Bringing design to blue chips

Tim Brown, CEO, IDEO

By Jessi Hempel, Fortune writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- Design firm IDEO may be small by Fortune 500 standards, but its impact is huge. The legendary Palo Alto consultancy has worked on thousands of projects for clients like Nokia (Charts), P&G (Charts, Fortune 500), and Whirlpool (Charts, Fortune 500); IDEO's team of MBAs, engineers, and designers has helped companies create products from the first Apple mouse to the Palm V to Crest's first standup tube of toothpaste.

But design isn't just about making pretty things, according to British-born CEO Tim Brown. It's about stumbling upon fresh ways to solve complicated problems. That includes his own schedule: Brown spends so much time among the more than 500 designers and thinkers in IDEO's eight offices around the world that he has scrapped his desk.

Fortune's Jessi Hempel met with Brown in IDEO's new downtown Manhattan loft to discuss his iPod addiction, the dangers of e-mail, and why he loves jumping across time zones.

Control e-mail: I hate PDAs. When I'm in a meeting with someone, I want to be with them. I get more insight if I'm engaged in the moment. I consciously use a phone that doesn't have a full keyboard on it. Now I'm using the Nokia n95. It takes great pictures.

Clear your mind: I love music. I think I have every generation of iPod ever made. I carry a Nano when I go running. It has a couple hundred songs, not much, and I always have it on shuffle. I use the Nike+ [a wireless pedometer channeled through the iPod Nano] when I run, which is about three times a week for an hour. I like the end result. I travel much better when I am fitter, and I find I have better ideas.

Take good notes: I always carry a Moleskine single-lined five-by-seven-inch notebook. I replace it when it gets full -- about every six months. I have a half-dozen or so now. They're on a shelf in my office in Palo Alto. I'll use any pen, but I prefer my Pilot Bravo black one. It's good for writing, sketching, and drawing. I go through the finished ones and highlight the big ideas so they don't get lost.

Flee your time zone: I like when I'm out of sync timewise with San Francisco -- especially in Europe. I do e-mail in the morning and forget about it the rest of the day. It gives me time to think. When you're traveling, it's important to be in the place you're in. I've had wonderful trips where I'm learning about innovation and design, and if I'm answering e-mail, I'm not in the place.

Try to stage accidents: I loved the library at the Royal College of Art because it didn't have a logical system, at least none I could figure. When looking for a book on Islamic decoration, you'd find it by one on seashells. And you'd find all sorts of things with it. That's the value of an accident. The more you encourage serendipity -- say, by bringing together different people -- the more you'll get rich answers. The more you put a group together that sees the world the same way, the more conventional the outcome. We try to put teams together that have varied backgrounds -- not just disciplines, but life experiences.  To top of page

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