IDEO leader explains design thinking as an approach to innovation

Tim Brown speaks to MIT Sloan community as part of Dean's Innovative Leader Series

IDEO CEO Tim Brown When most people think about design, Procter & Gamble and Kraft are not the first names to come to mind. However, the most successful products and services in our daily lives have their roots in clear design processes. According to Tim Brown, “Design is everywhere.”

The president and CEO of design firm IDEO took some time during his Dean's Innovative Leader Series talk to explain to the MIT Sloan community the relationship between innovation and design thinking. In a place that prides itself on innovative thinking as MIT Sloan does, Brown's ideas were especially relevant.

As Brown explained, design is not always about making things beautiful, but instead it tackles a whole range of challenges. “It is a human centered process.” Designers look at innovation through the eyes of people.


Brown shared three important phases of design — inspiration, ideation, and implementation — noting that if you skip inspiration, ideation is of little value. “You can't have ideas in the abstract.”

He defined inspiration as the collection of insights, and stated that being inspired begins with empathy. It is important to understand how people experience the world physically, cognitively, and emotionally, and how groups work and cultures behave.

This requires going out into the world to look and think, since insights often come from extreme users. For instance, it is often very telling to observe the reaction children have to “grown up” things.

Additionally, inspiration may be found in analogous situations, such as the redesign of a hospital operating room that looked to a NASCAR pit crew for insights.


Brown emphasized the need to build prototypes as a way to learn about an idea. Since you never stop learning about an idea, it might go through hundreds of iterations of prototypes. They may be quick and inexpensive, but they are important learning tools, even when designing services. As Brown noted, “prototypes don't have to be physical, but they must be tangible.”


As Brown cautioned his audience, many good ideas never make it to market because they could not survive implementation.

Brown suggests storytelling as a means of implementation. By explaining a design concept in a context relevant to stakeholders, storytelling can help develop and express ideas more clearly and may sometimes even become the end result — in conveying the story, the best idea may come to light. These stories are important because they can be tangible and experiential and can thus help to join the stakeholders together.


Brown finished his talk by explaining that design thinking is as much about culture as it is about methodology. It is about finding new roles to play, looking at how and where you get ideas, how you use the space you have, and who you have ideas with — an interdisciplinary approach.

Mostly, design thinking is about allowing yourself the tools and opportunity to explore new ideas. Advice that plays very well to an MIT Sloan audience well-versed in balancing just those things.

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