IDEO’s Michael Hendrix on Design Thinking

As an IDEO partner, Michael Hendrix leads the Boston studio and guides the firm’s East Coast-based Design Directors. Since joining the company in 2008, he has built a robust creative community and led key initiatives, most recently the redesign of IDEO’s global brand identity — an ongoing project that he discussed in-depth and behind-the-scenes as a keynote presenter at HOW Design Live. We recently asked Hendrix about what it means to be a designer — now.

First, tell us what you and your team are working on right now. What kind of cool stuff is happening at IDEO?

The first is something that just launched called Society of Grownups — a  project for MassMutual around financial fluency for young adults. Together we created a sort of master’s program for adulthood, where the curriculum covers everything from investing in a 401K to having that hard talk about a budget. IDEO helped build the new venture from the ground up — designing a brand identity, a digital platform with some of the most sophisticated financial planning tools in the industry, and a hip brick-and-mortar space. From a design perspective, it’s probably the best example of what a holistic design program looks like today.

SOG - facade image
The next thing I’m excited about is something we designed for a client that launched at SXSW last week called The Sync Project. The Sync Project is something of a crusade, rallying scientists, engineers, musicians and the general public, with the aim of amassing and analyzing biometric data and chronicling the effects that music has on it. The hope is that one day, music may prove to be a non-invasive, non-pharmacological way of treating debilitating and even life-threatening diseases, like Alzheimer’s, autism and Parkinson’s. Our work included designing an identity system, crafting a vision statement, designing app screens, and producing a video that was intended to inspire people to participate in the project.
You have such an entrepreneurial background — founding small businesses including Tricycle, leading in creative education. What attracted an entrepreneur like you to a large organization like IDEO?

It was really a natural evolution. I realized that I enjoyed the creation and the initial acceleration — but I didn’t enjoy the maintenance. IDEO became a great opportunity, because here I get to go deep into a client’s organization, explore solutions, launch them — and then let them live with the owners. We spark the fire, they feed the flames. If we’ve done our job, they’ve learned along the way, and by the end of the project, they own an idea.

It’s a philosophy we have — we want to create disproportionate impact on the world through design. The emphasis is on disproportionate: We have 700 employees, we can’t possibly make that big of a difference ourselves. But when we teach people and empower them, we can accomplish far more.

The field of design is being constantly reinvented, and designers have to do more than create beautiful logos or web pages. How do you define the design practitioner’s role now? And what will it look like 5 years from now?

I remember 20 years ago, when designers said, “We want a seat at the board table.” Guess what? We have it. The CEO doesn’t want a poster or a nice brochure. That’s where we were 20 years ago. That’s created a whole new need for reeducating designers and a need for us to work differently.

Every designer still has to utilize the craft that they studied and worked hard to develop. But if you’re just a producer, you can only add one element to a solution — and you either have to find more people to add those extra elements that are needed, or you have to broaden your skillset.

You either have a confederation of experts from different fields working together and reliant upon each other to produce a whole. That’s what IDEO is.

Or, on a smaller scale, individual designers have to be more of a generalist with a couple of depths. Like, you could be a graphic designer and a coder. That might serve you, depending on your industry. But what can’t exist anymore is being a deep practitioner in a single craft and making a sustained living at it.

Your interest in the fields surrounding and informing design — like cultural studies, linguistics, psychology, cognition — would seem to mesh beautifully with IDEO, a company that embraces Design Thinking (which CEO Tim Brown describes as a human-centered approach to innovation). How can designers become informed about those ideas and disciplines? Any advice for creative pros seeking to expand their knowledge beyond color and type?

There are so many avenues. There are lots of online training sites that are great for learning new software — if you need to learn Adobe Premier so you can create animations, for example. But that doesn’t change your thinking. When it comes to these more complex skills, you have to start thinking entrepreneurially. You’re starting to ask why something exists in the world, how it might live, how people might interact with it. And by asking those questions, you find you have to learn new things — like psychology, or basic financial skills, or how the supply chain works.

I think about designers like George Nelson, or Charles and Ray Eames — they started out in architecture, but they did a lot of other things. Sometime between their lifetime and the 1980s, design became so specialized. And now we’re going back to being generalists.

“Thoughts on Design” by Paul Rand was just republished. George Nelson’s “How to See” was published in the late 1970s. Books written by people who were practitioners of the same kind of multifaceted design we’re doing today have incredible perspective. I would encourage designers to read them.IDEO Reveal


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