Want to Innovate? Start Goofing Off.

One thing I love about IDEO is being surrounded by inspiring people, both inside and outside the company. There is not a week that goes by that I don't learn something from a friend or find myself challenged to consider new ideas.

Case in point: two weeks ago I presented and led a workshop at Ligature 20, a conference organized by design students at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I've presented quite a bit over the past year and so when this opportunity came along, I decided I'd explore some new ideas rather than rehash what I'd been presenting. An inspiration of late is Boston colleague, Matt Brown. Matt has an exceptional ability to let his imagination wander across his mind's plain without restraint. Maybe you've read his Design Fancy column on Core77?  Design Fancy is a series featuring fictional designers and their portfolios, straight from the mind of Matt— characters like Carlo Heckman, inventor of the Roman numeral "Heckman Method" of birthday cake candle placement, or Thomas Ruby, designer of the TuneDrink, a device that mixes cocktails based on the sonic vibrations of popular songs. It might first seem a stretch, but I have begun to see design fiction as a means of inspiration and self-imposed constraints; this is what I chose to explore at Ligature.

It wasn't clear to me at first. We have a very playful culture that some people might see as juvenile or misguided— we DID invent the Finger Blaster after all. But the truth is, this culture is the reason we continue to be innovative year after year. 99% of the time spontaneous play doesn't have an intent, but in retrospect we can trace a lot of our design solutions to moments of fun. A culture that promotes risk-taking and abandonment of convention or self-consciousness gets new ideas and innovative results. It's how you can explain Ela's willingness to operate on a cadaver to gain surgeon empathy, or Gwen's vigor for a two-week coastal van trip with colleagues to learn surf culture, or the RWJ Foundation team observing a NASCAR pit crew to re-imagine urgent care.

Matt has brought another kind of play to us and we're only now seeing how it is affecting our work. Dan Deruntz, like Matt, has a wandering mind. At the beginning of a recent project he created a fictional Japanese sci-fi story line for himself that gave him some context for a graphic design language to apply to the work. From all appearances it was unrelated to the task at hand. But after a couple of weeks, what seemingly began as indulgence became influential to the work. The design language served as his catalyst to model opportunities from an unexpected perspective (and if I tell you any more I'll have to shoot you). This blew my mind, and so to make a long story long, became my inspiration for a workshop at Ligature.

The workshop was based on a recent activity in our studio. Every couple of weeks we have a working lunch to create design fiction. One of the recent projects, that I'm sure Matt is the World's foremost expert about, is packaging junk. Take anything, I mean anything — a paperclip, a styrofoam peanut, a broken Hot Wheels car — put it in a plastic bag and give it a cardboard clam seal and you instantly have a story. Why is this being sold? Where? What's the backstory of invention, failure or cultural consequence? Who is the designer, manufacturer, collector? When was it made and when was it purchased? And it goes on… (you can see examples of this on Matt's personal blog). I flew to Florida with a bag of misfit toys and trash. I thought I'd be stopped by TSA at every connection because there was nothing normal about a Ziplock filled with dinosaurs, matches and a kitten doll,  but no one touched my junk (insert collective groan).

So what do 15 students do when you lay all this on them and give them two hours to respond? Pretty amazing stuff! Included are more photos than descriptions but you get the picture..

- A space food compound that was discontented due to faulty quality control. The separate pieces never connected and therefore rather than delightful mincemeat, the astronauts were stuck with the taste of plastic.

- An authentic, secret society, Ladies of the Fin membership brooch. This is the first level of membership and so made of plastic. Level three is gold.

- The secret musical weapon of Mexican rock legend and super hero Tony Bandana: strum with the special pick and fire shoots from the barrel.

At the end of the session I requested homework. "Live with the ideas a while, develop them and refine them, then try to apply your ideas to a "real" project you're currently working on; email me the story of what happens." It's only been a week so the verdict is still out but I'd like to think I'll soon hear of how GI Jack inspired a new way of discussing taboos, or how Surf Joe surfaced conversations about manipulating DNA. Or maybe it will just be about how the fonts and color pallet of Bonnet Babies led to a new identity for a local organic bakery. Whatever I receive, I'm sure will be proof that alternate universes do exist and that goofing off is the new black.