Quick-change artist Richard Kelly

Richard Kelly, through his work with design firm IDEO, helps clients traverse the turbulent waters of change and innovation.

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Richard Kelly, through his work with design firm IDEO, helps clients traverse the turbulent waters of change and innovation.

At the Londonoffices of the design firm IDEO, Richard Kelly has been talking about how to make companies more innovative in the way they think. He draws a diagram to show the divide between what happens inside the company and what is going on outside the company, and how IDEO will abstract market-tested ideas to help the company think about the process of internal change.

A few minutes later, he’s drawing a bubble around “experiences” and filling it with “products, services and environments.” “We get lots of questions like ‘We thought we were in the cell-phone business, but we’re not so sure any more; what kind of business are we going to be in the future?’” He pauses, and puts the pen down. “That’s a great project for us.”

Kelly has no specific job title as such – IDEO isn’t that sort of a company – but he works in the “service design” part of the company, establishing innovation strategies with major corporations such as Nestlé, Vodafone and BBC. The IDEO office itself is inspirational. Tucked between two non-descript office blocks, it is large, airy and of an open-plan design, with swathes of exposed brick and a staff canteen/reading area right next to the main reception.


Kelly has only beenat IDEO since February 2005, but he has had an association with the company since he lived in San Francisco, where he was marketing director for Levi’s Jeans at Levi Strauss & Co for seven years. He looks back on that period with bemusement, as if still trying to come to terms with the cultural contrast between a jeans company “which has been making blue jeans for 150 years” and the sheer mind-bending range of decisions that, for example, the fast-moving consumer goods market demands on an almost daily basis.

Outside each meeting room at IDEO London – the company also has offices in Munich, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago – computer screens show who has booked the room and for what purpose. Inside, management motifs are posted round the room like thoughtful cornicing: “Defer judgement,” “Build on the ideas of others” and so on. Kelly likes to tell the story of a large multinational company that had a brainstorming meeting with a team from IDEO. When the team returned 18 months later, they found their brainstorming rules still up on the wall. IDEO makes an impression.


Kelly is tryingto encourage companies to think about service design at present. “It’s tricky,” he admits. “Lots of clients see themselves as financial services or retail or something else. They don’t see themselves as a service organization. Our challenge is to help our service clients create actionable, scalable solutions that get traction within the organization.”

Kelly stresses the value of what he calls “extreme users” to test products and services. Striding to the board again, he draws a graph with a large mainstream swell. “If we’re doing a project for a large cell-phone operator, I wouldn’t look at the lifestyle of an average business executive,” he says. “I want to look at someone who’s almost off the scale – say a party organizer who lives in Sweden and sets up club nights all over Europe with DJs from San Francisco, Sao Paolo and so on. He’s on his Blackberry smartphone 22 hours a day, texting, e-mailing in four or five languages. If you started designing things for him, or you took inspiration from what he was trying to do, it would tell you where this mass of people would be in three years’ time.”

Kelly, 39, is from Worcester in the west of England but is something of a city-hopper. He lives with his wife and two small children in Toulouse, in southern France, but commutes to England. He flies into London on Monday morning, stays in a flat in south-west London until Thursday and works from home in France all day Friday. “It sounds crazy, but the distances are actually a lot shorter than between American cities,” he says. And meanwhile, his children are bilingual.

During his rare downtime, Kelly likes to make furniture from wood, a hobby acquired after his bio-physics undergraduate degree, when he was doing a design ergonomics master’s in London. His other hobby, he says, is booking airline tickets.

Flying across the Continent at least twice a week might exhaust other people, but he evidently relishes his new job. “It’s all about prototyping,” he says. “Getting inside, getting inspiration. Observe, brainstorm, prototype, repeat.”

Despite a client base that ranges from single operators to the British National Health Service, the interesting thing about IDEO, says Kelly, is that most of its clients want to partner with his company, not work with it at arm’s length. “I really don’t think there’s an IDEO stamp, but if there is a common thread in our work, it is a lack of ego and the creation of a spirit of shared invention.”

He glances at the superbly produced company brochure, which heralds company successes ranging from a slow rice cooker to a handheld “kiss communicator”. “We’re finding we deliver fewer tangible products, as much of our work today is about helping companies become more innovative,” Kelly says.

About IDEO

IDEO is an innovation and design company founded in 1991 with offices in London, Munich, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. The company’s human-focused design process helps identify opportunities, create ideas and implement solutions. IDEO has pioneered the transformation of organizations through design to create cultures that are capable of ongoing and routine innovation. The IDEO team includes industrial designers, engineers, business experts and interior designers. IDEO’s clients include Procter & Gamble, Prada, BBC, Nestlé, Vodafone and Olivetti.

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