Conversations: David Kelley

I flew up to San Francisco for the day to attend a lecture by David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the d-school at Foothill Community College. This talk was part of a series of lectures arranged by the school to celebrate the opening of the Center for Sustainable Futures at Foothill. Thanks to a friend of mine who is an employee of the college, I was able to sneak into an auditorium full of Foothill students, faculty, and staff. The talk, a unique perspective of the inner workings of the school, was interesting in the context of my thesis direction as it consists of a series of methodologies, processes, and systems that David and his faculty developed together. These methodologies have famously lead to break-through innovations and entrepreneurial ventures by many of the students.

The following is my discussion with David regarding my thesis work. This interview is written from memory, and may or may not be accurate word-from-word, but nonetheless provides the spirit of the conversation:

Matt: I am very interested in the processes you have developed at the d-school that allows for the facilitation of entrepreneurship and innovation amongst these students – certainly there must be moments in the process in which the students enter realms of intangibility, with wildly impractical concepts. How do you filter that back to practicality and viability, and should that happen?

David: Empathy. We ask the students to take their concepts, ideas, prototypes… and introduce them to the people that will use them. What this does is it creates an empathy for the user – this inspires the development of the project. The students want to make it real for that user. This allows design to have a profound effect on an individuals life.

Matt: But does something that is empathetic, or something that creates a change, or effect really have to be a real thing, or can it be an intangible concept?

David: No. It has to be made real, it has to come back to the user. You see, my generation was more than happy with coming up with an idea, coming up with another idea, coming up with another idea… but your generation wants to create impact, you want to create change with what you create. That is how the field of innovation has changed.


I am interested in this concept of empathy, the root of David’s “human-centered design” as one possible, tangible, starting-point of my imaginary systems. This conversation brought up interesting ideas about the value of my work, and the idea of watching fictional entrepreneurship become diegetic business – the intangible to the tangibly intangible. How can the unreal be crafted in an empathetic way? Can fictional entrepreneurship result from a human-centered design process in order to design for people in a different way?


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