IDEO's Steve Bishop on the Future of Sustainable Design Thinking

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Steve Bishop is global lead of environmental impact at the design and business innovation firm IDEO. At IDEO, Bishop helps companies build brands, develop new products, and design new innovation processes inspired by principles of sustainability. Bishop came to his current position through what he calls a "circuitous path," and his passion for artful storytelling was key in leading him to this work. IDEO, which employs 550 people between its offices in New York, London, and San Francisco, provides a space where people like Bishop are valued for their multi-faceted skill set. Here, Bishop explains how these skill sets are assets in the multi-disciplinary practice of design thinking.

What led you to work at IDEO?

I've been here for seven years, and like a lot of people, I had a circuitous path to IDEO. I was originally trained in film and media in undergrad, then moved to Los Angeles, where I did independent films for awhile. I came up to San Francisco for this little thing called the Internet. After some time, I realized I wanted to get out from behind the screen and into physical design, so I got a product design degree from Stanford, in the joint program between mechanical engineering and arts department, a predecessor to the

How do your diverse past experiences influence the way you practice design?

I craft narratives for the things and services we're designing. My background helps me in storytelling, which is in many cases the most important part of getting ideas across. And without the right story, communicating value in the right way to potential customers and stakeholders, those ideas won't go anywhere.

What is most challenging about working in sustainable design?

Just the topic in general is a really heavy one. It's talked about in terms of gloom and doom. Many people approach it from a glass half-empty point-of-view, which is not inspiring and not fun. It's not an inspirational topic for a lot of people; it's "we've got to save ourselves." My job is meant to inspire people and show how sustainability is an opportunity. I try to come at it from an optimistic and intuitive point of view. There is something fun and interesting in sustainability -- that's what I try to emphasize to clients.

Can you give some examples of how you've done that?

In the past, our initial approach was to create a great offer, saying to potential clients, "Hey let's find these amazing opportunities in sustainability, and work on them together." We worked with the Department of Energy to make energy efficiency a more compelling and exciting thing to do; we've worked with utilities providers on similar programs; we've worked with Ford on a better, more efficient driving experience for their Hybrid Fusion. But those projects were only coming along every so often, and we weren't getting enough practice and experience to have a critical mass to scale our efforts.

So how did the IDEO team get around that challenge?

A lot of people here are passionate about sustainability. But we kept hitting the same wall as our clients: Sustainability is a big, complex topic, and how are we really equipped to address something as huge as, say, climate change? But then we said, hey, we find this topic to be enriching to the quality of our work, and it helps us identify solutions and innovations. So rather than waiting for the client to bring us a great sustainability design brief, we decided we would play the role of protagonist and simply build a sustainability dimension into our craft. In our human-centered design work, we did the same thing: We said we find inspiration in this and we're going to use it regardless of whether our clients request it.

How does IDEO take a unique approach to design?

There's a lot of people here who have had diverse, circuitous backgrounds, in philosophy, anthropology, design, arts, engineering, storytelling: people from different walks of life. But our common approach to problem-solving brings us together -- that's design thinking. It's different from analytical thinking, where you break ideas down into discrete components, solve them individually, and bring it all back together for a solution. We do that, and it's valuable; we don't discount it. But in design thinking, instead of breaking down ideas, we're building ideas up. We integrate ideas to get to a new way of accomplishing something, performing a task, creating a service. It's very optimistic in nature; it's integrative. Everyone's a designer.

Trying to build a better planet. Read more from this special report.

What about the field of sustainable design do you think is most exciting right now?

What makes me excited about design thinking is that it is the great hope for this topic of sustainability. There's a need for making this topic -- sustainability -- compelling to people in ways other than adhering to policies, avoiding regulatory encounters. This is an opportunity for growth in business, and an opportunity for positive impact. Ideas flow in a generative nature, building on one another. You can see these qualities in designers and in their ethos. Sustainability for us is something that helps us innovate. It helps us get to the demand side -- what people desire and how can we respond to those needs -- rather than it becoming a conversation about efficiency, supply chain optimization, or regulation. How might we find new markets, get new users, and be more sustainable all at once?

What's something that frustrates you about the field?

When we see frustrations we ask right away, what are the opportunities on the other side of that. So there's rarely frustration -- it's just another design opportunity. A lot of the barriers we thought we needed to go after are not actually the ones we need to go after -- there's a lot of assumptions that we were making, about clients for example, that they should be coming to us with certain questions or sustainability briefs -- but in fact we can take that upon ourselves and bring it to them.

What do you see as the future of sustainable design?

I believe sustainability will be part of what we define as "good design." And we're working toward that future. For example, a lot of our project teams were feeling ill-equipped to address this topic confidently. So we took that to heart and put in some mechanisms to learn about the topic as it relates to specific industries. So we have this thing called project vacation. We set aside a certain amount of time, a day, perhaps, to take a vacation from a design brief that a client has proposed to us, and think about what we would do if we had all the resources and all the time in the world to address sustainability in this project. We let ourselves think freely. We don't charge it to our client. We take a day of our own time and just think, and it's really helpful. And we always find something from that time that we can bring back to the project. And it helps the team think about sustainability with new knowledge, without sacrificing the time and budget needed to address the client's needs properly.

And how could your project vacation take design into the future?

In the future, this could just be a part of good design. Good design considers environmental impact. And that's where design is going. We've seen this happen with human-centered design. You could consider sustainable design an extension of human-centered design. In a project on disposable injection devices, for example, those are typically given a free pass in terms of environmental impact because they do so much good for people's lives. Yet when we go out and talk to people, during human factors research, to gain insight about how injection devices are used, sometimes the devices, which are used once and thrown out, are very packaging-heavy. And that leaves people not feeling great about the use. In order to take care of their own health, patients felt they were negatively impacting the health of everyone else by putting waste out in the world -- into the natural resources we depend upon. Project vacation allows us to design around this tension and get to a definition of good design that considers the physical and emotional well-being of all people.