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Patron of design thinking and Stanford founder: David Kelley uses design to help unlock creative confidence in everyone

Design thinking has swept across the commercial sector – it is not only a vital tool to corporate innovation, but also a compulsory topic for many MBAs. Wonder who set the trend? Credit goes to David Kelley, Stanford mechanical engineering professor and co-founder of global design firm IDEO.

Heart and soul of IDEO – former CEO and current Chair Tim Brown (left), CEO Sandy Speicher (since 2019; centre) and founder David Kelley (right). (Photo: IDEO)

Anthropologists and engineers team up

For decades in the industry, David Kelley and Tim Brown (IDEO’s CEO from 2000-2019) have been implementing design thinking, a human-centred problem-solving method that observes user needs with empathy and embraces multiple cycles of prototyping and refinement to deliver innovation. In 1980, Apple asked IDEO to develop a mouse for their radical new computer. (David was actually a close friend of Steve Jobs – he met his wife through Steve)!

The IDEO team is applauded for their creativity and execution. The American Broadcasting Company’s news show Nightline once challenged IDEO to redesign supermarket shopping carts within five days and filmed the process. This cross-disciplinary team of psychologists, engineers, computer experts and operation specialists employed design thinking to come up with a cart that was both multi-functional and aesthetic.

In an interview, David Kelley emphasised that design thinking is all about “empathy. Really try to understand what they really value.” Steered by such humanistic spirit, IDEO came to be a world-famous design and innovation consultancy – despite David not starting off with a design background.

▼ Let’s learn from the IDEO team’s creative problem-solving demonstration!

Starting a business while teaching

After his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, David landed a job at Boeing, which left him dissatisfied. Instead, he developed an interest towards industrial design. In 1975, David, in his 20s, chanced upon a master’s program in product design at Stanford, which “specialised in humanistic engineering”. This marked the beginning of his 40 years at the prestigious institution; he has now taught there for over three decades.

As a child, David Kelley spent much of his time disassembling and fixing things. No wonder he called Stanford his “heaven” – a perfect blend of art and engineering. In 2004, German software company SAP founder Hasso Plattner donated US$3.5 million to create the Stanford, a “human-centred design institute”.

In addition to classes on product and service design and innovation, the offers a course called “Design for Extreme Affordability”. Students work directly with course partner organisations on real world problems, the culmination of which is actual implementation and real change.

Ideating for the underdeveloped

One product this course gave birth to is Embrace, an incubator that combats infant fatality in Nepal. The MBA student team had been under the impression that local hospitals lack resources, which led them to start designing an affordable incubator. But when Embrace founder Jane Chen visited hospitals in Kathmandu herself, the shiny yet empty incubators left her dumbfounded. The team later realised that many babies actually lost their lives to low temperatures on their way between the rural and hospitals. The unstable supply of electricity renders incubators pointless, even though they were free. Scrapping their initial plan, Embrace designed a “baby sleeping bag” that works without electricity, “chargeable” with hot water and maintains its temperature for up to four hours – at the cost of only US$25. Since its launch in 2011, the pouch has been sold in 22 countries to over 300 thousand babies.

Embrace Innovations founder Jane Chen holding a baby wrapped in her invention. (Photo: Embrace's Facebook page)

We all have the capacity to be creative

Embrace has since become an example of design thinking; David Kelley also introduced the initiative in Creative Confidence (co-authored by David and his younger brother Tom Kelley). Jane was invited to the White House’s first ever Maker Faire, where she presented Embrace’s work to President Obama. Jane was later received by Obama at the White House. She noted that “we had to focus our attention on our real customers’ needs if we wanted our product to be used”.

David, passionate about teaching, highlighted his pleasure of witnessing engineering or mathematics students demonstrating “creative confidence” after his lessons. “They didn’t believe they could be creative, when actually we all can be. Eventually they realise they could also come up with great ideas – nothing makes me happier.”

At the same time, IDEO expanded its impact in the world, tackling increasingly complex issues across business and society. A growing focus on creating impact in the social sector led to the establishment of, a non-profit design studio that partners with governments, NGOs, and other organisations in service of creating a more just and equitable world.

▼ David Kelly sharing thought-provoking cases on why everyone can be creative.

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS