Picture a balloon full of glitter and confetti. That is your brain. Take a needle to that bad boy and watch the rainbow confetti dance, fly and make a beautiful, joyful mess on the table. That is your brain on IDEO.
I have to admit, ever since the Arvind Gupta/IndieBio piece I have been on the IDEO hype train. I was ravenous for any and all information concerning their process, their history, their impact. I consumed podcasts, articles, Tweets, Instagram posts and YouTube videos like they were going out of style. I searched through their various job descriptions and wondered, “Is this real? How is this real?”
“You mean to tell me that there is a place where I can use my years of R&D experience, my interest in design, my training in business and my affection for emerging technologies to invent things to improve peoples’ lives/experiences? And this thing pays real, actual, non-Monopoly money?”
Of course, when given the opportunity to apply for a spot in their January fellowship, I jumped at the chance. And to my complete disbelief, I was one of ~50 people selected from a pool of over 500 applicants to participate in the next step of the process, the makeathon. A day of networking, ideation and prototype creation.
Saturday at 8:30 AM
A nor’easter hovering overhead, people slowly trickled into the IDEO Colab offices in Cambridge. The space is open, white walls and high ceilings, flooded with light despite the dreary weather, dotted with colorful sticky notes and decorative details. Welcoming the newest crop of hopefuls, was a ray of sunshine also known as Scout. She was dressed as a space mermaid, if I recall correctly, every last detail of her makeup, hair and outfit done perfectly. I had completely forgotten Halloween was coming, but somehow the beautiful blue glitter scale pattern on her cheekbones didn’t seem out of place here. This immediately felt like the perfect home for a space mermaid, a scientist, an engineer, an artist, an accountant or a mutant lawyer, for that matter. Come one, come all.
We are quickly checked in, guided to our tables and breakfast where people quickly assemble and a low murmur of introductions takes over the silence of the room. I flip through the packet on the table and get a sneak preview of the day. Intros, ice breaker, rundown, read the brief, define user journey/pain points, collect ideas, cluster, lunch, vote, build prototype, science fair, end. As I eat my breakfast sandwich and introduce myself to my teammates, I can’t help but wonder how we will do all of this before 4:00PM.
Budget Sticky Notes and Crazy Ideas
After moving through the first few activities of the day (I don’t want to spoil it, let me just say, I laughed harder than anyone should during a presentation), we find our brief hidden under a plastic box on our table. It had been staring us in the face the entire time.
Given our prompt, my team and I set out to put Sharpie to sticky note, and think of the journey of our user. From day break to dusk, through their day, detailing all the little things that bother or motivate them. Then we identified their main pain points, the parts of their journey that are most in need of creative solutions.
Every so often, the buzz in the room is interrupted by our IDEO design thinking sherpas, as it were, to help us through the process. We are told to sketch, write, doodle as many ideas as we could to solve one of the aforementioned pain points, “Do not reject any ideas at this point, build on each other’s contributions! Be clear and bring on the wild ideas!”. Then the flurry of colorful post-its began. Before we knew it, we had clouds of blue, green, pink and orange sticky notes (in varying stages of stickiness) full of ideas.
While we each explained our ideas and discussed each one, it was impossible not to notice the IDEO employees walking among us, observing, listening intently, talking among themselves in hushed tones. Equal parts intimidating and unobtrusive. What we didn’t know at the time, was just how helpful and critical they would become in moving our process forward. Providing clues, advise, and little nudges for our ideas to come to life. “Put it on a sticky note! I hate watching ideas go unrecorded” our coach said. And so we did. We proceed to use colored circle stickers to vote for our favorite ideas and hit the ground running on thinking up a prototype.
Less Talking, More Doing!
Arduinos, littleBits, Google Cardboard, soldering irons, saws, plastic wrappers, cups. Nothing (short of other people’s property) was out of the question as building blocks for our prototypes. The beauty of this whole process is the interdisciplinary nature of every team. My team was comprised of a brilliant mechanical/software engineer who is currently getting his masters at Cornell Tech in NY, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at my very own alma mater and an English business strategist currently bringing innovation to life in the Cayman islands. And that was just my team. The diversity of the people in that room was mind-blowing: artists, musicians, engineers, scientists (hi!), healthcare providers, writers, designers, strategists, high school students, seasoned professionals, college students, technologists, and on and on.
These people. These friendly, funny, brilliant, people invented and made prototypes for some of the most beautiful and ingenious things I’ve ever seen. I felt inspired, impressed and like somehow someone made a clerical error and that’s how I ended up among them. There were apps to help you walk the streets more safely at night, functioning cardboard VR glasses, robotic trash cans and many other wonderful things.
We Like It, We Want More!
The hype train. I was on it, pleasantly making my way through the winding tracks, swooshing by stories, blog posts and Tweets. This was the station. I finally landed in IDEO, met some of their talented team, got a sneak preview into their day to day.
I just have to say this one, kind of corny thing. I was looking for my place. I had all the pieces that made up my interests, talents and passions but no home for them. Scientist, MBA, amateur designer, lover of tech. Most jobs seemed too narrow, too small. In the few cases where the job combined a multitude of disciplines that sparked my interest, the culture didn’t seem like the right fit. Too stuffy, too old, too rigid.
It is not for me to say whether the IDEO CoLab will be the place I end up. What I can say is that this experience was transformative, I learned that this is the type of culture and work in which I feel the happiest. The fast pace, the ever-changing landscape, the continuous exploration, the joy. I would be delighted to be one of the privileged members of their January fellowship and, I cannot put into words how happy I would be if that turned into a permanent job. But even if neither of these things come to be, IDEO has already given me something invaluable: a path.
Sticky notes photo from IDEO CoLab Instagram @ideocolab
All other photos by yours truly. That app photo was our team’s baby. Put together by the brilliant Will Davis @ Cornell Tech and myself.