On Tuesday, IDEO announced that it has joined kyu, a collective of creative companies owned by the Tokyo-based Hakuhodo DY Holdings. Kyu bought a minority stake in the 25-year-old design consultancy—the dollar amount and percentage are undisclosed—and IDEO will continue to be owned and independently managed by its partners. So what does this news mean? According to a Medium post by IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, it is not further evidence of “the much-ballyhooed death spiral of the independent design firm.” Rather, Brown argues, joining forces with the five other kyu member companies—C2 International, Digital Kitchen, Red Peak, Sid Lee and SYPartners—will give IDEO the “agility and scale” to better pursue its “current interest in designing complex systems.” (For more on this ambition, Brown’s post is worth reading in its entirety.) Yesterday, we caught up with Brown and kyu’s CEO, Michael Birkin, to find out a little more about the new partnership.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mason Currey: My takeaway from the announcement was that, for IDEO, joining the kyu collective is going to put you in a better position to tackle these big systems-level design challenges in education, government, healthcare, and so on. I was hoping you could elaborate on how exactly being part of a collective is going to do that—how does it increase those capabilities?
Tim Brown: I think what it gives us is an even greater set of perspectives and talents to bring to these problems. When you’re dealing with the design of complex systems, every aspect of creativity and design needs to be brought to bear. We have many of them at IDEO, but we certainly don’t have all of them, and so the idea of joining with a collective of companies that has many of the same values, absolutely the same aspiration and purpose but different approaches that we don’t have, is exciting. I think it’s going to allow us to extend the way that we take on problems, to go deeper into some of the challenges that we’re looking at.
It’s also super exciting for our own folks. I think one of the qualities of IDEO that’s been around right from the beginning is that we’ve always loved different forms of creative collaboration, and so a lot of our creative talent here is excited about working with people perhaps who have had more experience in large-scale visual media, like the Digital Kitchen guys, or have deeper experience around building experiential communications, which Sid Lee have. So, yeah, it’s an enriching thing for us, both creatively and in terms of problem-solving.
Tim Brown and Michael Birkin. Portrait courtesy IDEO
Michael, maybe you can talk about it from kyu’s perspective. What does IDEO bring to the collective that it was missing?
Michael Birkin: When we created kyu 18 months ago, our purpose that we set out was to be a source of creativity that propels society and the economy forward. And IDEO, which is a company I’ve known for some time in various iterations of my life, is a company that’s elevated the role of design in business, government and a number of other sectors, and that’s helped literally thousands of leaders and teams embrace design thinking in their enterprises. So having IDEO join the kyu collective will allow kyu to better tackle meaningful challenges, build new creative platforms and foster creative confidence in organizations. And that’s exactly the purpose of kyu itself.
More specifically, I have always viewed IDEO as an exploration company, and kyu is on a voyage of exploration. So the DNA is completely compatible. And, as a part of that, the fact that there is immense humanity in IDEO—human-centered design is very much its mantra—and the approach to problem-solving through design thinking—the multilayered involvement of different creative minds to solve problems—are all things that we cherish at kyu and set out ourselves to be able to accomplish. Therefore, frankly, IDEO is a poster child of what a kyu company needs to be.
I would imagine that running a design collective is something of a design challenge of its own. Can you talk a little about how kyu works on a really basic level?
MB: Well, it’s a very valid question, and we are doing a number of new things at kyu, but there are also aspects of kyu which are not new. At the end of the day, the fundamental is that individual member firms will be allowed to flourish based on their own culture and their own business. Yes, it’s true that we will be bringing firms together to look at certain systemic opportunities—and maybe other, more simple client opportunities as well. But fundamentally the drive is to allow the individual member firms to flourish. If they flourish with their own brands, then kyu will flourish.
So that bit is relatively straightforward. But our mission is bolder than just helping to accelerate the plans of individual member firms. We want kyu to have a point of view on big issues and to create a platform for firms to come together. But as long as one is selective about those opportunities, then actually it’s not as complex a situation to run as you may think.
So is the idea that some clients may come to the individual companies, and then the companies will bring them to the larger collective—and maybe other clients will come to the collective and then filter down to certain pairings of member companies?
TB: Yes. We're completely open to a variety of approaches, and we expect all of those to happen. In fact, we already have clients in common that we’re working on together, and have been working on together in the past. We expect those kinds of collaborations to deepen. And we expect that as we do explore some of these approaches to perhaps taking on some of these more systemic business and societal challenges, that we will find opportunities where clients, and maybe even multiple clients, will come and work with us at the collective level. That’s very much to be explored over the coming months and years.
I wanted to talk about The Powerful Now. I believe that’s the first and only public project from the collective so far, is that right? Can you tell us how it reflects the power of working as a collective?
TB: Yeah, that’s our prototype, if you like. You know, as designers we believe in prototyping, and we started to prototype this approach nine or ten months ago with The Powerful Now, which is this project to kind of redefine the way we think about aging from a creative standpoint. There are two big ideas there. The first is that aging is an enormous, cross-sectorial, cross-industry need and opportunity; you can’t look at aging just from a healthcare perspective or a financial-services perspective, you have to look at it from an all-of-life perspective, which means that any number of different kinds of businesses and organizations should be participating in the ways that we think about and create opportunities against aging in the future. Because of that, this idea of a collective of creative organizations can potentially run the gamut of approaches to these problems.
The Powerful Now is kyu’s first public initiative—it’s about “bringing the power of creativity to how we conceive of, design, and experience aging.”
And the second thing is, we found all of these very interesting both economic and societal opportunities at the intersections, very often, of traditional business sectors. So, for instance, if we think about the way that we might be moving from an old model of, you have a career and then retirement is essentially a period of decline, to instead, as we thrive and live longer, that our lives are much more likely to be constant iterations of renewal—that changes the way you think about jobs, for instance. And the idea that people are even more likely to have multiple careers in their lives, that changes the way that you think about education, because people are going to need to be educated throughout their lives, not just with front-loaded education. So that’s just one example of where, suddenly, you see that there are all kinds of opportunities for new work-related educational opportunities that nobody’s really building for today. So why shouldn’t we go ahead and do that?
In almost every aspect of aging, you come across those same sorts of intersections. So that was also a great discovery and one that we are continuing to work with as we take The Powerful Now forward.
With a project like that, is it something where you start with the problem and then do you sort of find clients as you go?
TB: Yeah. That’s certainly the experiment this time around, although we had certain clients that we’d worked with in the past who’ve been kind of coming along on the journey with us. But, yeah, exactly. That’s one where we’re trying to ask the right questions, and then find the right collaborators in terms of clients and, in some cases, expert organizations who can help us take solutions forward.
I saw a comment on Twitter that this news represents a “seismic shift” in the design industry. But it sounds to me like it’s more of an incremental shift—that it’s about amplifying the firms’ skills rather than fundamentally changing what they do. What do you say?
MB: It’s both. Tim will have a point of view on that, but from my perspective it’s both of those things.
TB: I think if you imagine where this ultimately goes, in terms of the approaches to what I think is the next wave of design—which is design legitimately contributing to the redesign and retooling of many of our society’s systems—if you think about where that ultimately goes if we’re successful, that is absolutely a seismic shift, right? In terms of aspiration, if we pull that off, if we build the depth of collaboration and the breadth of perspective that that’s going to take, that will be pretty seismic.
You know, this is very much a continuation of the journey that IDEO has been on, and that I think other firms in the collective have been on in their histories. IDEO was formed around the idea of creative collaboration; 25 years ago, when we created IDEO, it was three firms coming together around the notion of collaborating more effectively to bring new products into the world. And that journey that we’ve been on for 25 years, we’ve expanded that concept of creative collaboration; we’ve brought in all kinds of new disciplines; we’ve taken this idea that design thinking is something that can be applied to a much broader set of problems. So it’s been a continual journey, and this is the next exciting but logical step on that journey, with the aspiration to do something pretty significant over time.
Michael, I believe kyu is the Japanese word for “nine.” Currently the collective includes six companies. Should we be expecting more new-member announcements in the coming months?
MB: It does “nine,” you’re right. It also means “globe” and “sphere,” so it has a double meaning in Japanese. And it was a deliberate name for those reasons, because we’re building a collective but a very carefully curated one, and we want to limit the core membership to a small number of companies. It doesn’t have to be nine exactly, but it won’t be twenty.
We’ve been busy. We started on July 1st, 2014, and you’re right, The Powerful Now is the first iteration of a collective approach to an issue. But we haven’t been going very long, and as you can imagine it’s been pretty busy setting up the initial platform. We’ve been very successful, I think, in persuading some of the world’s most successful creative organizations to become core members; that’s been a lot of work. Quite frankly, right now, having achieved that, I think the trick is to now make sure that we set up the platform at this point well, and the existing member firms will have a say in who we will look at next. So in timing terms, I would say there won’t be anything immediate, but equally, I would imagine that we will be making some moves in the not-too-distant future. But I wouldn’t hold your breath right now.
Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers about the new partnership, or about what it says about the design industry in general?
TB: There is something I’d like to build on a little bit—because, for me, it’s always been what you guys at Core77 have been so strong at, which is speaking to talent, speaking to designers and creative people who have spent their careers doing what they do. You know, I wrote in my piece for Medium that I do believe in this idea of growing independent creative organizations—their role in the world is an important part of the drive behind this project. Companies, clients, governments, whatever have needs for many different approaches and many different services, but it’s pretty clear in my mind that there’s a huge role for independent creativity there. And that that is appealing to designers—to be in organizations where creativity and design is at the very core of culture and the core of the DNA.
This is absolutely true for every one of the organizations in kyu. In fact, one of the things that attracted us to kyu was that the cultures of these organizations, while different in their own right, have so many shared qualities—for instance, the shared quality around making and putting ideas out into the world in a tangible way. That, I think, is important and appealing at a moment when, perhaps, while we’re seeing this incredible upsurge in the importance of design in business, we’re also seeing design to some degree getting brought in to other people’s businesses. We think there’s a future for creative cultures and creative organizations. We really do think this project is—I hope—going to be an important flag or icon for that idea as we go forward.
Mason Currey is a former Core77 editor and the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Previously, he was the executive editor of Print and the managing editor of Metropolis. His freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.