Stacking the Deck

IDEO divulges part of the recipe for its secret sauce.

Throughout its long corporate history, Palo Alto-based design firm IDEO has nurtured a brand image that is both media-savvy (these are the folks who brought us the Dilbert Ultimate Cubicle and a shopping-cart redesign for ABC’s Nightline) and resolutely user-friendly. After years of guiding other companies toward design solutions, the studio is now marketing a product of its own: IDEO Method Cards. The boxed set of design directives is deployed tarot-style, in agglomerations that coax players to collaborate while cogently promoting the studio’s credo: elevating users to the center of the design process and encouraging design teams to empathize with them.

Divided into four suits that exhort players to “Learn,” “Look,” “Ask,” then “Try” various approaches to design development, the cards feature on their faces maps, working diagrams, casually posed snapshots of team members acting out user scenarios, and other real-world artifacts of IDEO’s research-based design process. On the back of each card is a brief synopsis of how and why a specific action is called for, along with a mini-case study. One amusing example: an “unfocus group” assembled to explore concepts for a new range of fashion sandals included an artist, a bodyworker, a podiatrist—and a foot fetishist. More motivational than prescriptive, the text is both remarkably free of the usual design jargon—nobody “strategizes” anything—and refreshingly devoid of familiar bromides.

Don’t think for a minute, of course, that IDEO’s method as represented here reveals the process in its entirety: although human factors play a significant role in design development, so equally do business, marketing, and technological considerations. And while IDEO studiously avoids talking about product—or, heaven help us, industrial—design, preferring to stress its role in helping companies innovate, the cards do provide a peek behind the curtain at how one design firm successfully develops marketable items.

So is IDEO giving away the store with its new offering? Head honcho and general manager Tom Kelley has said, “You can only do [this] if you believe you’re going to be doing even more sophisticated design.” And that, presumably, is why the deck has 51—not the regulation 52—cards. It’s IDEO’s way of telling us that, figuratively at least, the firm still has another card up its sleeve.

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