Open to design

Aidan Walker talks to Tom Hulme, design director of innovation and design firm IDEO and co-founder of OpenIDEO, a web-based, open-design platform on which a whole community can discuss and develop a design idea

A number of factors have been leading up to topic covered in this month’s column, not least a question I’m tussling with in preparation for this year’s Global Design Forum in September, part of the London Design Festival: ‘Can designers be entrepreneurs’? (Maybe the question should be framed: ‘Should designers be entrepreneurs?’)

It’s very much connected with another major topic, if not the major topic, that rises to the top of almost any meaningful design conversation, and indeed that is set to be a key theme of the forum – open design. Or open source design, we might call it. Or open innovation, even. Or co-design, or slow design, or co-creation, or collaborative design. Not far removed from crowd sourcing, crowd funding, or the ‘open competitive pitch’ model to be found on sites such as

With different emphasis and working in different ways for similar ends, there are nevertheless resemblances between these various manifestations of web-based collaborative or sharing activity. Let’s stick with open design, rather than crowd funding, because this is a design magazine. Names to conjure with in this fascinating, challenging and slightly scary area of design activity include Ronen Kadushin, the Berlin-based Israeli author of the Open Design Manifesto, who has recently pronounced Nokia, as it releases digital files that will enable users of the Lumia 820 smartphone to customise and 3D print their own shells, ‘the first global company to have a go at open design’.

Which is but one way of describing and engaging in open design. As mentioned in these pages before, drawings for anyone to make their own cardboard chair, for instance, proliferate on the web. In simple terms, for designers this means that close control of intellectual property and the protection of the idea is exchanged for the inherently open, unprotected and uncontrolled process of releasing the drawings – the physical artefacts in which IP is held to abide – and allowing whoever, whenever and wherever to make ‘their’ chair for themselves. You buy the drawings, you don’t buy the chair.

As we all know, the implications for the design profession of such an approach are legion. But open design is not just a matter of publishing drawings. I recently spent an intense hour with Tom Hulme, design director at IDEO and co-founder of OpenIDEO, a web-based open-design platform which functions in a far more sophisticated way, and which draws the spirit of open design together with the pressing need for solutions to what Hulme calls the ‘tough, scary and wicked problems’ facing us humans, right here, right now. The discussion on technology, entrepreneurship and a new attitude to design’s sovereign currency – ‘the idea’ – ensues.

You’d think a design director at IDEO would be a designer, right? One with a design training? IDEO is probably the only design company where such a conclusion is far from foregone. It’s a taste of the company’s innovative philosophies, and an indicator of what you might expect from Hulme, to hear that his first degree was in physics. He has been relentlessly teaching himself the creative skills of course, but right from the start it means we are dealing with a different sensibility.

With ambitions to design cars, Hulme did an internship at specialist car maker Marcos, returned after taking his degree and became MD comparatively quickly. Meanwhile he was designing a magnetic filter for oil scavenging systems that works just as well for the Ferrari Formula One cars as the JCB Diggers in both of which it is installed. His experience with Marcos, and of designing and creating a complete business to bring the filter to market, led him to realise that ‘business models are the best unit of design’ – which is where the ‘designers as entrepreneurs’ thing comes in.

He found himself facing the familiar conundrum that plagues anyone with an idea to exploit, an intellectual property to monetise; sell it to a corporation which has the manufacturing and distribution systems already in place, a choice which will yield less than its true value (‘and rightly so’, says Hulme, ‘because the market hasn’t revealed its true value yet’), or design and make a company yourself to do the whole thing. ‘I began to think of design and entrepreneurship as increasingly similar,’ he says. ‘I could differentiate myself more by designing design-led startups than by going to big corporations.’

An MBA at Harvard came next, during which time Hulme did an IDEO internship. He joined permanently after his degree, ‘with the objective of building the discipline of business design here. You apply a design lens to every aspect of a business, bringing a design sensibility to financial modelling, how you structure an organisation, pricing, the whole thing. You design a complete system.’ Design thinking pops up time and again in this conversation, much as you would expect it to do since IDEO’s Tim Brown was one of the first to coin the phrase and certainly one of the most influential in demonstrating its power and relevance to big business.

Long-time readers of this column might remember the tale from 2009 of my mate Suzy Parker, an associate marketing director of design, EMEA at Procter & Gamble. Here’s P&G CEO AG Lafley in his book The Game- Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation: ‘Business schools tend to focus on inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence). Design schools emphasise abductive thinking –imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.’

The step-by-step approach by which design thinking is applied to any project, including the creation of a business, starts with framing the question, says Hulme. In IDEO’s way of doing things, large amounts of time and energy are devoted to achieving a deep understanding of the user and the problem, to ‘creating real, not artificial, value’, says Hulme. Early prototyping and testing the idea ‘in the wild’ come next. ‘You launch to learn,’ he adds.

Sounds risky, and not the approach a regular entrepreneur would take. But the one element that makes it all possible, and indeed far less risky than it would have been a generation ago, is technology. ‘It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a designer,’ says Hulme. The digital space, particularly now that 3D printing, close to being an everyday reality of production, is allowing pretty much anyone to manufacture on demand without prohibitive tooling costs, to carve out their own route to market and, most importantly, to address that market on a global scale. All of which would have been impossible without the wordwide web.

And all of which, unsurprisingly, contributes a) to the need to completely redesign your understanding of intellectual property and how you will make your living as a designer, and b) to the open, crowd-sourced, collaborative, co-designing philosophy and actuality of OpenIDEO. It’s Hulme’s brainchild, but he never speaks as anything other than a team member. The point about OpenIDEO, and the point about a great many similar-looking projects, is that they are set up to achieve what Hulme calls ‘Positive Social Impact’.

OpenIDEO works by taking a ‘challenge’ from a ‘sponsor’, which is unlikely to be a commercial organisation seeking ideas for its next generation of male-grooming products or whatever. As I write the ‘featured challenge’ is from USAID: ‘How might we gather information from hard-to-access areas to prevent mass violence against civilians?’ Any number of OpenIDEO’s 50,000 members will upload their responses – ‘we try and make sure uploads have a strong visual element’, says Hulme.

Initially participants work through an ‘Inspiration’ phase to understand the context more fully, build engagement and discover analogies that might prove informative. Next the community turns to creating novel ideas with the original contributor acting as the master of the specific concept. However, other community members often refine the concept and often build off it to create their own novel solutions – the first or most persuasive designer to upload becomes the ‘master’ of the project. The ideas go through several stages of selection and editing before it is brought to fruition.

‘Fruition’ is real social impact, whether it be driving in excess of 100,000 people to register for the bone marrow database, inspiring Amnesty International to launch an app to help those at risk of unlawful detention or a social enterprise to utilise unoccupied storefronts in New York. It leads to a multitude of questions, but the one I keep coming back to is about the value of ‘the idea’, which is where designers make their living, and which traditionally has been protected by copyright and all the other accoutrements of ‘intellectual property’.

If ideas are shared, out there for free, how do designers make money?’ ‘Ideas are still incredibly important,’ says Hulme, ‘but mostly they’re wrong and most of them need to be changed anyway. In the past we have overglorified and overvalued the idea, probably because we [designers] didn’t empathise with the execution. The system has been structured around the over-celebration of the idea because its route to market has been a difficult and expensive one. Now technology has taken the friction out of developing the idea and taking it to market. Why wouldn’t I do that?’

And as for making your living out of your ideas, there’s always crowd funding. Which would you rather do – sell your designs for a chair worldwide, or have someone else make and sell your chairs (which aren’t much like your original idea, because of production compromises, and which aren’t sold in the USA yet because the manufacturer doesn’t have distribution agreements in place) in ways you can’t control?

For design as a commercial enterprise, as well as the design of solutions with Positive Social Impact, open design is here to stay. It’s not the complete future – there’ll always be a place for the lone designer or consultancy to come up with that new range of male-grooming products – but if you’re looking for the way forward, the paranoid protection of the idea for commercial gain is not it. The future, ladies and gentlemen, is shared.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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