interview with tom hulme, design director at IDEO in london
all images © IDEO / used with permission
tom hulme is the design director at IDEO in london and managing director of openIDEO and OIEngine – IDEO’s open innovation enterprises. a serial entrepreneur and angel investor, tom has first-hand experience in building successful enterprises and, as a result, a very thorough understanding of business. at the recent design indaba conference he told designboom more about his work and influences.
DB: please can you tell us about the influences that lead you to the job you have today?
TH: my background is eclectic… I studied physics, ran a road and race car company and founded a company that designed and sold magnetic filters into various applications, including formula 1. after that I studied an MBA in the us and was then approached to join IDEO.
at IDEO I have helped build ‘business design’ as a discipline for europe – to support clients designing all parts of their business models. in fact, this group sees the business model as the ultimate unit of design: every part is a design opportunity whether the brand, produce, financial plan or service. any company is as good or as bad as the weakest part of its business model, all its parts therefore demand design attention.
however, I think that my two greatest influences predate these things;
firstly, one summer I saw that an apple tree in our garden had a bumper crop of apples. we wouldn’t have been able to eat them all so I wondered what we could do with them. my solution was to have my sister sit outside our house and sell them. I’m embarrassed to say that she was only four at the time! my poor mum is still known locally as the lady whose daughter was made to sell apples but I think that it gave me the entrepreneurial bug.
secondly, I taught in africa before I went to university. it opened my eyes to the world and cemented a desire to create businesses that might have positive social impact in the world.
DB: how would you describe your day-to-day role and responsibilities?
TH: my role at IDEO has regularly morphed, one of the attractions of working at IDEO. currently, I am luckily enough to oversee openIDEO.com and the company that white-labels the same software, OIEngine. I work with two amazing teams and spend most of my time now thinking through strategy, supporting new hires and meeting potential or existing clients. most recently we have been redesigning and rebuilding the software from the ground up so I have been having daily meetings with developers and designers to help set the creative direction.
ultimately, my job is to make myself redundant as quickly as possible from both of these so that they will continue to thrive, evolve and create impact without me being involved.
DB: what would you say is your strongest skill and why?
TH: an entrepreneurial mindset – I value doing stuff more than talking about it and am able to design experiments to test hypotheses efficiently.
DB: which project has given you the most personal satisfaction to date?
TH: openIDEO.com – our open platform on which a community of over 50,000 collaborates to solve problems for social good. currently the community is working together to design solutions to help improve women’s security in slums – this is just one example of the challenges that we are taking on.
the community has had a diverse impact to date, ranging from designing apps for amnesty international and bupa, building a bone marrow donor database of over 100,000 to creating new social enterprises. in addition, unexpectedly, the platform has helped IDEO identify design talent that we may never have unearthed normally.
openIDEO mashes together various parts of my career: I had the idea while studying for my MBA, it addresses the desire to have social impact that was sparked in me in africa and it’s built around IDEO’s process and DNA.
influences and research for the havaianas bags
DB: what are your thoughts on specialization vs generalization?
TH: they’re not mutually exclusive, at IDEO we sometimes talk about the need to hire ‘T-shaped’ people. the vertical bar on the T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.
clearly, if you choose to specialize you need to ensure it’s as skill that will be increasingly in demand – I believe that design is one such discipline for several reasons. for example technology’s progress has overtaken our ability to adapt as consumers, design can help new solutions get real traction and secondly design is unlikely to be ‘automated’, unlike many tasks over the next few years.
DB: what is something that you are currently fascinated by feeding into your work?
TH: designing for emergence. in a world that’s increasingly in flux I think it’s harder and harder to predict how our designs are likely to be received and used. with that in mind our job as designers is shifting from having to be right to creating solutions that are designed to adapt to the changing world.
I find myself trying to design in ways that our products and services might adapt over time – often this means creating apis in digital products or giving the users increased flexibility to see what behaviors emerge.
DB: how do you keep your ideas fresh?
TH: london is an amazing melting pot of religions, industries, cultures and crafts – it keeps me energized. I have a great network of entrepreneurs and am constantly reviewing new startups. they are usually at the cutting edge of industries and have a knack of turning the incumbents’ perceived strengths into achilles heels. I am inspired by their novel products and service and also their approaches – after all they are often undercapitalized and necessity is the mother of invention. I have begun to invest in startups in order to ensure I stay close and help shape their progress.
DB: do you have any superstitious beliefs or rules that you live by?
TH: no superstitions… yet.
the primary rule I try to live by is to ‘err on the side of openness’.
DB: what is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
TH: my dad taught me two important lessons:
firstly, ‘if it was easy everyone would be doing it’.
secondly, ‘remember to stop to smell the flowers’.
DB: what will you do in 2014 that you have never done before?
TH: a week of digital detox (I certainly haven’t done this in living memory).
design indaba conference 2014
dubbed ‘the conference on creativity’, the design indaba conference is all about how design, creativity and innovation can positively impact the world. so much more than a ‘how-to’ conference, this is a forum fueled by inspiration that breeds ideas, ingenuity and innovation. the conference is an opportunity to listen to the world’s foremost creatives, entrepreneurs and trendsetters. it’s the not-to-be-missed creative event in africa.