problem-solving, is just a lot broader than the piece of it that’s practiced by those of us who call ourselves professional designers. Or at least have the potential to be. Design gets less exposure than it deserves, but still gets quite a lot of exposure. The professional piece of design, more so than it used to, partly because of the transformation of our world digitally. There is just so much more design going on today than there ever has been in the past. The practice of creative problem-solving through, the thing that we as designers do all the time, is just not well understood by those that don’t have the good fortune to end up in our line of work. That felt, again going back to people like Victor Papanek, who was pointing out problems that could only be solved in circumstances where people who were not professional designers were likely to be working, right. In parts of the world where there aren’t designers, or in parts of society where there aren’t designers. Unless we popularize design methods and design approaches, and we use the convenient term design thinking, even though I think that’s also got some downsides to it, but anyhow, unless we do that, there’s no chance that those challenges are going to be taken up. There simply are not enough professional designers on the planet, to be able to tackle all the problems that could be productively tackled, by taking a design approach. So I just felt, it’s sort of, a non-zero-sum opportunity. Right? It’s not like we’re trying to fight over slices of a pie that’s the same size. It’s about making everything, making the potential so much greater. So I felt, just, anything we could do to achieve that, would be worthwhile. Of course the downsides are obvious, to any practicing designer, we all know that it takes years and years of practice to become truly deep and good at, crafting design solutions that are truly as multi-faceted as they need to be, in terms of their form of creation, their manufacturer if you come from the product design, however you wanna talk about it, their form of production, as well as how they face the world, and how they travel through the world, and that is not something that can be taught in a half-day workshop, and not something that can be practiced after only having tried it out once or twice. So that idea of mastery, which is so crucial to successful design, is something that can get glossed over very easily when you’re popularizing something. And that’s true of any topic that you try to popularize. We try and talk about it a little bit in the update, of the book that, that there’s a lot of potential for increasing our mastery as well as increasing the scope and scale of design.

CM: Talk more about that, because I was really intrigued by your use of the word mastery, and on the one hand we have people who think, I bought a stack of Post-it Notes, I’m doing design, right, so a real misconstruing of what design is.

TB: We do know that 3M Corporation did quite well–

CM: But on this side of the spectrum, the mastery side, how do you recognize mastery? I know it’s a hard thing to pin down, but can you say a little bit more about it?

TB:There are important and different aspects to it. There’s one piece of mastery that I think is tremendously important, which is one that David Kelley, my colleague and founder of IDEO talks about when he talks about creative confidence, which is that true masters of design have the ability, have confidence, and they’re able to create solutions, that are of much greater scope and scale, even though they have no idea what that solution is gonna be when they start. That confidence to leap into the unknown, is a form of mastery. There’s a sort of mindset piece to it. There are clearly the mastery of the skills of the making of one’s design’s solutions, whether that’s crafting something digital, crafting something physical, or crafting a great story or whatever it might be. That ability to do that, to a level of resolution and imagination, comes with practice, comes with having reference points about what you’ve done before and what other people have done before, knowing what good looks like. It takes a long time to know what good looks like. It’s very easy to be satisfied with an idea simply because you had the idea. That’s what many neophytes in the creative world, struggle with. I’ve had an idea, it must be wonderful. Well no, it’s not wonderful, because a thousand other people have had that idea before you, you just haven’t noticed yet. Knowing what good looks like I think is important. I think there are new forms of mastery that are emerging, that even for those of us who are well-practiced as designers, are having to struggle with. I was just having a conversation upstairs with some folks about the shift in the practice of design that happened post software. Which is the idea that design is no longer, is now no longer ever finished. In the pre-software world of design, you set design at the beginning, and then it was fixed because you couldn’t change it. You couldn’t change a physical product, you couldn’t change a piece of print, it was done. Now everything we design, almost everything we design, continues to evolve. Mastering that is no small challenge. Understanding how to continue, how something continues to evolve, I don’t think we understand how to do that well yet, as a–

CM: Mastery used to be about a finite moment, where you could say, okay that was mastery, now it’s this managing–

TB: Exactly. And then complexity is another one. We’re being asked to take on design problems, which are many, many times more complex, than the things that we were asked to take on just a few decades ago. So understanding the interrelationships between different touchpoints in an experience, or in a complex system where there are many, many different stakeholders and many, many different users, it just goes on and on and on. That is something that’s very hard for us to master.

CM: It’s interesting because when you were first talking about mastery, I was thinking it was sort of logical that older designers, people who have done a lot of projects, and been exposed to a lot of ideas, would have a, more of a chance of having some mastery, but then as you continued talking then the latter part, if you grew up in this moment, if you’re young and you’ve been used to these wicked problems and you’ve been used to the way in which there is no finite moment, you might actually be closer to mastery. How do you think about age–

TB: I think it’s a real challenge. I was talking about this to my friend Neri Oxman at MIT, about a year or so ago, I was asking, “well how”, because she’s doing all this wonderful work with software and algorithms in the physical world and so as a product designer I was like “how do you do this, how do you move backwards and forwards between the world of software and hardware?” And she doesn’t, because she designs in code. So she’s a physical designer of materials that’s designing in code. I have no conception of how to do that. Absolutely none. She’s an embarrassingly large number of years younger than me, but yes, for her it’s native. I think that is a difficult challenge. There will be forms of design which will be fit for the future that many of us who are existing practicing designers today might never master. Or at least we’ll have to work very much harder to master because we didn’t grow up with it intuitively and natively.

CM: But it also speaks to one of your main points in this update, which is that design, like the future design, a creative future, is not about individual designers, it’s about teams right? So the more intergenerational teams, the more diversity we have on teams from different backgrounds like the more apt we are to tackle those problems.

TB: This is an article of faith for me. I’ve found that time and time again as I think about the designer of anything and everything, almost always, the most useful examples are found in biology, they’re found in the natural world. I think about fit ecosystems, they’re always the ones that are the most diverse. Whether it’s a rainforest in the Amazon or a healthy freshwater lake in somewhere in the world, these things are rich, diverse ecosystems and they evolve.

CM: And deeply collaborative.

TB: Well, in a certain sort of way. They exchange a lot of information which if you think of collaboration as being about the exchange of information, then yes. I think probably one of the biggest disadvantages that the practice of design has today is it’s actually one of the less diverse human societal practices. That it grew up out of a tradition that was largely western European, largely based on people with enough wealth to be able to go to art school and design school. There were a whole bunch of disadvantages that design started with, that it’s now having to combat. Fortunately we’re beginning to see that happen.

CB: And Kat’s gonna speak to that, we’re in good hands people. So you wrote “more good ideas die, because they fail to navigate the treacherous waters of the organization where they originate, than because the market rejects them”. I was so struck by that, because I know there are a lot of designers in the audience who are working within organizations, and we all think it’s all about having the great idea, but actually, it’s the people right? It’s like getting the great ideas through the maze, and brokenness and beauty of humans, that is the challenge. So do you have advice for the folks here about how to get good ideas through the maze of organizations?

TB: In some ways, design is politics and politics is design. Maybe the politicians would claim everything’s politics I suppose, but the truth is, so much of design is about the relationships with people. Obviously the source of design is about our relationships between people and technology and people in the world, but the success of our design relies on our understanding of people and of the social organizations that they’re part of. A pal of mine, Roger Martin, who’s a business strategist, who’s written a lot about design, he and I wrote a little article in Harvard Business Review a couple of years ago on this idea, we called it Intervention Design, I think it was a bad title, but it was this idea that you can design the interventions, that make it more likely that your ideas will succeed. You can think of that as part of the set of creative problems that you’re trying to solve for.

CM: Like the super stretcher–

TB: As well as the application or the product or the service or whatever it is that you might be designing for the end user, that you actually have to design for the organization that is responsible, that is the vehicle for that thing that you’re designing. Whether you’re in a startup or whether you’re in a large corporation, or in a nonprofit, there is always an organization that is the vehicle for everything we create. And you can design for that. There are some things we do naturally as designers which turn out to be useful pieces of intervention design. One of them is, we make stuff, right? And it turns out organizations have a much easier time believing in something they can touch and feel and see, than they do in things that they’re being asked to imagine in their heads. The advantage that we as designers have over the folks that put Power Point decks up on the wall, or up on the screen, is that we can make things real. Making things real as early as possible is one of the tools that, in my experience, helps you get ideas through organizations. But I think there are other things that we can, one of the things we’ve been studying at IDEO for a number of years now is the relationship between how purposeful an organization is and how good at design and innovation an organization is. And there’s a high corelation between the two. The more purposeful an organization is, the more it knows why it exists beyond making money, the more likely you are to be able to create new ideas and have those ideas garnered. In fact we’ve got data that shows you’re two or three times more likely to be able to get new ideas out into the world successfully. I think it’s fairly obvious why that is the case, because if an organization only can judge things based on whether or not it can make money, it is almost always going to be highly incremental in the way it thinks. But if it’s got some purpose in the world, it’s trying to achieve something meaningful, then ideas have a place to take hold, they have a place to take flight, they live longer. The thing about ideas, new ideas, is that, they’re like, I don’t know what the right word for it is, but they’re like fragile, new species. They have to live for a while before they start to flourish, and show their potential. And if they get killed because we don’t know how to make money out of that, they get killed right at the beginning, then they never have a chance to flourish.

CM: Well this is interesting, because one of the things Will pointed out in his introduction, was that the number one fear around here is financial constraints and how that constraints creativity and constraints design. For folks who aren’t in an IDEO-like setting, but may be working with more financial constraints, do you have advice for them, on how to navigate it?

TB: I think financial constraints are totally healthy and fine and inevitable, two kinds of financial constraint obviously there’s the resource constraint, the financial resource constraint, which, do you actually have enough resources to go do something new and do something interesting. We have to know how to deal with that. And then there’s the constraint I think I’m talking about here, is the financial impact constraint. Is this idea gonna make money for us? I think we have to be extremely adept at arguing not just of the merits of the idea, because it’s gonna make users happy, or they’re gonna like it more, but we have to get imaginative about how we how our new ideas actually drive the business models of the organizations that we work with. And we have to be able to engage, which is why I think I’ve certainly found it tremendously helpful in my career as I started to work with, more closely work with truly creative business people, who were willing to innovate around the business model. Not just innovate around the stuff that the business model creates. That’s new language, that’s a new medium if you like, for design, but I’ve found that the more educated I’ve gotten about how business models work, the more willing I am to be able to challenge the status quo. And it’s just the same as you do when you think about the relationship between design and engineering. I grew up in the physical world, and when I was designing products, I knew–

CM: I love how you say that, me too.

TB: Yeah, I guess we all do it for the physical world.

CM: I know how you’re thinking of it, but–

TB: I don’t have the same intuition about digital things as I have about physical things, I’ve gotten better, but I didn’t. What my arguments were with manufacturing engineers, who would tell me when I designed a new computer or a new TV or whatever it was, “you can’t make that”, “you can’t make that”. “Your idea is useless because you can’t make that.” The only solution to that was to be as good an engineer as they were. And be able to say, “actually you can make that, and this is how you make it, and this is how you design the injection molding tools to make it”. And when presented with a viable argument, they would, at least give you long enough to prove, that your idea was okay. And I think we have to be able to do the same thing on the business side.

CM: That makes a lot of sense. I wanna talk about ethics a little bit because I know you’ve been deeply involved in thinking about the ethical life of designers and the ethical mandate for design as a whole. You wrote “design thinking is not the “invisible hand”, it is intentional”. We live in this moment where, designers are in part being held accountable for how democracy is unfolding in a new way. We had, I don’t know if people saw, that Chris Hughes wrote a piece this morning out in The Times, calling for the breakup of Facebook. Design is like an understory in all of this. You’ve been working with a lot of other designers thinking about what is our ethical mandate, what is our hippocratic oath for design. Can you talk about how you’re thinking about that these days?

TB:Yeah, well one thing it’s definitely not, which is it’s not the hippocratic oath as we think about it in the medical world, because I think if we made the oath to first do no harm as designers, we would likely never do anything new. I think that would be unfortunate. I think we need systems to ensure that we don’t do too much harm, or we don’t harm intentionally. But I worry about an automatic reaction to the kind of ethical dilemmas that we have today, with technology, to be, we’re not gonna take any risks. I would rather see us make the oath to being extremely adept learners, and not disengage. I remember, it’s not that long ago, I’m sure many of this room remember when so much of the design that we saw coming out from organizations like Facebook, we’re so optimistic. We thought, oh this is wonderful, we’re connecting people in new ways, we’re doing all these kind of. And then sort of things went, to the dark side a little bit, for a whole bunch of reasons, which we’re beginning to understand. But I would hate for designers to feel like we can’t ever engage with something that’s unknown, because we’re worried about what the outcomes might be. I think we have to engage with a responsibility to act, when we find out something new. We have to engage with the commitment to stay involved in the ever-changing nature of what the design problem is. We’re particularly–

CM: That circles back to your point about mastery.

TB: Yeah. And particularly with these new systems as they’re emerging. There’s a reason why I think this is the best time to be alive as a designer, there’s been for about 150 years. The last best time was in the late 1800s, when industrialization was first getting going, when all of this new possibility, every system on the planet was changing. It was just a wonderful moment to be a designer. The only trouble was, back then there were no professional designers. There were architects, and there was nobody else. And that was the moment when design, as a professional practice first emerged, as a response to the downsides of industrialization. Here we are, 150 years later, or 130 years later, at another moment that’s even bigger. Where almost every system that the world relies on is getting transformed because of the shift to software and the shift to AI and intelligence and all these other technologies that we have. The opportunity, and the responsibility, to be engaged in these transformations, is mind-blowing. That’s why I think it’s an incredibly good time to be a designer. But what we do have to lose, I think one of the, funny enough, one of the habits or mindsets that we developed in the industrial age as designers, which was this sort of fire and forget idea about design. That we would finish our design, and launch it into the world, and after that it was other people’s problem. It was the marketing people’s problem, it was the end-user’s problem, or whatever. We did our bit, we finished the design, we took the photograph of the beautiful object or the beautiful piece of print or whatever it was, and we were done. We’d put it in our book, in our portfolio, and we moved onto the next project. That mindset is destructive now, because these things don’t stay in the same state that we designed them in, as I just said. They continue to evolve. So that mindset has to shift. We have to find new ways of staying engaged with things over much longer period of time. These systems over long periods of time, but they’re incredibly exciting and interesting problems.

CM: Yeah, true. Well you heard it here first, best time alive to be a designer. That’s good news. This is all the time we have. Thank you Tim, so much for this conversation.

TB: Thanks very much.

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