A huge white flower looms over the front desk in the lobby of IDEO’s downtown Palo Alto location. With the touch of a button, it unfurls, entertaining bystanders with a colorful light show. At IDEO, people are paid to envision, design and create products for companies that approach them with an idea.
IDEO’s creative process is based on “design thinking,” which Partner and Health Portfolio Director Bruce MacGregor explains as “think[ing] about how to do something new and create it differently.” Using design thinking, employees harness creativity and positivity to attack big issues.
IDEO is the dream job for youngsters in Silicon Valley and across the world. Employees are hand-picked out of approximately 17,000 applicants a year, and have varied degrees in subjects ranging from engineering to anthropology. According to MacGregor, everyone at IDEO shares a few key qualities — curiosity, helpfulness and ability to collaborate. With so many hopeful applicants, what does it take to be hired?
“We talk about the idea of T-shaped people,” MacGregor says. “The vertical is what you went to school for …, the horizontal of the T is how well you can integrate all the different ideas and disciplines. …We look for people that have a certain set of characteristics: people that are really curious, people that have built something.”
Sarah Mummah, the 28-year-old founder of Dreamcatchers, an education nonprofit in Palo Alto, applied for a job last year. Her expertise in behavioral research and passion for creating impact made her an exemplar of the T-shaped person the company looks for. Since then, Mummah has found her place as a Design Researcher at IDEO and spends her time learning about clients in order to make the design process as customer-specific as possible.
“We try to understand what people need, what motivates them, why they do what they do,” Mummah says. “That leads to insights that are really grounded in the people we’re designing for.”
Growing up in the Bay Area
A Bay Area native, Mummah attended Crystal Springs Upland School in Hillsborough and graduated from Stanford University in 2010. Now she lives in San Francisco, but spends the majority of her time in Palo Alto. Mummah is a hard worker but strives to fill the few moments that she has to herself with productive activities.
For fun, Mummah exercises, cooks and listens to podcasts to learn about “anything that keep[s] me challenged, growing and learning.” Mummah’s enthusiasm for learning has always been a big part of her personality. At IDEO, Mummah is surrounded by people who are eager to create positive change in the world, and here she has the tools to truly put her passion into action.
The workplace at IDEO
Mummah’s brown eyes light up from behind her thin wire frame glasses as she describes the feeling of optimism that her job brings her. “I often find myself working really hard on a project…and it’s because the things that we’re working on have the potential to actually make a difference,” Mummah says. “Working here is unique in that your job is to think of possibilities, not constraints.”
The office space at IDEO reflects this air of possibility that Mummah raves about. With few walls besides the four that surround the building, all employees share a work area, their desktops being the only item inside their bubble of personal space. The comradery in this space is palpable, and employees are able to work together and build off of each other’s ideas because of it.
IDEO places a huge emphasis on collaboration, shown by their excessive use of Post-it notes. Poster boards are dotted with clusters of blue and pink sticky notes, each covered with different handwriting and rudimentary drawings. At IDEO, Post-its relay ideas to the group and make teamwork easier and more enjoyable.
“If you have an idea and you write it down on a computer then it’s still your idea…but if you write it on a post-it note and put it up on the wall, then it becomes a shared idea, and therefore everybody owns it so they can build on it and contribute to it,” MacGregor says.
To Mummah, sharing ideas in this manner is representative of the lateral thinking required for design-thinking. She believes that collaborative brainstorming unlocks creativity, a skill that is often overlooked in the classroom.
“Thinking creatively actually feels like a muscle…that for a lot of people is sort of atrophied,” Mummah says. “In school there is this constant…focus on grades. People just become afraid of risk taking because they’d rather do that ‘sure thing’ that’s going to get you that A.”
Though Mummah was an outstanding student, it was her creativity and work ethic that brought her to IDEO. At IDEO and in her personal life Mummah constantly finds ways to help, inspire and teach people she meets. When asked about her goals for the future, she says “To create impact in the world. To nudge people towards being kinder to themselves and to others. To leverage behavioral science to help people be healthier and happier.”