Kelley, Tom

Tom Kelley is general manager of IDEO, the world's leading design consultancy specializing in product development and innovation. Working together with his brother, IDEO founder David Kelley, he has helped manage the firm as it has grown from twenty designers to a staff of over three hundred. During that time, he has been responsible for diverse areas such as business development, marketing, human resources, and operations. Like everyone else at IDEO, he also occasionally gets down on his knees to cut foam core alongside IDEO clients and designers, as part of the firm's brainstorming and prototyping efforts. asks Tom Kelley …

Why have you written this book?

TK: I just got to the point where there were so many ideas percolating around IDEO, there were so many things going on, that I just felt like somebody should write it down. And what was happening is individual people, researchers, would come in and study IDEO and then go off and write something. And I thought, why don’t we write this ourselves?

And then one of the other factors was the “Nightline” broadcast, where Ted Koppel featured us for a whole show in February of 1999. And in a way, the book is an extension of that. We had so many people curious, wanting more. They’d gotten a tiny, bite-size version, and they just wanted a longer version. So part of what the book does is take all the principles that were visible in that “Nightline” broadcast about reinventing the shopping cart, and creates a more detailed version.

If somebody got really jazzed by Nightline, they can now read this book and actually get to the underlying principles of why IDEO is so fabulous?

TK: Absolutely. Millions of people saw the Nightline broadcast—it was so popular that they ran it a second time. And then I have heard they have sold several thousand videos. It’s being used in college classes at Harvard, M.I.T., all over the country. Tom Peters Company workshops are using them.

But now what do you hope to achieve or what do you hope to achieve for IDEO by putting out this book?

TK: I hope that it will add to the firm’s legacy. I’m not trying to lead directly to new sales or anything like that. We already are usually in a situation where demand exceeds supply for our services. But if this book could add to the company’s sustainability, or its mark on the world, I think that would be great.

And who’s your audience? Who do you imagine is reading the book?

TK: I see the audience as managers of a small- to medium-size groups who are just looking for some new source of creativity, some new way of injecting a little inspiration into the group, where they feel like they’ve played out all the things they’ve been working on, and they need some new energy. It’s really not for individuals per se, although I have a friend who’s a full-time homemaker who says she’s gotten a bunch of ideas she can use. I haven’t asked her yet what those things are.

Near the end of the book, you’re summarizing, and you at one point say, “Tear up your Casual Friday policy and adopt an anything goes approach,” reminding people to use their good judgment when they know clients will be around. “Double your budget for printed t-shirts.” You’re saying “your,” “you” is implied. Is that that person you’re talking to there?

TK: Yes, that’s that person. I’d say tear up almost all your policies, but the Casual Friday one, I think, is particularly pernicious. An IDEO alumnus who went to a large transportation firm was given a Casual Friday policy her first day of work. It began, “Memo: To all U.S. Employees,” And then it said, “There’s been a lot of confusion and concern about our new Casual Friday policy. And we’ve had a lot of questions. So we formed a Casual Friday Task Force to try to clarify this.”

And then it goes on and on. And eventually it says, “If you’re in doubt about whether something may be appropriate, it probably is not. For example, none of the following would be appropriate. And then it goes through this long list of open-toed shoes, t-shirts, tank tops, blue jeans, you know. And as I read this in the Monday morning meetings at IDEO, you could almost go around and point to everything on the itemized list. And so, the Casual Fridays—if I take that as an example—just seems so heavy handed. Let people use their own judgment. Let them dress as they would at home. Let them dress as they would to go out to the movies, as opposed to the way you would to show up for work on a Monday. It seems clear enough to me.

Do you think IDEO is the most innovative company in America?

TK: “Most innovative company in America”—I think you’re baiting me. I think IDEO is a model, and we’ve had enough companies come to us and say, “I’d like our whole company…” or “I’d like this group at our company to be more like IDEO,” that I think it’s something that people could aspire to. And I’m not saying IDEO’s perfect. We’ve got a lot of things that are messy at IDEO. One of the things that I talk about in the book is to look at your office with new eyes, to imagine what it’s like on the first day of work or to the first-time customer coming into the office for the first time, and walking in to the reception desk. Is it clear where to go, are you greeted in a friendly way, is there a comfortable place to wait, and is the process smooth?

And, you know, do we get an A+ on that? I don’t think so. We do have a great receptionist, but there are steps along the way where we aren’t doing as well as we might.

What’s at the top of your list of things that need redesigning?

TK: I think an easy one is rental cars. Maybe this is just a cheap shot. It’s just so obvious. First of all, no one seems to modify or design a car for use as a rental car. Why is that? What’s the total fleet of rental cars in America? It’s gigantic. In your own car, for instance, you have a muscle memory of where things are. You know where to reach to turn on the windshield wiper, you know where the door handle is, and things like that.

But in a rental car you don’t. And so that’s where the flaws in the design come out. You’re in the rental car, you’ve just turned off the engine, you’ve just turned out the lights, you’re now in a dark parking lot. It can take me up to 20 minutes to find that door handle. Because it used to be—when I was growing up—this big hunk of metal sticking out of the door and you bumped into it every time you moved your leg. Whereas now—and I think it’s safer this way—it’s recessed into the door. But where, you know? Is it high, is it low, is it forward? You’re reduced to fumbling around. And for about a nickel, they could put a little LED in there that would stay on for, say, 30 seconds—no impact on battery life—that would light up right behind where the door handle is and you’d find it every time.

Which gets to what seems to me is the main point or one of the main points of your book, that of observing—observing the world. Can you talk about that?

TK: Absolutely. This is actually our secret weapon. We’ll go into a meeting in which there’s, let’s say, six people who have each spent 20 years working in the industry. And then we have to help them innovate. Well, that’s really hard. They’ve got 120 years collective experience and I’m brand-new to their industry. But one of our biggest secrets is our ability to take our human-factors specialists that tend to have degrees in areas like cognitive psychology, and go to their customers, sometimes even to their non-customers, in real-life settings, and watch them using the products. You see what works; you see what doesn’t work.

And if those companies have not done this kind of observation before, we can almost always see something they haven’t noticed, of if they have noticed they haven’t valued. They’ve just assumed it away. And there we’ll get our final epiphanies. That’s where the magic in the process comes from.

Does that happen on every project?

TK: Do we do observations on every project? Virtually every project. There are some where the whole project is some type of brainstorm session or something like that. But if you give us anything to design or innovate on, we will always do observation.

And part of the trick there is getting that fresh eyes or what the Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” You’ve got people who go out and do the observing all the time. How do they maintain their freshness? What do they do?

TK: They’re trained and become skilled at it. And so, they’re using their anthropologist skills or their social scientist skills. But I understand there are other people out there in the world that are using out-of-work actors, who are just very conscious of physical movement, and they have actors or ballet dancers watch someone go through a process. And they, because of their stage training, will notice these things. We have not used that specific approach. We use the cognitive psychologists.

In the Nightline video you bring the shopping cart into a conference room and cover it with a sheet prior to the final presentation. I once overheard your brother David talking about the process of working with clients, and I remember him specifically talking about covering up whatever it was you were working on at IDEO with a cloth. And I always imagined a black velvet—

TK: Yes. And in this case, it was a white sheet with our logo printed on it.

I saw that for him, that thing covered by a cloth seemed to sum up the magic and the mystery of this whole process, that moment when I can imagine him pulling the cover off. What’s the importance of that?

TK: Well, one of the reasons—and we don’t use this pull-the-cloth trick technique every time—but one of the reasons we do that is because we don’t want people to focus too much on the artifacts, because we’re still in the process. And if they start right in on, “Gee, I don’t like the knobs on that,” or, “Ooh, I don’t like that color,” you’ll lose them. They’ll go off in a direction that you’re not looking for.

So we’ll leave the cloth on, as we talk about what we’ve learned and what is embodied in this prototype. Because the shopping cart shown on that show is not a perfect shopping cart. No one would manufacture that cart, as is. We have this expression: “Focus on the verbs, not the nouns.” Meaning that, especially early in a project, if you focus too much on the thing, it will lead you astray.

And so we will talk about the concepts of something, and then we’ll say, “This is one embodiment of it. We’re not done yet. Have a look.” Then we pull the cloth off. And we hope that they will ooh and aah a little bit before they start into what’s wrong with it. But we also want to hear what’s wrong with it, because that’s how we’re going to make it better before it goes to market.

You mentioned the verbs, not nouns. I noticed in the Acknowledgements to the book that there’s a line that says, “Scott Underwood, who loves words more than anyone I know, helped clarify facts and the nuance behind which to describe them.” And then at one point you say your customers may lack the vocabulary. One of your subheads is called “Make Metaphors.”

So for a place that’s about designing things—”lumpy objects,” as Tom Peters likes to call them—there’s a big focus on words and language in your book. And I’m wondering if that’s your own personal slant? Or is it that language is a big part of the development process?

TK: I’m not really sure. I certainly love words as well as Scott Underwood, though he just has such an intensity about it. You know, he spends a lot of time with the dictionary on an average day, which I do not. But I think a part of that does come from me. The “think verbs, not nouns” comes from Bill Moggridge, one of the senior managers of the firm, to emphasize this idea of action versus something static.

But I think almost anyone who goes through this pretty long, arduous process of writing a book has got to love words. I do have a Liberal Arts undergraduate degree, so maybe that’s a part of it. But really, I think it comes down to the fact that language is crystallization of thought, and there are a lot of great ideas floating around IDEO. I guess the task fell to me, for some reason, to be the chronicler to put words to some of those things that are raw ideas.

What’s your favorite thing that IDEO has designed or created?

TK: My favorite thing we worked on is the Heartstream Defibrillator. It is this device that’s now on most airplanes, that basically saves your life if you go into cardiac arrest. It’s got those two paddles. It jolts you out of the chair, you know? And basically, if you go into cardiac arrest, you have six minutes to live. Your chances of survival go down 10 percent every minute. And you’re not at 100 percent at the beginning either, because you’re lying on the floor, not breathing. And so, even if you’ve got a heart surgeon in the seat next to you on the plane, they cannot save you unless they have a defibrillator.

And so we helped with this device. We worked on the interface. It’s this hilariously simple one-two-three interface that you’d have to ideally call the “Wet Nap interface”—an interface so simple that the instructions say “Open and use.” And partly because the product is so simple, a lot of people who did not have medical training have been able to save lives. I think up to 60 lives have been saved with this device so far. So we took something that’s very complex, and made it so simple that my daughter, when she was six years old, could make it work.

And then our client company put it out there—in public places. There’s one at the San Francisco airport. But one of the first lives saved was in Grand Central Station in New York. One of the early ones was at the Sundance Resort. There’s people that would be dead today that are alive because this device was there.

Experience—the term of the decade, or the moment, or the millennium. You start playing with it a bit in this book. You mentioned a book by Pine and Gilmore: The Experience Economy. Designers have got to think about more than an object. They’ve got to think about an experience. And so how does IDEO deal with it? Because it seems it’s adding another level of complexity to your job in designing. How has it changed how you work? How do you deal with the experience economy?

TK: I think it really permeates everything we do, and hopefully it permeates the book. One chapter’s dedicated to it. But this thing of thinking verbs, not nouns is definitely an idea about designing an experience as opposed to designing a thing. And when we’re doing our human-factors observations, we’re not watching the thing; we’re watching humans and what kind of experience, good or bad, they have interacting with it.

And then more recently we’ve had the chance to actually design experiences outright, where there is no physical thing. With Amtrak, for example, we worked with designing the service strategy for their Acela Express Service in the Northeast Corridor.

And at the Steelcase office building at Four Columbus Circle, in New York, we helped design the experience of buying furniture at that location. And there’s very little physical embodiment to it. We went through the process and watched what people do as they figure out what office furniture to get, and we looked for ways to improve it.

And they tell us that people are staying longer in the space than they used to, and they’re buying more. So that’s the kind of thing that makes the client happy.

You mentioned that story in the book, right? Where you actually pull the people who work there out of a back room and have them, in effect, working on the floor.

TK: Yes. And it goes back to what I said about environment. I think one of the best first-time-visit experiences I’ve ever had was at this building. I don’t believe IDEO designed this portion of the experience, but you step out of the elevator, and this very pleasant woman gets up from behind her desk and says, “Welcome to Steelcase. Please have a seat over in the cafe and help yourself to coffee.”

And then you go over there, and it’s this beautiful cafe. It could be a commercial restaurant. It’s got a panoramic view over Central Park. And I’m thinking, gee, this is pretty nice. I feel completely welcomed by first, the staff, but second, the space. Even if I have to wait 15 minutes there, hey, I’m a pretty happy guy. And so, that’s a particularly well-designed experience for a first-time visitor.

Back to your brother David, who started IDEO. You’re talking about snow forts, as children. You write, “And he knew that if he kept trying out new techniques, he’d make dramatic improvements. I think a lot of us understood this intuitively as children and lost it gradually as we matured. David’s influence has made this childlike curiosity and enthusiasm second nature at IDEO.”

You’ve got a wild, wonderful, wackily innovative, creative kind of environment. Is it David who leads that? And then, is that part of the reason you’re so successful, because of his personality? And so does that make it harder for somebody to duplicate an IDEO if they don’t have a David Kelley?

TK: Well, the firm is so big now, there are many people who don’t meet David in the average year. So is David responsible for all of what exists today? It would be hard to say that. But in the early days, back when I joined the firm and there were only 20 or 30 of us, it’s certainly true that he set the tone. He made it clear that it was okay to be childlike. And I think part of being childlike helps make this place more creative. Kids are more creative than adults, for the most part, because they’re not inhibited.

What happens in a lot of organizations, especially large organizations, is that people get inhibited. They start getting rules: “You can’t make fun of the boss. You can’t tell a joke that might offend him or her. Can’t put up your own artwork in the cubicle. Can’t do this.”

And so if you can turn back the clock a little bit, to your youth, that will help recreate some of that lost creativity. Think about a kindergarten classroom. In kindergarten, everybody knows it is perfectly okay to shove all the desks to the outer side of the room so that you can have some big play area in the center, then to scoot them all back together when you want to do some art work together. Then spin them a little to the side when you want to work individually. Nobody feels like you have to ask permission to do that. That’s just kids doing what comes naturally.

And so if companies would have less built-in furniture in their offices, it would free them up to do more things. That is certainly something we got from David, at least in the early days. And then, a new line of managers—the office heads and the studio heads—who basically used David as a role model, now are doing that in their own individual offices.

What happens to people, that they forget about those childlike qualities? You mention kids any number of times in this book, and that quality of kids to be curious, to wonder about everything, to make eight different versions of the same castle; and so what that the nice big wave comes along and knocks it over. They just start over again.

TK: Part of why I mention kids is because I have two young kids. But I do think they are models for the rest of us. A story I think I tell in the book is from Gordon MacKenzie. He goes to a grade school and says he’s an artist, and how he admires all the art on the wall. He goes to each grade in the school and he asks the kids who’s an artist. And in kindergarten they’re all raising their hands; everybody’s excited. First grade, they still raise their hands.

He gets up to about the sixth grade, where only two kids raise their hands, and they’re looking around nervously, in case their friends think they’re weird because they’re artists. And he says to the sixth graders, who he thinks are self-aware enough to understand, “What happened here? Did all the artists transfer to other schools?” He says, “I don’t think so. I think something has been taken away from you: the ability to be an artist.”

All the kindergartners are artists. It’s okay to be an artist. They consider themselves artists. And by sixth grade, something happens.

Sixth graders are still only 12 years old. So if you follow that to its conclusion, now you take a 42-year-old or a 52-year-old, working for IBM or AT&T, a lot of that energy has been filtered out. It’s still there, so that you can bring some back up. But you have to give them permission to act more like kids.

Near the end of the book, you write, “Imagine that your ideal customer’s on a commuter train, headed home after a long day. Make him or her want to bring your offering on that journey, and you can’t help but succeed.”

Is this a hot tip to those people out there in the world looking to invent the new got-to-have item? Since we know that IDEO is two years ahead of the rest of the world, because of the work you do, we should take this seriously. Is this the hot area?

TK: Well, I think certainly one way to go. Think about business calendars. Business people throughout history had calendars that they kept track of their appointments on. Right? But for a long time, it was this thing that sat on their desks. And their secretaries, back when there were secretaries, would come in and write something on it and when someone wanted to check someone’s schedule, they went to that desk and looked at the calendar.

Then Day-Timers and the like came along and turned that into something much more personal. Partly they made it portable, but it became this indispensable tool. And now, Palm and others have made it electronic. It’s actually, to me, more useful than the Day-Timer, because you can do different sorts of searches and it’s got next year’s calendar, last year’s, and all that. And this becomes a very personal thing. I pretty much have it with me all the time. I went on vacation in Maui for a week, in December. I had it with me.

And so, they have succeeded in making a product that I am completely attached to. My wife just didn’t get why I liked it; she used to smile when I took out my Palm. A week ago, I got her started. It took about 10 minutes for her to learn the Graffiti interface. And now she says, “This thing is addictive,” and she’s got it with her all the time. Almost every day, she’ll come home and say, “Oh, you know, I ran into one of the ladies at school, and she asked me what I’m doing next Tuesday, and I knew, because I had it with me.” She used to keep track of her appointments on a big wall calendar—not very portable.

If people can develop a product or a service that is so personal that it feels like your thing, I think that is certainly one avenue to developing brand loyalty or strengthening your relationship with the customer.

What’s your outlook on innovation in corporate America or corporate universe? How do you feel about the possibilities of it all happening?

TK: Making no claim to objectivity, I think it’s the next big thing. If you look at the waves of things that have swept through—management theory and practice in business and so on—the quality programs have dramatically improved the quality of American products. It’s just that we’re now on the flat part of the curve. Once you’ve reached six sigma, there’s not much else you can do except maintain. And then cost reduction, I feel like we’re down to the bone on that.

So, especially in the flat economy, or maybe even the downward turning economy, how are you going to distinguish your organization from the people next door? We think innovation is going to be one of the ways to do that. And the wonderful thing is, it doesn’t even always cost more. There are a lot of things in the book that are really easy to do. Buy everybody on your team a t-shirt. You won’t even notice that in your annual budget. I think it can make a difference.

Reviews & excerpts:

Book site:

Hear Tom Kelley’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. Find it in the NPR archives dated February 8, 2001.

Learn more about IDEO.