I just read Tom Kelley‘s The Art of Innovation. Kelley is the general manager of IDEO, one of the world’s most innovative design firms, and his book talks about how IDEO goes about creating the products for which it is famous. Here is IDEO’s methodology:

1. Understand the market, the client, the technology, and the perceived constraints on the problem.
2. Observe real people in real-life situations to find out what makes them tick: what confuses them, what they like, what they hate, where they have latent needs not adressed by current products and services.
3. Visualize new-to-the-world concepts and the customers who will use them.
4. Evaluate and refine the prototypes in a series of quick iterations.
5. Implement the new concept for commercialization. (pp. 5-6)

Although most of what IDEO does is product design, the methodology is applicable to architecture and interior design as well. In fact, the book has a chapter that offers guidance on designing workplaces that foster innovation. IDEO’s key points in this chapter are to create flexible and movable neighborhoods that encourage interaction among employees, give people control over their spaces, ensure that the space tells the company’s story, and keep it simple.

As an example of the kind of flexibility and simplicity that makes for an innovative workplace, Kelley relates a time when an employee brought a number of 15″ foam cubes into the office. Everyone liked the cubes so much that the company ordered hundreds more. The lightweight cubes are now used as stools, stacked to create stadium seating, topped with boards to create tables, stacked into partitions and walls to form impromptu meeting areas, and incorporated into large models to help the teams work through design problems. The extreme fluidity of the IDEO office promotes interaction, brainstorming, and the free flow of ideas.

IDEO is an unusually creative firm and not all businesses require that level of creativity. But to compete in today’s market, all firms have to know their markets, be able to visualize beyond what they currently do, and create new products and services quickly. Innovation is the key and is no longer limited to traditionally creative industries – even firms that have not thought of themselves as creative or collaborative could benefit from Kelley’s approach. Architects and designers can help them bring this about through workplace design.

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