[A reflection by Class of 2015 student Julia Plevin.]

“There’s no recipe for love and there’s no recipe for design,” says CEO of IDEO Tim Brown during a talk he gave to Products of Design students last week. Brown is busy running one of the most respected design consultancies in the world, but still makes a point to travel and give talks whenever he can.

Sharing knowledge is one of IDEO’s core beliefs. “I’ve always been more interested in making the pie bigger than making our piece bigger,” he asserts.


An industrial designer by training, Brown sees many aspects of running a company—such as company culture—as design opportunities and moments. From big open kitchens in all offices to the innate optimism in all employees, the IDEO culture is collaborative and friendly. It’s one of the reasons why so many of us are drawn to the company and why so many companies want to learn how to do things the IDEO way.

“I’m giving this talk in Korea next week, so you’re going to be my guinea pigs. I don’t even know how long it is,” Brown began. He started with a brief history lesson to put design into context. If design as we know it started as response to the Industrial Revolution, and then went on to support the consumer culture of the 20th century, design today has to change again as we enter the uncertain future.


Brown enumerated seven transforming forces that are causing this shift:

1. From Certain to Uncertain: Companies have ever-shorter lifespans so business leaders need to be creative. The pace of innovation has increased so much that it’s become really hard to apply intuition to strategic planning.

2. From Simple to Complex: Products don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather in a system and as part of a service. IDEO has started on more complicated projects, like designing a school system in Peru. Designers today need to be interdisciplinary and highly collaborative.

3. From Newton to Darwinian: The designed world behaves more like Darwin’s living organisms than Newton’s physical objects. In Newton’s laws there are few moving parts but in Darwin’s world, if organisms aren’t constantly changing, they will go extinct.

Brown says that design is not really like a blueprint for a building, but more like computing code. We design behaviors that determine the finished product. As an example, he mentions Bi Rite grocery store in San Francisco. The store is renowned for its customer service and according to Brown, the owner gives the employees a set of behaviors to follow such as, “If someone is standing within ten feet of you, smile and look them in the eye.” It’s the accumulation of behaviors like these that influence design.

4. From Some to Everyone: Technology has democratized making, so it’s up to designers to give people the right tools and processes—such as exploring through making, storytelling, and collaboration. Creative confidence is a mindset that can be applied across different industries.

For example, when GE Healthcare’s “innovation architect” realized how many kids were traumatized by CT scanners, he attended a class at Stanford’s D School and developed the Adventure Series, a child-friendly take on imaging machines.

5. From Centralized Control to Peer Network: Startups like Etsy and Kickstarter are disrupting design. The author of Future Perfect, Steven Johnson, talks about the power of peer networks in social, economic, and political life. Technology like 3D printing is helping to usher in a new era of bespoke design.

6. From Message to Meaning: There’s too much information out there so people are on the hunt for meaning through new trends like big data and the quantified self. We are moving towards a “meaning economy.”  Harvard Business School Professor and author of The Progress Principle Teresa Amabile writes about “small wins” and how to improve everyday life for people at organizations.

7. From Matters of Industry to Matters of Conscious Capitalism: Design has an exciting potential to solve some of the gravest problems in the world today. IDEO.org and D-Rev are taking part in this movement.


As the world gets more complicated, design shifts from being about products to being about services and systems. Programs like ours and the Stanford D.School are emerging as a response to this shift in design. As Brown told us, in a world of tensions, systems thinkers and doers—people who can think at a high level and still have the courage to make things—are the most valuable designers.

We’re grappling with these tensions every day at Products of Design and it’s exciting to know that these issues are top of mind for a revered industry leader.