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Listening to IDEO CEO Tim Brown in Conversation with Bruce Nussbaum at the New School | DesignNotes by Michael Surtees

Listening to IDEO CEO Tim Brown in Conversation with Bruce Nussbaum at the New School

Tim Brow Talk

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In support of Tim Brown’s new book Change By Design, Bruce Nussbaum interviewed him at the New School to a full audience. While the diy mentality wasn’t explicitly mentioned, it seemed like a lot of what was being talked about was a natural evolution of that ideal. The other big issue in the room that was mentioned was the economy. Along with those discussion points I felt I was hearing a lot about the advancement of process and tools that allowed more people to be involved, and in terms of measuring value through profit—talking about other value metrics which makes sense considering where the economy is at this point. Though with all that said there was mention of how small design changes can save enormous amounts of money—one example that was briefly talked about was how one hospital reduced shift changes with nurses from 45 minutes to twelve minutes and the cost implications of that. Bottom line is that design can make things more efficient, hence savings in profit.

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With out trying to replicating a play by play of the discussion, here are some of the points that stood out for me. Business people are great for analyzing ideas that are in front of them, but not necessarily good for new choices and options about what to create. As people reflect on their jobs a common question is “what do I do, where do I go?”. It’s a participatory culture we’re in. When people are involved, things are more likely to happen. Agile was briefly mentioned but speaks more to the idea that the days of the “Grand Project” where all change happens at once isn’t the best practice. Constant design tweaks that happen over time are more appropriate. Another theme that I hadn’t come across much of, but makes sense is “tinkering”. Back in the day when cars weren’t mini computers people could keep adding to their car. Customizing, working on it—etc, the concept of making got lost when vehicles became closed systems. Because of that there’s a generational gap that is making a comeback due to tools that allow people to customize their personal sites and online applications. Because of the economy there’s more opportunity and experience (or lack of, no one has it) to take on big issues that most people haven’t considered before. Again this falls into diy that people don’t have the resources so they have to take it on themselves. Where design practitioners can lead is through leadership and direction to co-participate.

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As things have changed from industrialization through consumption to info and value based knowledge through interaction changes, there’s other ways of measuring value. It’s hard to disagree with the assessment though if there was any weakness in the discussion it was that there wasn’t any follow up questions about this. How are these things actually measured aside from same yardsticks of efficiency?

In the last presidential election the theme was hope. For this talk it was about being positive. It’s not a new idea, being a designer is an optimistic pursuit. If you’re not positive about it, how can you help people? There was talk of personal experience where Tim was listening to scientists talk about how people had to give things up which leaned more on the negative side. Turn that around to be about choices and options and things suddenly become more positive.


There was a smart question in the Q & A afterwards about what skills a designer needs these days if everyone else is participating in design. Tim’s reply: 1. being able to observe and understand, 2. connect strategies, 3. be a visual thinker, and 4. have the ability to prototype and evaluate. Those seem to be skills most people are striving for these days.

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